The United States faces a profound climate crisis. From drought and wildfires to winds and flooding, increasingly extreme weather events are transforming where and how we live and present growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us.
As the effects of climate change continue to intensify, Indigenous coastal communities — including tribal communities here in Washington — are facing unique climate-related challenges associated with living on the water. Flooding, erosion, permafrost subsidence, sea level rise, and storm surges are presenting existential threats to coastal communities’ economies, infrastructure, livelihoods and health.
When I toured the Quinault Indian Nation earlier this year, I saw firsthand how climate-related impacts are displacing Indigenous coastal communities from their ancestral homelands. The village of Taholah, for example, is under threat from storm surges, flooding and tsunamis, and is in the process of relocating to higher ground.
Unfortunately, these types of coastal impacts are being felt by tribal communities across the country. Shoreline residences are at risk of collapsing into the ocean. Roads are becoming impassable, cutting off access to essential resources services. Homes are flooding, fuel tanks are being threatened by erosion, and tribal cemeteries are having to be dug by hand and relocated so that they are not washed away.
As a result, over the past few decades, tribes have begun to mobilize relocation planning on their own. But with the frequency and severity of climate-related threats to tribal infrastructure expected to increase, we can no longer stand by while entire communities get washed away.
The federal government can and must do more to bolster climate resilience while supporting relocation efforts for coastal communities.
President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal passed by Congress — a central pillar of the president’s Build Back Better agenda — includes $216 million to support community-led transitions for the most vulnerable tribal communities, including relocation planning, design and implementation.
With this crucial funding, the Interior Department would provide federal leadership to support collaborative and community-led planning, relocation expenses, infrastructure investments and other forms of assistance. The Framework’s investments would also advance our equity and environmental justice goals by helping safeguard vulnerable tribal communities and making our economy more fair and equitable.
As part of this broader commitment, the Department of the Interior also recently awarded nearly $14 million to dozens of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal nations and organizations to support their climate adaptation planning, ocean and coastal management planning, capacity building and relocation, managed retreat, and protect-in-place planning for climate risks.
This all-of-government approach is essential to supporting and empowering tribal communities as they simultaneously face environmental impacts to physical, cultural, and subsistence-based infrastructure and relocate to higher ground.
Without immediate action, the physical and economic security of tribal coastal communities will continue to face duress as the systems that provide essentials like food, clean water, electricity, health care, education and communication are placed in jeopardy.