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Scientists: Many Natives better poised to deal with climate change, but tribes still at risk

MIAMI — It’s happening now, and it’s going to get worse.

That’s the sobering assessment from scientists about climate change and sea level rise and how the two will continue to affect coastal communities like those in Florida. Many of those at-risk communities, in and out of Florida, include Native American lands.

A session on the subject took place at the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA) conference in Miami the last weekend in July at the InterContinental Hotel. Perhaps ironically, the hotel is located just feet away from the waters of Biscayne Bay.

A panel of experts took on the topic of: “Preparing for a Changing Climate: Impacts, Costs and Tough Decisions in Combating Rising Seas.”

It was one of a few on the subject during a weekend that also included programming by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Two of the NAJA panelists were with the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The UCS says more than 90 coastal communities in the U.S. already face chronic inundation from sea level rise and the number could jump to nearly 170 in less than 20 years and as many as 670 by the end of the century. The UCS says those projections depend largely on what governments and citizens do to curb global carbon emissions.

‘A lot to lose’

Among the most vulnerable populations are Native tribes and other communities of color – groups whose cultural identity and history are deeply tied to their land along coastlines.

From left are Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate and energy policy director, Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS); Kristina Peterson, co-founder and facilitator, Lowlander Center; Astrid Caldas, senior climate scientist, UCS; and session moderator Ashanti Washington, science writer and communications officer, UCS. (Photo Damon Scott)

And while those communities are some of the most prepared, Dr. Astrid Caldas, lead economist and climate and energy policy director for UCS said that tribal communities are not all in the clear.

“Many Native American and Indigenous communities are part of those that will be inundated,” Caldas said. “These communities have a lot more to lose than just their property: there’s their culture, their history, their traditional livelihoods – lots of things they have are connected to coastal land they’ve had for hundreds of years.”

At the same time, one thing tribal communities have going for them, she said, is that on many reservations commercial and residential development has been more thoughtful.

“Studies have revealed that land that is owned by Indigenous people has suffered the least development, the least change,” Caldas said. “They are in better condition than any other land in the world. So that gives them a good head start.”

Caldas explained that when land has been highly developed or overdeveloped, with concrete and asphalt, flooding becomes more problematic. The less land has been transformed, the more likely it can withstand the hit of a hurricane or other storm.

Advantage: community

In addition, Caldas and others explained that the more a community is tight knit, the greater the chances of recovery after inundation from an event like flooding.

“Natives have very good relationships within the community and they care for each other,” Caldas said. “Whenever there is a disaster, they bounce back better. And many times faster. They share resources.”

Dr. Kristina Peterson is co-founder and facilitator at the Lowlander Center in Gray, Louisiana. She works with many tribes that are not federally recognized in a delta near the Gulf Coast. She’s seen many of them face resettlement or relocation due to climate change.

“Tribes usually get portrayed as only vulnerable and victims,” Peterson said. “But they have incredible ingenuity. They have ways of seeing the world that didn’t destroy the world.”

Many costs

One of the worst years on record for devastating climate events across the U.S. was 2017, something that certainly isn’t lost on Floridians and Seminoles. There was about $306 billion in weather-related costs, mostly from hurricanes and wildfires.

“Buried in the numbers is the human toll,” said Rachel Cleetus, UCS lead economist and climate and energy policy director. “Not only that, but it’s an environmental and economic disaster. Climate change exacerbates socioeconomic inequities that already exist in the U.S. and around the world.”

Cleetus said one of the cruel ironies of climate change is that it’s often the communities who have contributed the least in emissions, which drive rising sea levels, who are at the front end of its impacts.

“That’s true for Native American communities,” she said.

Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at

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