Shifting toward renewables and not looking back: First/original nations plan for future resilience

People here focus on more immediate, practical issues—but that’s why renewable energy is winning. It makes economic sense. The microgrid technology has been proven, and costs are coming down.  One important lesson for the Lower 48 is the need for political will. None of this transformation would exist without significant government investment, and the current fiscal crisis has brought many plans to a halt. For the transition to continue, Alaska’s legislators will need to get fully on board.

Though the state has weathered economic downturns before, it hasn’t had to do so with billions of dollars of infrastructure fixes necessitated by melting permafrost. It hasn’t done so while ocean acidification threatens its fishing industry. And it hasn’t done so at a time when renewable energy sources can outcompete oil.  “Renewables are growing,” Mathiasson says. “I think the grassroots level is strong enough; the people want a cleaner energy source, and they want to see a better future.

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Construction of a few wind turbines in Arctic villages won’t stop climate change and can’t undo much of the damage the fossil fuel economy has already done here. But the transition to renewables and microgrids like Buckland’s can provide local economies a measure of control.

Energy ownership is crucial to the just transition I came to the Arctic to explore. And this is where Alaska Native tribes are particularly well-positioned to benefit.

Alaska’s tribal system is unique. Tribes were organized into 13 for-profit corporations under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, an effort to resolve ownership disputes over 44 million acres of land. Tribal corporations, like any other, invest and pass profits on to their shareholders—in this case, tribal members.

Though ANCSA resolved bitter land disputes in a way that empowered Native groups, some criticize it for encouraging tribal corporations to develop resources for profit. “Sometimes living and thriving on your land is best accomplished without developing the land. But what is your cash economy in rural Alaska if you don’t develop your land?” said Elisabeth Balster Dabney, executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, which promotes conservation and sustainable resource stewardship in interior and Arctic Alaska. As resource extraction can damage the land on which indigenous cultures depend, tribal leaders looking to bolster their economies face difficult decisions.

Buckland falls within the NANA Regional Corporation, which owns the only hotel in Kotzebue and has investments ranging from an oil company in the Gulf of Mexico to the town’s grocery store. Profits from these ventures are paid to Inupiaq members as a dividend, as are those generated by the energy co-op. This model localizes economic investment and keeps cash in the community.

“The only sustainable future is harvesting energy as close to home as you can,” Mathiasson says. “By harvesting energy locally, you’re also creating a local workforce, and that money stays in the communities instead of being part of the diesel fuel equation.”

Buckland Mayor Tim Gavin’s collection of ancient tools, found in the crumbling banks of the Buckland River, tells the story of the people who have inhabited the tundra for millennia.

That’s not to say these small renewable grids are sizeable employers. Buckland sent two workers to Anchorage for training on the new systems and as line technicians to handle outages and other issues.

Buckland, Deering, and Kotzebue will add solar arrays and new batteries in 2018. The towns can then run almost entirely on renewables for half the year, and supplement with wind power year round. As these systems expand throughout the region, more technical positions will become available, with preference for local hires. The North Slope oil industry, in contrast, hires nearly 40 percent of its workforce from outside the state.

For most people, a better future is about economics.

Fisheries built towns up and down the coast, and the Klondike gold rush brought tens of thousands of eager prospectors, but nothing transformed Alaska like the oil industry. The state’s first oil well was drilled in 1902, and at the peak in 1988, oil companies pumped 2 million barrels of crude a day. When the oil money was flowing, it built Alaska’s schools, hospitals, roads, and bridges and established the Alaska Permanent Fund—the world’s only universal basic income program.

Now that the price of oil has plummeted, that money no longer fills the state treasury. And though industry investors are seeing profits decline, it is state residents who must live with the long-term effects. “The oil companies are not committed to the long haul, and Native people are paying the price as their hunting and fishing get destroyed,” says Enei Begaye, a Navajo woman who directs the indigenous rights advocacy group Native Movement in Fairbanks.

“Oil companies like to push the narrative that Alaskans want more oil development, but that’s not true.”

In the past when the economy slumped, state lawmakers responded by calling to expand drilling, to get oil flowing through the pipeline again. But the latest bust even has conservative residents doubting the economic strategy of “drill, baby, drill.”

“The oil companies like to push the narrative that Alaskans want more oil development, but that’s not true,” Begaye says. “Nothing will replace the oil money,” and never again will the state see such profits. “If we just think about how much money we can make, we’re missing out on what an economy can be.”

The question I brought to the Arctic was whether this oil low point, coupled with the effects of climate change in a state proud of its wild beauty, is enough to tip the scale toward a new way of thinking.

Only a few of those I spoke to had even heard of the “just transition” movement. People here focus on more immediate, practical issues—but that’s why renewable energy is winning. It makes economic sense. The microgrid technology has been proven, and costs are coming down.

One important lesson for the Lower 48 is the need for political will. None of this transformation would exist without significant government investment, and the current fiscal crisis has brought many plans to a halt. For the transition to continue, Alaska’s legislators will need to get fully on board.

Though the state has weathered economic downturns before, it hasn’t had to do so with billions of dollars of infrastructure fixes necessitated by melting permafrost. It hasn’t done so while ocean acidification threatens its fishing industry. And it hasn’t done so at a time when renewable energy sources can outcompete oil.

“Renewables are growing,” Mathiasson says. “I think the grassroots level is strong enough; the people want a cleaner energy source, and they want to see a better future.

Stephen Miller wrote this article for Just Transition, the Fall 2017 issue of YES! Magazine. Stephen is an associate editor at YES! Follow him on Twitter: @SMillerPNW.

Tribes Were the First Climate Refugees—and the First to Build Resilience Plans:  The Swinomish of Washington produced a climate adaptation plan two years before the state. Now it’s a template for all of Indian Country, in Yes! Magazine, fall 2017

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Chief Albert Naquin was astounded when emergency officials warned him in September 2005 that a second hurricane would soon hammer the southern Louisiana bayous where Hurricane Katrina had struck less than a month earlier. The leader of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, Naquin took to the Isle de Jean Charles’ lone road to urge residents who had returned home after Katrina to leave their listing, moldy homes once again.

Don’t wait until the last minute, he warned. “Once the road is flooded, you can’t get out.”

Hurricane Rita flooded the island for weeks, adding insult to injury that had already reduced the tribe’s homeland to a sliver of what it once was. Rising sea levels, hurricanes, erosion from oil production, and subsidence have since shriveled the Isle de Jean Charles peninsula from 15,000 acres to a tiny strip a quarter-mile wide by a half-mile long. There were once 63 houses flanking the town’s single street. Now only 25 homes and a couple fishing camps remain. The rest have washed away or sunk into the Gulf of Mexico, the town emptied and families scattered.

In January, Louisiana received a $48 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Houma Nation tribal members to more solid ground and reestablish their communities, making tribal members the first climate change refugees in the U.S.

Relocating an entire community is extreme adapation.

“We’re trying to build out models that could be replicated” based on the best data and science, said Mathew Sanders, resilience policy and program administrator for Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, who is coordinating the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project. Community members have chosen three of the 16 sites pinpointed.

As rising temperatures cause heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and increase the severity of weather events, tribes are on the forefront in respect to both degree of impact and in initial efforts to respond to adaptation, said Ed Knight, director of planning and community development for the Swinomish tribe in Washington state.

The waters around the Swinomish community have provided salmon and shellfish for 10,000 years. But today they pose a great threat to the tribe, much of whose 15-square-mile reservation sits at or near sea level.

Most tribal nations depend heavily on their environment for subsistence as well as cultural identity. On the whole, Native Americans experience poverty at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and are more likely to suffer from health ailments like obesity and diabetes. Some reservations also lack social services and transportation resources. This has made tribal communities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and adaptation strategies are crucial to building resilience.

Under the leadership of Chairman Brian Cladoosby, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community on Puget Sound developed the first comprehensive climate change adaption plan in 2010. Today, it’s the template for climate resilience planning throughout Indian Country.

The azure waters around the Swinomish community are breathtaking, especially at sunrise and sunset, and have provided salmon and shellfish for people there for 10,000 years. But today they pose a great threat to the tribe, much of whose 15-square-mile reservation sits at or near sea level. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that sea levels in this region will rise 4 to 8 inches by 2050.

Using climate projections available in 2009, the Swinomish analyzed the highest predicted risks and the tribe’s priorities. They categorized the level of risk to infrastructure, human health, and natural resources from low to high, and estimated the time needed to develop strategies for adapting to those impacts.

Using a unique model based on an indigenous worldview, the tribe updated its adaptation strategy in 2014 with environmental, cultural, and human health impact data. It now views health on a familial and community scale, and includes the natural environment and the spiritual realm, said Jamie Donatuto, Swinomish community and environmental health analyst.

The innovative report provides a model for other tribal communities looking to understand how predicted climate changes will affect their people and homelands in practical ways specific to indigenous life. The Swinomish won a national Climate Adaptation Leadership Award for Natural Resources for the report.

Ann Marie Chischilly (Navajo) is executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. In the last year, she and co-managers Nikki Cooley (Navajo) and Karen Cozetto led climate resilience trainings in California, Idaho, Alaska, Washington, Wisconsin, Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, and Alabama. With support from ITEP’s Tribal Air Monitoring Steering Committee and the EPA, she said, the Tribal Climate Resilience Program has trained more than 300 tribes and 700 people since 2009.

Under the new administration, however, the future is uncertain. In 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs became the primary funder of ITEP and other tribal climate projects. After the Trump administration took over, the BIA eliminated the word “climate” from the program—it’s now called the Tribal Resilience Program—and deleted all references to climate on its website in June. As the administration turns its focus away from addressing climate change, there is concern that adaptation funding will be cut.

“We continue to hope that all these programs will continue to be funded,” Chischilly said. “With 567 tribes [nationwide], the potential lack of funding will vary; some tribes may continue to develop their adaptation plans while others may be forced to stop.”

The successful implementation of mitigation measures will depend heavily on the participation of those affected. Chischilly was recently appointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, where she now provides input on behalf of tribal nations. “Having a seat at the table and being included in future assessments is critical to maintaining a strong voice,” she said.

In Louisiana, Chief Naquin was dismayed that others will face situations like his, but efforts being taken there will serve as a model of resiliency for people throughout the world. For the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Houma others, that means providing a way forward for a people who have been torn from their homeland.

Terri Hansen wrote this article for Just Transition, the Fall 2017 issue of YES! Magazine. Terri is a member of the Winnebago tribe and has covered Native and indigenous issues since 1993. Her focus is science and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @TerriHansen.