Secretary Ryan Zinke, in blanket, with tribal leaders at the mid-year session of the National Congress of American Indians at Mohegan Sun on the Mohegan Reservation in Connecticut on June 13, 2017. Photo by Indianz.Com / Available for use under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Tribes go it alone on climate change as Trump team shifts priorities

The nation's largest inter-tribal organization is sticking by the global climate change accords that President Donald Trump derided as a “bad deal” for the United States.

As the National Congress of American Indians wrapped up its mid-year session last week, tribal leaders adopted a resolution to support the Paris Climate Agreement. The organization joins hundreds municipalities, states and corporations around the world in addressing the impacts of climate change in their communities.

“We have to exercise leadership as nations when it comes to confronting issues like this,” NCAI President Brian Cladoosby said last Tuesday.

Tribes are among the first to feel the effects of climate change because many of their traditions are closely tied to the environment. Disruptions in weather patterns, in the food system and to the natural landscape can have devastating impacts on their ways of life.

“Our oral history is now being proven by science,” said Governor Kurt Riley of Acoma Pueblo, referring to tribal teachings about his people's ancestral migrations across the U.S.

But after eight years of having the federal government as their partner on the issue, Indian Country is entering a new era. Trump is quickly shifting the federal government's priorities and his administration is promoting policies that could hamper tribal efforts to address climate change.

Secretary Ryan Zinke, the new leader of the Department of the Interior, has repeatedly called for more energy development on public and Indian lands, despite the link between fossil fuels and climate change. His fiscal year 2018 budget also calls for the elimination of $9.9 million in grants that tribes have used to respond to climate change.

"We have tribes across our country, some are energy-centric,” Zinke told NCAI after Cladoosby discussed the need to stand by the Paris Agreement. He said the Trump administration's view of tribal sovereignty requires respecting the rights of tribes to develop their own resources.

"They have every right to do that,” Zinke said, specifically bringing up the Crow Tribe in his home state of Montana. Very few tribes engage in coal development at this point.

Due to climate change, the glacier on Mt. Anderson, in the Olympic Mountain Range in Washington, has all but disappeared. Photo: Larry Workman / Quinault Nation

But Interior isn't the only place where priorities are changing. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy are eliminating programs and even websites that focus on climate change as Zinke's fellow Cabinet members downplay the impacts of human activities like fossil fuel extraction.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who until recently served on the boards of the companies behind the controversial Dakota Access crude oil pipeline, told CNBC on Monday that he does not believe humans are the primary cause of climate change. He also said he was a “skeptic” of some of the science on the issue.

“The fact is this shouldn't be a debate about, 'Is the climate changing, is man having an effect on it?' Yeah, we are,” Perry, a former governor of Texas, told CNBC. “The question should be just how much, and what are the policy changes that we need to make to effect that?”

Tribes have made it clear that federal policy should include more funding to help them protect their homelands and natural resources. The Quinault Nation is in the process of relocating the village of Taholah to higher ground due to environmental threats along the Washington coastline.

“Quinault cannot take on this endeavor alone,” President Fawn Sharp told a key Congressional committee last month, explaining why the federal government needs to invest in its treaty and trust responsibilities.

The climate change grants aren't the only items on the chopping block. The Bureau of Indian Affairs would see cuts to a wide range of programs that help tribes protect their communities, with real estate, natural resource management and treaty implementation all seeing dramatic reductions unless Congress takes action to counter them.

“There's never enough resources,” Chairman Ron Allen of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe told Zinke during NCAI's meeting last week.

“You have about $2.8 billion to work with in order to advance the needs in Indian Country,” Allen added, referring to the BIA's funding level. “Probably the need is $20 billion.”

Secretary Zinke, for his part, hasn't pushed back on those kinds of complaints. He's due to testify for a second time about his department's budget request at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Thursday.

“Sovereignty has to mean something,” Zinke said during his remarks to NCAI last week. “Sovereignty has to be more than a name.”

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