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Federal Report Highlights Tribes’ Vulnerability to Climate Change

Kaibab National Forest / USDA Forest Service

Climate change has already begun to harm communities in the Southwest with warmer temperatures, bigger wildfires, and diminishing water supplies. Indigenous communities are especially at risk. That’s one conclusion of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, published by the federal government last month. More than 300 experts contributed to the report, including Northern Arizona University forester Nikki Cooley, a member of the Navajo Nation. She spoke with KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny.

Yá’át’ééh, my name is Nikki Cooley. I am of the Diné Nation from Shonto and Blue Gap, Arizona. I am of the Tower House Clan and born from the Reed People Clan. I am currently one of the co-managers for the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Tribal Climate Change Program.

Nikki, tell me why this report is so important.

The National Climate Assessment, the fourth one, is significant especially within the current administration…. Right now the earth, Mother Earth, Nahasdzáán as we say in the Navajo way, is sending us many messages that it is in trouble…. In our western society people often say we need scientific backup, we need numbers. This report does that.

One of the things the report really emphasized is that not all communities feel climate change in the same way. Can you talk about which communities are more affected by our changing climate?

For example, there are many indigenous communities across the U.S. that live in rural areas. Where I’m from it’s at least 30 to 40 minutes for the ambulance to show up. It’s at least from my house 30 miles to the nearest water source, if the one that’s only 5 minutes away is not working. So that’s what we mean by vulnerable populations, and most often these populations don’t have that infrastructure but also the income to support their preparation for future events, to respond to future events.

So there were concerns when this report came out that the government was really trying to bury it, despite the fact that this is a report written by our government.

Yes. The fact that this administration decided to release it on November 23, Black Friday, when they assumed everybody would be out shopping….I think it actually did not work in the administration’s favor. No matter when you released it, this was a big statement, to just even release the assessment, because of all the pushback we’re getting right now from our administration that climate change is not real. When in fact, our friends, our brothers and sisters, are going through it right now. The wildfires, the hurricanes, have all just magnified the significance for this assessment. Are we prepared? This assessment says we should be more prepared. We should not wait until our elders are dying of heat stroke or thirst because they’re all by themselves. We should be prepared now.

How do you think we move forward with that? This report was very clear we have to be acting now to stop climate change and to prepare for climate change. I think it’s such a big issue that people often feel like there’s nothing they can do, it’s easy to fall into despair. How do you deal with that?

That is something that is an everyday—I wouldn’t say struggle—but it’s on my to-do list to be happy and to be grateful for what I have now. Easier said than done. But I see the progress and the things people are doing across the world and the country. I work with tribes in Alaska and the Lower 48, they are doing amazing stuff, and it’s amazing for me to see how resilient they are. The ability for them to bounce back and keep going is more than enough motivation for me. For them, I keep going.

Nikki Cooley, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Thank you, Melissa.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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