Here’s the release from the Colorado River Water Conservation District (Marielle Cowdin and Lindsay DeFrates):
Nearly one year since voters approved ballot measure 7A, the subsequent Community Funding Partnership has awarded nearly $3 million in grant funding to 23 multi-benefit West Slope water projects. The Colorado River District Board of Directors greenlighted $780,000 for four larger applications at the recent Fourth Quarterly Board Meeting in addition to two smaller grants approved by River District staff. Additionally, the District Board of Directors approved a new policy statement prioritizing multi-purpose, multi-benefit water projects.
“These six projects represent collaboration between stakeholders across multiple user groups,” said Amy Moyer, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Colorado River District. “When agricultural producers, environmental non-profits, recreationalists, and local communities join together, the outcome is beneficial for everyone in the watershed.”
The Community Funding Partnership supports multi-benefit projects, Moyer stated, with a goal of geographical equity within the District’s fifteen-county region.
“Our first year of grant funding represents communities across the West Slope. The Colorado River District is proud to provide integral support for projects in every river basin and nearly every county we serve.”
Steward Mesa Ditch Diversion Improvement Project $200,000 awarded, Delta County
The Stewart Mesa Ditch is the second largest agricultural water provider in the North Fork Valley, serving 243 users and supplying water to farms, ranches, and orchards on the South side of the valley. Identified as a priority project via the recent Stream Management Plan, this project will modify and improve the diversion structure and headgate of the ditch. The existing diversion is antiquated and problematic for water users served by the ditch, for recreational users of the river, and for fish, including native fish species. Through this upgrade, the project will protect the ditch from flooding, improve controls, reduce erosion, eliminate safety hazards for boaters, and improve the habitat and population resiliency for fish populations.
Yampa River Forest Restoration Project $150,000 awarded, Routt County
Over a three-year period, the Yampa River Forest Restoration Project aims to restore mid and upper canopy tree cover to reaches of the Upper Yampa River to help reduce summer water temperatures. As identified in the 2018 Stream Management plan, the project offers an innovative, natural infrastructure approach to protecting West Slope water supplies in the face of rising temperatures. The expected outcomes from the project are six acres of new riparian plantings, and 1.5 miles of river with increased shading in reaches where summer temperatures exceed state standards.
Crystal River Restoration at Riverfront Park $100,000 awarded, Garfield County
The Crystal River Restoration Project will restore and enhance a one-half mile, 18-acre reach of the Crystal River as it flows through the Town of Carbondale and improve the efficiency of the town-owned Weaver Ditch headgate and diversion. The project will implement river restoration improvements and water diversion modifications that will result in long term, self-sustaining river channel stability, fish habitat and spawning areas, low flow connectivity, enhanced species diversity and ecosystem resiliency, and create opportunities for recreation including angler access points.
Wolf Creek Reservoir Project Permitting $330,000 awarded, Rio Blanco and Moffat Counties
Since 2013, the Rio Blanco Water Conservancy District has conducted planning work to design a water storage project within the White River basin. A 2014 conditional water right for a 66,720 acre-foot reservoir was awarded to the project in January 2021 for the following beneficial uses: municipal, augmentation, mitigation of environmental impacts, hydroelectric power generation, recreation, piscatorial, and wildlife habitat. River District funding is intended to support an inclusive, collaborative permitting process supported by data and responsive to public feedback.
Lower Yampa Augmentation Needs Study $30,350 awarded, Moffat County
The project will fund a Lower Yampa Augmentation Study to investigate anticipated needs for an augmentation plan in parts of the Lower Yampa Basin. This study seeks to quantify augmentation needs, divide the study area into regions that have a common downstream call and potential augmentation source, evaluate the ability to provide augmentation water from Elkhead Reservoir, and, if necessary, present high-level information regarding augmentation sources, outside of Elkhead Reservoir.
Canyon Creek Fish Passage Project $44,114 awarded, Garfield County
This project improves fish passage and productive fish habitat in Canyon Creek by installing concrete baffles and hemispheres within a previously impassable set of concrete box culverts under Interstate 70. This project supports healthy spawning habitat in area affected by recent wildfires and supports new fish passage research to encourage future, nearby projects.
When the climate doesn’t behave like we expect, whether it’s for an individual season or for several decades, we often hear scientists blaming internal variability. Scientists use this term a lot (even on Twitter) and I’ve noticed that I usually obtain a few blank faces depending on the audience. I also remember being a junior scientist in this field and wondering why everyone was going on about internal, or its counterpart, external variability. Internal/External what? And who cares? Me! And you should, too!
In our climate and weather there are:
(1) The things that are pushed around by other (external) things
(2) The things that would change or move (internally) without any push
Lions and tigers and variability
You, yourself, have your own internal variability when it comes to your behavior! But, at times, there may also be an external forcing that causes you to deviate from what you’d otherwise do. For example, I really enjoy taking walks in the woods and try to do so whenever I can. Because there are lots of trail options where I’m walking, my path will change from day to day based on pure randomness or a need for variety. But I also really don’t like running into bears (especially fat bears). As much as I’d like to pretend they don’t exist, if I see a bear, I will strongly deviate from my intended path and choose one that gives the bear a wide berth. So bears are an external forcing on my walking path.
Bears aside, why would we care whether variability is internal or external? Well, in the climate system, we might care a lot if we want to answer questions like “Is this rainstorm caused by El Niño?” Or “Did human-caused climate change cause the polar vortex to break down?”
In order to figure out the answers, we first have to examine the likelihood that the impact would have occurred without any push from an external force. To phrase it another way, we need to determine whether the rainstorm may have occurred without any influence from El Niño. Or whether that change in the polar vortex would have occurred without increasing greenhouse gases. Internal variability are changes that would have happened anyways, regardless of the presence of something else (footnote #1). There will always be some day-to-day variations in my walks even if every bear instantly disappeared.
For a scientist, it can be difficult to prove whether a weather or climate event occurred due to some external influence, like increasing greenhouse gases. This is because the observed weather—our reality—only occurs once! We can’t run an alternate reality where we remove the external influence because our observations are already history.
This is where a reliable climate model that simulates realistic weather and climate comes in handy. In model world, we can run an experiment that does not have the external forcing—for example, an atmosphere with no increases in greenhouse gases—and a second experiment that DOES have the external influence of greenhouse gases. The difference between the results is considered the part that is externally influenced by greenhouse gases. Going back to my walks, we can compare my path through the woods in a world with bears to my path in a world without bears.
Of bears and butterflies
But there’s a catch (there’s always a catch, darn it): the butterfly effect. Just like my different paths through the woods on different days, climate model simulations will evolve differently from each other based on small differences in their starting state. This is true in a world with bears (excess greenhouse gases) and without them. That’s why scientists prefer model studies that run “large ensembles.” These generate dozens—sometimes hundreds—of my simulated walks in the woods with bears versus dozens of simulated walks without bears.
Running a bunch of simulations results in a range of possible outcomes with bears (my random variability plus external forcing) and a range of outcomes without bears (only my random variability; no external forcing). We can compare these two ranges to get an idea of how much the odds of my following a given path (climate outcome) have changed. To build even more confidence, it is ideal to compare large ensembles among several different models.
Dr. Clara Deser, a senior scientist at NCAR, has been at the forefront of large ensemble studies, and she recently wrote a commentary on internal climate variability, which you should check out. In that piece, she provided an example of how external and internal variability can influence the trends in winter precipitation across the U.S. that we may experience over the next 50 years.
The top panel here shows what we’d expect if we averaged together the results of this particular climate model in order to identify the influence of human-caused climate change (an external forcing). It projects a much wetter future over the U.S. in response to climate change, especially over the eastern and western U.S. But the bottom panel shows two equally plausible outcomes drawn from the model ensemble with the exact same external forcing (footnote # 2).
Clearly, the two maps are very different—the bottom right panel showing a considerably drier winter over the U.S. and the one on the bottom left indicating a wetter winter. How can that be? Even though the human influence on the climate is exactly the same in all simulations within the model ensemble, internal variability is large enough to create a range of outcomes that can be rather distinct (footnote #3). The internal part is largely unpredictable—there is a certain amount of variability that is baked into the cake and will occur regardless of global warming.
When El Niño is the bear
Another reason internal versus external variability matters is because it helps us understand what we can or cannot predict (footnote #4). From day to day, the exact path I take for my walk in the woods is mostly unpredictable—there’s randomness to it. As much as a bear is scary to see, it imparts some predictability on the walk because I will go well out of my way, around the bear, to avoid it. The predictable part is looping around the bear, not walking right up to the bear and asking to be eaten. So, it helps to have external variability in the weather and climate system—without it, it would be difficult to predict at all. Maybe we should be thankful for some fat bears after all.
Side note: Clara and I were chatting about internal variability and how it may be time to come up with a less obscure term. She came up with inherent variability, which seems to better convey variability that is inherent to the climate system. So, blog readers, what do you think? Is it time to phase out “internal variability?” What do you think of “inherent variability” instead? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Personal Note: Geert Jan van Oldenborgh died earlier this month and with that climate science, and even more than that, climate services, has lost a great scientist, a pioneer, and a truly good person. He openly struggled with cancer even while pushing us forward. While I did not know him well, I was lucky enough to have been touched by his insights and passion in our collaboration on a relative SST index for ENSO monitoring. I think the best way we can uphold his legacy is to apply his level of enthusiasm to our work, be curious, be humble, and remember that science is ultimately about serving others so that we can be our best selves on this fragile planet. RIP Geert Jan.
(1) Instead of “internal variability” you may sometimes hear “natural variability,” but this term might be a little confusing b/c, depending on context, both internal and external fluctuations could have some “natural origins.” For example, a volcanic eruption is a natural occurrence, but the emissions from the eruption are an external forcing on the climate system, with possible effects on ENSO.
(2) Primarily increasing greenhouse gases plus some other factors included in the RCP8.5 scenario of projected radiative changes.
(3) Model ensembles aren’t the only way to estimate internal variability. The two references below show that you can “scramble” the observed precipitation data to mimic a large ensemble, and obtain a similar spread of 50-year trends as those in the CESM1 model.
McKinnon, K. A and C. Deser, 2018: Internal variability and regional climate trends in an Observational Large Ensemble. J. Climate, 31, 6783–6802, doi:10.1175/JCLI-D-17-0901.1.
McKinnon, K. A. and C. Deser, 2021: The inherent uncertainty of precipitation variability, trends, and extremes due to internal variability, with implications for Western US water resources. J. Climate.
(4) As you can imagine, what is considered internal or external will change depending on the context and the particular question asked. For example, El Niño can be the “external thing” that is pushing rainfall around— how much of this storm due to El Niño? But different questions can be asked, like whether El Niño events are getting stronger due to increasing greenhouse gases. In this second example, greenhouse gases are now in the external forcing role and El Niño is the internal variability. As Tom pointed out, in the latest IPCC report scientists noted that El Niño has tremendous swings and variations even without changes in the amount of greenhouse gases. El Niño’s large internal variability and consequent lack of consistent changes in various model projections are one of the main challenges in determining whether greenhouse gas increases are changing its amplitude or frequency.
From The Nature Conservancy (Ciaran Clayton and Tom Jennings):
With just days to go until the start of UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, UK, much uncertainty remains about the outcomes of this crucial summit.
The Paris Agreement, brokered at COP21 in 2015, urges countries to strengthen their national climate commitments every five years. Delayed for a year by the pandemic, COP26 represents the first of these key milestones when negotiators are expected to come to the table with enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) that detail their domestic pathways towards fulfilling the Paris goals.
It is a chance for the world to take stock of where we are, and to raise our ambition at a pace that will effect real change.
Commenting on her hopes and expectations for COP26, The Nature Conservancy’s CEO Jennifer Morris said:
“Our planet faces the dual and interconnected crises of rapid climate change and biodiversity loss. We have years, not decades, to address these existential threats. It’s easy to look at the environment headlines that have dominated news cycles over this past year and conclude that hope is lost – but there’s still time for decisive action.
“This emergency requires myriad solutions, and science shows us that many of these are available here and now. To succeed, we will need to radically transform global economies in ways that reduce harmful greenhouse gas emissions from all sectors – particularly energy, transportation, manufacturing, construction and buildings, and land use. The U.S. alone, for example, is committed to cutting its domestic greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 by boosting vehicle efficiency, expanding renewable energy, and investing in nature-based solutions, among others.”
“Decisive political commitments are key – I want to see a COP where global leaders embrace the science and deliver implementation plans that will ensure Paris goals aren’t missed. But this is also a COP where corporations and financiers must show how they are helping to align the world economy with climate targets, and in doing so hastening a global transition towards a nature-positive, climate-neutral, and equitable future… Where Indigenous Peoples’ voices are prominent and afforded the platform they deserve as custodians of the Earth’s most climate-critical and biodiversity-rich ecosystems… Where nature’s solutions are given equal billing to technological ones… And where we can confidently say we stepped up for a brighter future.”
“Without action at scale, delivered in a transparent and equitable way, the world will not have the tools needed to effect change that helps, not harms, people and nature. For Glasgow to secure its place in the history books as the next great milestone in our climate turnaround, COP26 must deliver on the ambitions of those initial negotiations and ensure that, through radical collaboration, we turn promises into action.”
ON A DUSTY hilltop in San Diego, the drinking water of the future courses through a wildly complicated and very loud jumble of tanks, pipes, and cylinders. Here at the North City Water Reclamation Plant, very not-drinkable wastewater is turned into a liquid so pure it would actually wreak havoc on your body if you imbibed it without further treatment.
First the system hits the wastewater with ozone, which destroys bacteria and viruses. Then it pumps the water through filters packed with coal granules that trap organic solids. Next, the water passes through fine membranes that snag any remaining solids and microbes. “The pores are so small, you can’t see them except with a really powerful microscope,” says Amy Dorman, deputy director of Pure Water San Diego, the city’s initiative to reduce its reliance on water imported from afar. “Basically, they only allow the water molecules to get through.”
But to be extra sure, the next step blasts the water with UV light, to obliterate any microbes and other trace contaminants. The end result is water in its purest form—too pure, in fact. The last phase is “conditioning” the liquid by adding minerals back to it. Without that, the water would leach the copper out of pipes. If you drank it, it’d soak up your electrolytes like a sponge.
If that all sounds like a rather convoluted way to get drinking water, that’s because the American West is facing a rather convoluted climate crisis. San Diego—and the rest of Southern California—have historically relied on water from Northern California and the Colorado River. But they’ve always been at the end of the line. The river hydrates 40 million other people in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico, and it is withering under a historic drought, a harbinger of even worse water scarcity to come as the climate warms.
So San Diego has to figure out how to do more with less water. The Pure Water program aims to provide more than 40 percent of the city’s water from local sources by the year 2035 by reusing water recycled from homes and businesses. (That means water that has flowed through sinks, showers, toilets, and washing machines.) “We’re diversifying the portfolio,” says Todd Gloria, San Diego’s mayor. “We’re heavily dependent upon water that comes from very far away, and that’s a problem that we have to address.”
The water-recycling revolution is just getting going in San Diego, but its proponents hope it will ripple across the American West. In June, legislators in the US House of Representatives introduced a bill that would funnel $750 million into water recycling projects in 17 western states through 2027. (The bill hasn’t made it past committee.) “This is beginning to be our new normal—88 percent of the West is under some degree of drought,” Representative Susie Lee (D-Nevada) told WIRED in July. “Lake Mead is at the lowest level it has been at since the Hoover Dam was constructed. And the Colorado River has been in a drought for more than two decades.”
The technology to recycle water on a large scale already exists—it’s been around for half a century, in fact. But the problem is that it can cost billions to build a recycling facility, and you can’t just copy-paste a particular plan from one municipality to the next. The North City Water Reclamation Plant has been experimenting with different kinds of filtering membranes because not all water is the same. For example, the mineral content of the water flowing into the San Diego facility is distinct from what operators might be working with in New York. Recycling plants also cost a pretty penny to run, since pumping lots of water through fine membranes requires significant pressure. But then again, it also takes a lot of energy to pump water from northern areas to Southern California.
How Climate Change is Affecting the Hydrology of the River Joint presentation with the Colorado River Districts | GWC 41st Annual Colorado Law Conference on Natural Resources
Equity in the Colorado River Basin: How to Sustainably Manage a Shrinking Resource
Part Three: CRB Hydrology & the Future of Management Guidelines
Brad Udall Senior Water and Climate Research Scientist/Scholar Colorado State University
Gigi Richard (Remote Presentation from the Colorado River District Seminar) Director, Four Corners Water Center Instructor of Geosciences Fort Lewis College
University of Colorado Law School
October 1, 2021
Glasgow sits proudly on the banks of the river Clyde, once the heart of Scotland’s industrial glory and now a launchpad for its green energy transition. It’s a fitting host for the United Nations’ climate conference, COP26, where world leaders will be discussing how their countries will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change.
I’ve been involved in climate negotiations for several years as a former senior U.N. official and will be in Glasgow for the talks starting Oct. 31, 2021. As negotiations get underway, here’s what to watch for.
At the Paris climate conference in 2015, countries agreed to work to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), aiming for 1.5 C (2.7 F). If COP21 in Paris was the agreement on a destination, COP26 is the review of itineraries and course adjustments.
The bad news is that countries aren’t on track. They were required this year to submit new action plans – known as national determined contributions, or NDCs. The U.N.’s latest tally of all the revised plans submitted in advance of the Glasgow summit puts the world on a trajectory to warm 2.7 C (4.86 F), well into dangerous levels of climate change, by the end of this century.
Some key G-20 countries have not submitted their updated plans yet, including India. Brazil, Mexico, Australia and Russia have filed plans that are not in line with the Paris Agreement.
Details of how China will achieve its climate goals are now emerging, and the world is poring over them to see how China will strengthen its 2030 emissions reduction target, which currently involves cutting emissions 65% per unit of gross domestic product, moving up the date when the country’s emissions growth will peak, and setting industrial production targets for other greenhouse gases, such as methane.
A delicate dance between the United States and China, and deft diplomacy by France, was critical to reaching the Paris climate agreement in 2015. Six years later, a growing rivalry threatens to spiral down what had been a race to the top.
Meanwhile the world’s eyes are on the United States. Opposition from two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, appears likely to force the Biden administration to scrap a plan that would have incentivized utilities to switch to cleaner power sources faster. If their planetary brinksmanship guts that key part of President Joe Biden’s Plan A for how the U.S. will reach its 2030 emissions targets, the world will want to see details of Plans B, C or D in Glasgow.
One leftover task from the Paris conference is to set rules for carbon markets, particularly how countries can trade carbon credits with each other, or between a country and a private company.
Regulated carbon markets exist from the European Union to China, and voluntary markets are spurring both optimism and concern. Rules are needed to ensure that carbon markets actually drive down emissions and provide revenue for developing countries to protect their resources. Get it right and carbon markets can speed the transition to net zero. Done badly, greenwashing will undermine confidence in pledges made by governments and companies alike.
Another task is determining how countries measure and report their emissions reductions and how transparent they are with one another. This too is fundamental to beating back greenwashing.
Also, expect to see pressure for countries to come back in a year or two with better plans for reducing emissions and reports of concrete progress.
Underpinning progress on all issues is the question of finance.
With one week to go, the U.K. revealed a climate finance plan, brokered by Germany and Canada, that would establish a process for counting and agreeing on what counts in the $100 billion, but it will take until 2023 to reach that figure.
On the one hand it is progress, but it will feel begrudging to developing countries whose costs of adaptation now must be met as the global costs of climate impacts rise, including from heat waves, wildfires, floods and intensifying hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons. Just as with the global vaccine rollout, the developing world may wonder whether they are being slow-walked into a new economic divergence, where the rich will get richer and the poor poorer.
Beyond the costs of mitigation and adaptation is the question of loss and damage – the innocuous term for the harm experienced by countries that did little to contribute to climate change in the past and the responsibility of countries that brought on the climate emergency with their historic emissions. These difficult negotiations will move closer to center stage as the losses increase.
Public climate finance provided by countries can also play another role through its potential to leverage the trillions of dollars needed to invest in transitions to clean energy and greener growth. Expect big pledges from private sources of finance – pension funds, insurance companies, banks and philanthropies – with their own net zero plans, including ending financeand investments in fossil fuel projects, and financing critical efforts to speed progress.
It’s raining pledges
A cross section of the world will be in Glasgow for the conference, and they will be talking about pathways for reducing global carbon emissions to net zero and building greater resilience.
Keeping track and verifying achievements toward these pledges will be critical coming away from COP26. Without that, climate activist Greta Thunberg’s “blah blah blah” speech thrown at delegates to a pre-COP meeting in Milan a few weeks ago will continue to echo around the world.
[Over 110,000 readers rely on The Conversation’s newsletter to understand the world.Sign up today.]
This article was updated Oct. 26 with the release of the UNEP Emissions Gap report and trajectories chart.
Here’s the release from the USGS (Camille Collett):
A new study projects that a hot and dry future climate may lead to a 29% decline in Upper Colorado River Basin “baseflow” at the basin outlet by the 2050s, affecting both people and ecosystems.
Baseflow is the movement of groundwater into streams and, on average, accounts for more than 50% of annual streamflow in the Upper Colorado River Basin. It is vital for sustaining flows in the Colorado River during dry periods. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation modeled temperature, precipitation and runoff data to understand more about how baseflow may change under three future climate scenarios.
“Many studies project streamflow and runoff response to climate change in the Upper Colorado River Basin, but this is the first to look at the baseflow component of total streamflow,” said USGS hydrologist Olivia Miller, lead author of the paper. “Understanding how baseflow may respond to climate change is particularly important for water managers when it comes to ensuring sufficient water supply outside the spring runoff period and has critical implications for ecosystem health.”
The Upper Colorado River Basin has a drainage area of about 114,000 square miles, covering portions of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The Continental Divide marks the eastern boundary of the basin whereas the western boundary is defined by the Wasatch Mountains. The Wind River and Wyoming Ranges form the northern border and the southern portion includes the San Juan Basin. From 1984 to 2012, total streamflow deliveries from the upper basin’s outlet at Lees Ferry, Arizona, to the Lower Colorado River Basin averaged 10.3 million acre feet/year (maf/yr). Baseflow accounted for nearly a third of this (2.8 maf/yr).
The study predicts that baseflow deliveries to the Lower Colorado River Basin may decline overall by the end of the 21st century despite potential increases in precipitation and baseflow in some areas. Three climate scenarios were modeled: under a warm, wet scenario, total baseflow at Lees Ferry is projected to initially increase by up to 6% (0.162 maf/yr) in the 2030s but then level out in the 2050s and ultimately decline by 3% from today’s levels (0.089 maf/yr) by the 2080s. Under a hot, dry climate scenario, baseflow is predicted to decline by up to 23% (0.657 maf/yr) in the 2030s and continue to worsen over time, reaching 29% (0.835 maf/yr) in the 2050s and 33% (0.940 maf/yr) in the 2080s. An intermediate climate scenario also showed a steady decline over time.
The study authors hypothesize that baseflow declines would occur due to increases in stream water loss from processes such as evapotranspiration. The largest declines in the model occur in the Rocky Mountains and in the headwaters of the Green River.
Declines in baseflow have major downstream and basin-wide effects in an area where water demand often exceeds supply. In addition to the 40 million people that rely on the Colorado River for recreational, agricultural, municipal, spiritual and hydropower uses, baseflow decline has major impacts on riverbank, water and land ecosystems.
“This region is experiencing exceptional drought conditions and record-low reservoir levels at Lake Mead and Lake Powell,” said Katharine Dahm, USGS Rocky Mountain Region Senior Scientist. “Information from this study can be used by resource managers to understand impacts of water shortages and develop mitigation plans for both people and ecosystems.”
To learn more about drought in the Colorado River basin visit:
Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, talks with Yale Environment 360 about how climate change is hitting Native Americans especially hard and why protecting tribal sovereignty is critical for tackling the climate crisis.
Two centuries of forced removal and relocation onto often-marginalized lands have left Native Americans uniquely vulnerable to climate change. From northern Arizona, where the Hopi are facing a megadrought that is withering crops and killing livestock, to southern Louisiana, where the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw are seeing their ancestral lands succumb to rising seas, Native American tribes are at the forefront of the climate crisis.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, discusses how Indigenous people in the United States are imperiled by the impacts of climate change – including megafires, floods, heat waves, and drought – and where they are making progress. Sharp’s own Quinault Indian Nation in Washington, where she serves as vice president, is planning to relocate two seaside villages to higher ground to escape worsening floods — a move funded by revenue from a statewide carbon tax that the Quinault and other tribes negotiated for.
Sharp is seeking greater support to help tribes across the U.S. cope with climate change. She is also pushing federal and state officials to seek the consent of tribes when building new mines, pipelines, highways, and other infrastructure that will impact tribal lands, sacred sites, and burial grounds, which she says is key to empowering tribes to tackle climate change.
With President Biden restarting the White House Council on Native American Affairs and appointing Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior, the first Native American to do so, Sharp is optimistic that “we’re going to be able to ensure that tribal sovereignty is not only respected, but implemented in a way that will allow us to effectively adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.”
Yale Environment 360: Research shows that tribal nations are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Where are you seeing that play out?
Fawn Sharp: I’ve certainly seen it play out in my homeland. I was initially elected as a tribal president for the Quinault Nation back in 2006. And at that time, I convened a gathering of our tribal citizens to try to identify the top priorities within our nation, including the survival of our sockeye salmon. We call it a “blueback” salmon, which is unique to the Quinault River and its tributaries, and it was in sharp decline.
I gathered our [tribal] scientists and our staff to try to determine what was causing the decline. And I learned about ocean acidification and about warming ocean temperatures. Our scientists did an overlay of the different spikes in the ocean temperature, and it perfectly aligned with the sharp declines in salmon that we were witnessing.
The University of Washington had been monitoring the Anderson Glacier, which feeds the Quinault River. And I saw pictures showing — just over the course of about a 60-year period — a visual stark contrast in how rapidly this glacier was receding and disappearing. I took a helicopter flight, probably in my second term of office, and as we came over the ridge in the helicopter, the Anderson Glacier was completely gone. I had seen visuals of a glacial sheen, and I was expecting to see a glacier, or a remnant of a glacier. But when we came over the ridge, there was just a large pool of murky water and not a shred of a glacial sheen. And I cannot explain what that felt like to come face-to-face with a mountain, expecting to see a glacier, and there was nothing but murky water.
This summer, we had extreme heat. Temperatures here, at Lake Quinault, were as high as 109 degrees. And I saw reports that in the same window of four days of that heat wave, Mount Rainier lost three feet of snowpack. I dread to think what some of the heat waves that we’ve had to undergo here in the Pacific Northwest are doing to the remaining glaciers.
There was another instance when I stood on our shores and saw two and a half miles, as far as the eye could see, of dead marine life along our coastline, due to the oxygen depletion and The Blob [a mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean from 2013 to 2016], as they called it.
In just my 15 years as president of the Quinault Nation, I’ve had to declare multiple states of emergency due to just about every climate-related event one can imagine [including coastal floods, severe rainfall, and landslides]. And we’re just one tribal nation.
e360: And other tribes in the U.S. are facing similar threats?
Sharp: I’ve made several trips to Alaska, and I’ve met with Alaska tribal leaders. They’ve done an excellent job of providing very comprehensive and detailed reports that address all the various impacts of climate change on Alaska natives — whether it’s their food security, their [traditional] medicines, the plants that they gather, the animals that they hunt, their life ways, their villages that are needing to relocate.
The tribes in Louisiana have had to confront the severe impacts of hurricanes and, of course, tornadoes and rising seas. Tribes in California are confronting megafires. I remember explaining it to my kids when we experienced one of the first megafires here in the Northwest, and now it seems there’s no end to fire season, and a megafire isn’t a rare occurrence. It’s an every-year occurrence.
And this is happening all across Indian country. At the National Congress of American Indians, we have regular board meetings where our regional vice presidents report on the issues affecting their people. And at our last annual convention, every region raised issues of climate change.
The tribes in the Great Lakes area, for example, are seeing impacts to their rice fields [from rising temperatures and extreme rainfall]. Tribes in the Northeast are confronting the impacts of climate change to their traditional foods and medicines. So, it’s widespread. It’s all across Indian country, and it’s becoming our top priority.
e360: You’ve said that tribal sovereignty is critically important to tackling climate change. Can you explain why that is?
Sharp: It’s important for people to understand that one of the attributes of our inherent sovereignty is our ability to have a decisive say when it comes to our land, territory, resources, and people. But there’s still a level of paternalism and a level of political inequality. When it comes to protecting our resources, the United States still will take unilateral action affecting our land, territories, and sacred sites.
The classic example of that is the conflict at Standing Rock [Indian Reservation in South and North Dakota]. There, a tribal nation was attempting to protect their water source, their sacred sites, and they objected, along with tribes all across the country and allies globally, [to the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline]. Over those objections, over that science, over the legal objections, over the policy objections, the United States unilaterally permitted that activity.
When we get to the point where there’s not only an embracing of the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but we implement them in a way that respects tribal sovereignty, then tribes will be fully armed and able to adopt both adaptation and mitigation strategies to defend their people, their homelands, and their traditional ways of life against the imminent threat of climate change.
The White House Council on Native American Affairs has restarted under the Biden administration. They added an international committee. We’ve also had direct engagement with the United States State Department. And we think, with this administration, with this Secretary of the Interior [a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico], we’re going to be able to ensure that tribal sovereignty is not only respected, but exercised in a way that will allow us to effectively adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change.
e360: The federal government currently has a responsibility to consult with tribes in making decisions that affect their lands, but you’re pushing for the government to have to seek tribal nations’ consent. Can you explain the distinction, and why you think it’s important?
Sharp: Consultation is the mechanism by which the United States has related to tribal nations up to this point. And that’s just a matter of checking an administrative box that says, “Yes, we did consult with a tribal nation.” But over our objections, agencies will then take unilateral action and say, “We consulted, but this is our decision,” as they did with Standing Rock. And oftentimes it appears to be a predetermined course of action. We come to the table in good faith. We consult. We put our best science forward, our best legal arguments, but oftentimes we will walk away with a sense that we don’t have political equality. We have faith and we have hope, but time and time again, we get disappointed that, even over our objections, agencies will take unilateral action.
The idea of consent, in contrast, is one in which we would have a level of political equality. And just as the United States would never engage with the government of Canada or Mexico, sit down, and talk, and then proceed with unilateral action, we hope that at some point the United States will begin to implement the idea of having consent with us.
e360: Besides Standing Rock, where else do you see consent as being a tool for protecting tribal lands and sacred sites?
Sharp: Oak Flat [where a copper mine is being proposed on land sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe in Arizona] is another area that highlights the level of objection to development activities directly on sacred sites. And if a tribe does not have decisive say over something as central and as sacred and as important as these places where our ancestors have engaged in cultural and religious activities from time immemorial, under what circumstances will we?
[The San Carlos Apache people] have absolutely no say, and they’ve had to litigate and go to court and try to defend those rights that were gifted to their ancestors when time began. Those rights are inherent. Those are rights that nearly every other country around the world, in signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples have recognized. So, we’re left asking ourselves, if we cannot have a decisive say over something as sacred as Oak Flat, under what circumstances can we?
e360: You’ve argued that the funds that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FEMA currently provide for tribal climate resilience and to protect communities from disasters are insufficient. Why is that?
Sharp: The scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury. When you consider all of the dollars that are spent in dealing with megafires, hurricanes, flooding — those are mere symptoms of climate change. And as apocalyptic as they may seem, we aren’t even getting to the actions that are minimally necessary to contend with the impacts of climate change: restoring our salmon habitat, restoring balance to our ecosystems.
In the beginning of August, President Biden announced a deployment of $3.4 billion through FEMA to address climate change. And as those dollars are being implemented at an agency level, at FEMA, 50 states will be eligible for funding, six territories, and only three tribal nations. Which means 99 percent of Indian country is excluded from that significant deployment of those new dollars.
Because the scale of the climate crisis far exceeds the public treasury, we’ve been aggressively going after those who are directly responsible. In Washington state, the policy points that we tribal nations negotiated in [the state’s recent climate bill] were ultimately legislated into law with the passage of the Climate Commitment Act this year through the Washington State Legislature and, of those statewide dollars that will now result from pricing carbon, 10 percent are going to go to tribal nations.
We secured $50 million to relocate our villages to higher ground. We secured dollars for tribal nations to address megafires and forest fires. So, we did not wait for the state or the United States Congress to hold industry accountable. We’re well aware that the scale of the crisis is exceeding the public treasury, and the only way we are going to secure the necessary resources to defend our lands, our territory, and people is by holding those who are directly responsible accountable.
In the absence of leadership and against an overwhelming lobby from the fossil fuel industry, tribal nations have been able to succeed. And we’re going to continue on that course.
e360: Why do you think that Indigenous people are well positioned to tackle climate change?
Sharp: We stand on the shoulders of so many of our ancestors and generations that have gone before us. And while we have multi-generational trauma, multi-generational poverty, multi-generational political, economic, and social marginalization, we also have multi-generational strength and resilience, and wisdom, and teachings.
Our ancestors have foretold of a time where there will be a day of reckoning. Humanity cannot continue to live the way it’s been living and survive. And we’ve known that when that day of reckoning comes, tribal nations will be positioned to share with the world, as full participants, our knowledge and our standing and moral authority to bring life back into balance. And not just for humanity, but for all things living and the spiritual connection that we have.
Our ancestors have taught us the salmon cannot get out of the rivers and march to the halls of Congress and lobby for legislation. So, we are the champions, and have been the champions, for the natural world when others have been so willing and so arrogantly able to exploit the natural world for shortsighted, short-term, very narrow interest, profits, and gain. While we’ve relinquished millions of acres of land across the United States, we’ve never relinquished our spiritual connection. And this new generation, this generation of young people, are being born into that.
I’m witnessing not only native youth, but youth across the planet rise to the level of being that generation of leaders that is going to take decisive action. They are going to respect inclusivity. They are very active in wanting to ensure that any climate strategy that this generation will undertake will be aggressive. It will be inclusive. It will respect the rights of all.
I recognize that as a tribal leader, as do many tribal leaders across the country. And we facilitate that. While our generation may develop the strategies to address climate change, it’s going to be that next generation and those that follow that will implement and execute much of the work that we are doing today.
FromAvaaz.org (Greta Thunberg, Vanessa Nakate and Dominika Lasota):
To world leaders:
That’s how young people around the world are describing our governments’ failure to cut carbon emissions. And it’s no surprise.
We are catastrophically far from the crucial goal of 1.5°C, and yet governments everywhere are still accelerating the crisis, spending billions on fossil fuels.
This is not a drill. It’s code red for the Earth. Millions will die as our planet is devastated — a terrifying future that will be created, or avoided, by the decisions you make. You have the power to decide.
As citizens across the planet, we urge you to face up to the climate emergency. Not next year. Not next month. Now:
Keep the precious goal of 1.5°C alive with immediate, drastic, annual emission reductions unlike anything the world has ever seen.
End all fossil fuel investments, subsidies, and new projects immediately, and stop new exploration and extraction.
End creative carbon accounting by publishing total emissions for all consumption indices, supply chains, international aviation and shipping.
Deliver the $100bn promised to the most vulnerable countries, with additional funds for climate disasters.
Enact climate policies that protect workers and the most vulnerable, and reduce all forms of inequality.
It only takes one inspiring leader to make the difference. Climate change is a golden opportunity to radically transform our societies for good. It’s also an opportunity for determined, visionary leadership. It will take immense courage — but know that when you rise, billions will be right behind you.
Greta from Sweden, Vanessa from Uganda and Dominika from Poland