Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook

Indigenous peoples everywhere are on the frontlines of climate change.

Due to their close relationship to their traditional lands and the natural and cultural resources they provide, Indigenous peoples are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples are actively responding and adapting to climate impacts. This is especially true of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes.

Efforts of American Indian and Alaska Native tribes are on full display in the recently released Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook created by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI) and Adaptation International.

The Guidebook highlights tribal communities’ ongoing climate-related work, providing examples of how tribes have chosen to approach climate adaptation. But the Guidebook—as its name suggests—does more; it aims to provide a comprehensive framework for climate change adaptation planning that empowers the perspective of tribal communities.

By drawing on lessons learned from previous tribal adaptation efforts and the growing body of academic research surrounding Indigenous peoples’ relationships to climate change and climate adaptation, the Guidebook lays out in step-by-step fashion the strategies and processes tribes can take when constructing a climate change adaptation plan.

The Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook differs from previous climate adaptation guidebooks in that it specifically acknowledges and offers guidance for addressing the unique issues related to climate change facing Indigenous communities.

These issues include concerns over how best to protect cultural and natural resources from climate impacts as well as ways tribes can continue to exercise their legal sovereignty and self-determination while protecting their Traditional Knowledges when working with non-tribal partners, including government agencies and academic partners. (Don’t worry. We’ll explain what that means.)

Climate Change’s Threat to Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous peoples’ livelihoods, economies, health, cultural identities, sovereignty, and self-determination are at risk. Climate change impacts the water, land, foods, plant and animal species, other natural and cultural resources, and infrastructure that tribes rely on.

Climate impacts affecting tribes range from impacts to native foods—such as warming streams threatening salmon, as we have seen here in the Pacific Northwest—to threats from rising sea levels requiring relocation, something the Pacific Northwest’s Quinault Indian Nation is currently dealing with.

Climate impacts to tribes are multiple and varied and go beyond the scope of this post.  For more information on the many unique issues climate change poses for tribes, we strongly recommend reading the Tribes and Indigenous Peoples chapter of the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment.

While climate change impacts to tribes are real and ongoing and while many institutional barriers still exist that limit tribes’ capacity to adapt, tribes have not been passive in facing up to the challenges climate change presents. Instead tribes have demonstrated leadership and innovation, crafting climate adaptation plans informed by tribal cultures. Providing guidance on how to do this is where the Guidebook comes in.

A visual outline of the climate change adaptation planning framework presented in the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook.

The Guidebook’s Steps

To support tribes in responding to climate impacts, the creators of the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook—which includes the author of this post—created a series of steps tribes can take as they see fit.

The Guidebook lays out five basic steps in a traditional medicine wheel-like image for easy reference. (Note the figure to the left.)

At the center of the circle is Step 1 Center the Tribe’s Adaptation Effort.

Step 1 Center the Tribe’s Adaptation Effort—The Guidebook’s framework begins by offering guidance for tribes to center their adaption effort by embedding climate change planning within the tribe’s own unique vision and priorities. This step is key. All following steps tie back to this central step. Making an adaptation effort true to the tribe’s values is central for creating a successful adaptation process.

Step 2 Identify Concerns and Gather Information—This step offers guidance on focusing in on and identifying the tribe’s key concerns, the natural, cultural, and built resources, assets, and issues that are most important to the tribe and that have the potential to be affected by climate change. This step also offers guidance on gathering information about how climate has already changed and affected the tribe’s key concerns as well as how climate change is projected to affect these concerns in the future.

Step 3 Assess Vulnerability—This step guides readers through a vulnerability assessment, a thorough exercise to better understand the climate exposures, sensitivities, and adaptive capacities of the key concerns.

Step 4 Plan for ActionThis step guides readers through the process of creating an adaptation plan.

Step 5 Implement & Monitor Actions—This step offers guidance on implementing and monitoring the success of the adaptation plan.

The Guidebook and its steps are part of a continuum of work that seeks to aid tribes as they adapt to climate change. The Guidebook draws heavily on the many climate vulnerability and adaptation plans that tribes have already completed. It also draws on work in the academic community, including the work of tribal scholars and important groups, such as the Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup.

Using the Guidebook

It’s worth noting that the Guidebook’s creators intend the steps to be used as suggestions, not as set-in-stone dictates that tribes should follow.

The Guidebook has been designed so that tribes can work through any applicable section, skipping sections that are not applicable. In this way, the Guidebook recognizes that each tribe is unique.

The Guidebook anticipates that tribes will determine their own unique processes as they adapt to climate change. It has been designed to be useful for tribes at any stage of adaptation planning, running the course from initiation to implementation. Lastly, the Guidebook has been written to accommodate varying degrees of funding and staff capacity.

 Using Traditional Knowledges

The Guidebook also includes guidance on considering whether (or not) and how to incorporate what are called in the academic literature Traditional Knowledges—or sometimes Indigenous Knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge—into the creation of tribes’ adaptation plans, something previous guidebooks have not considered.

Differing from Western science, Traditional Knowledges, as defined by the Guidebook, are “complex and multifaceted Indigenous knowledge systems encompassing many aspects of traditional practices and cultural information.”

Traditional Knowledges are passed down from generation to generation and result from tribal community members’ close relationship with and responsibilities towards the environment. This—in simplified form—is how the Guidebook defines Traditional Knowledges.

The direct application and utilization of Traditional Knowledges having to do with ecology, ecosystems, and the environment is often termed Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and abbreviated as TEK. TEK is what is most often integrated into climate change adaptation plans.

Regardless of what term is used, the basic idea is this: Tribes have lived on their lands since time immemorial—much, much longer than recorded data from weather and ecological monitoring stations. With such long tenures comes centuries—that is, many generations—of keen observations of the ecology and climate of their traditional lands.

Traditional Knowledges are at the foundation of tribal resilience of all kinds and are a crucial cultural lens through which tribes view and adapt to climate change.

Acknowledging the importance of Traditional Knowledges, the Guidebook identifies opportunities and offers suggestions within each step of the planning process for tribes wishing to incorporate Traditional Knowledges throughout their adaptation efforts.

However, it’s worth noting that the Guidebook recognizes the value of using multiple knowledge systems throughout the climate change adaptation planning process: Traditional Knowledges and Western science. It also recognizes that incorporating Traditional Knowledges may pose risks for tribes.

The Risks When Sharing Traditional Knowledges with Nontribal Entities 

The Guidebook exists within history. Indigenous peoples have endured undue hardships that have resulted in social conditions that limit tribal capacity for resilience. Many American Indian and Alaska Native tribes are still rebuilding following the devastation of European-based settler colonialism and the genocide and forced removal from their homelands that accompanied it.

There has also been a long disconcerting history of exploitation of tribal communities and misuse of culturally sensitive resources by academics and government agencies.

This is the historical context in which the Guidebook exists.

Knowing this history, tribes are cautious about working with non-tribal partners. At the same time, tribes frequently seek partners in academia and government agencies who can provide additional expertise and funding to complete their climate adaptation efforts. Recognizing both the value of these relationships in the here and now as well as the weight of history, the Guidebook acknowledges the risks tribes face when partnering with non-tribal entities while identifying opportunities and offering guidance to minimize risks.

The Guidebook’s Creators

The Guidebook’s writing team is indebted to the advisors, reviewers, and contributors who have informed, guided, and enriched the development of the Guidebook. Their service was critical in helping to produce this rich resource for tribes.

The writing team acknowledges with sincere gratitude all those individuals who have contributed directly to the creation of the Guidebook as well as to those who have contributed time and knowledge to the many tribal climate adaptation efforts highlighted in the Guidebook.

The project was funded by the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (NPLCC), the Pacific Northwest Climate Impacts Research Consortium (CIRC), and the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI).

OSU_icon_pencil_Black RotatedPublication: Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook Writing Team (Meghan Dalton, Samantha Chisholm Hatfield, and Alexander “Sascha” Petersen). Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University, 2018.

OSU_icon_gears_Black Resources:

OSU_icon_key_01Key Terms: 

  • Traditional Knowledges (TKs)—complex and multifaceted Indigenous knowledge systems encompassing many aspects of traditional practices and cultural information (definition from the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook).
  • Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK)—complex and multifaceted Indigenous knowledge systems based in Traditional Knowledges that are often direct application and utilization of Traditional Knowledges having to do with ecology, ecosystems, or the environment (definition from the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook).

OSU_icon_graph_01Pics and Figures: 

  • Image One: Cover of the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook. (Image credit, the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook.)
  • Image Two/Featured Image: A visual outline of the climate change adaptation planning framework presented in the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook. (Image credit, the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook.)

Meghan Dalton is a lead author of the Tribal Climate Adaptation Guidebook and the Third Oregon Climate Assessment Report as well as a co-author on the Northwest chapter of the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Her other publications include the extended report Climate Change in the Northwest: Implications for Our Landscapes, Waters, and Communities. A climate researcher with a BA in Mathematics and a MS in Atmospheric Science, Meghan has worked on Community Adaptation projects with several Pacific Northwest communities, including the water provider Seattle Public Utilities for the PUMA project.

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