Environmental Ethics, Climate Change, and Building Tribal Resilience

  • Kyle Powys Whyte, Ph.D.
  • Timnick Chair in the Humanities
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy
  • College of Arts and Letters
Picture for Environmental Ethics, Climate Change, and Building Tribal Resilience

"From the Everglades to the Great Lakes to Alaska and everywhere in between, climate change is a leading threat to natural and cultural resources across America, and tribal communities are often the hardest hit by severe weather events such as droughts, floods, and wildfires." This statement, from Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, sums up concerns indigenous leaders have raised throughout the world. Though native peoples contribute very little to the causes of climate change, they often suffer inordinately from the effects.

Kyle Powys Whyte uses his expertise in environmental ethics to address ways to build tribal resilience to the effects of climate change. When Whyte came to Michigan State five years ago, he began looking at some of the environmental challenges faced by tribes in the Great Lakes region. He quickly discovered that though tribes have longstanding wisdom and traditional knowledge of how to adapt to change, the issues with which they contend today are often larger than local efforts can address. The regional spread of invasive species, for example, can have a huge impact on a tribe's ability to protect and nurture land, plants, and animals, and carry on traditional practices and lifestyles. More intense extreme weather events that impact tribal infrastructure and businesses may require that response efforts be coordinated with local, state, and federal governments.

Indigenous communities can benefit from working with scientists who have regional-scale information on climate change trends, and representatives of other units of government, but the relationships have to be ethical. Through numerous conferences, symposiums, and publications, Whyte has worked to facilitate ethical relationships.

Collaborating with Indigenous Communities

Nontribal partners—scientists and officials, federal agencies, and other institutions—often do not recognize the unique nature of working with indigenous communities. "These relationships are often difficult," said Whyte, "and a way needs to be found where all parties can work together to co-create knowledge, assess the present, and plan for the future." To that end, he participates in the Climate and Traditional Knowledges Workgroup. In May 2014, the group published Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledges in Climate Change Initiatives (available from https://climatetkw.wordpress.com) to formally address the ethics of knowledge exchange relationships between tribes and others. The report was originally prepared for the Department of the Interior's Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science and is currently being reviewed for adoption by other organizations.

"These relationships are often difficult, and a way needs to be found where all parties can work together to co-create knowledge, assess the present, and plan for the future."

Kyle Powys Whyte

The Shifting Seasons Summit

Whyte helped develop the Shifting Seasons Summit: Building Tribal Capacity for Climate Adaptation, which was held this past October at the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wisconsin. Together with Chris Caldwell (from the College of Menominee Nation's Sustainable Development Institute) and Sue Wotkyns (from the Institute of Tribal Environmental Professionals), Whyte organized the four-day event, which brought together representatives from regional tribes, federal agencies, institutions of higher education, and nonprofits. The event was funded by the Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs Climate Change Program, the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment Center, and the Northeast Climate Science Center.

About 150 people participated in the event. Though most attendees came from the Great Lakes region, there were representatives from across the country—including the Southwest and Southeast, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska. Members of 13 tribes and tribal nations were in attendance. A number of these participants were interviewed during the summit, and most reported that the effects of climate change—anomalous weather events, extreme storms, drought, and changing snow and ice conditions—were already evident in their own communities.

Tribal Planning

For Whyte, climate change planning is not only outward looking for tribes. Climate change impacts cut across numerous tribal agencies and community groups—from environmental services agencies to fishing businesses to medicinal plant harvesters to language programs—which often do not communicate with one another. Whyte developed a process for tribal adaptation planning in collaboration with the Strategic Foresight and Rapid Response Group of the U.S. Forest Service Northern Research Station, the Menominee Sustainable Development Institute, and the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center. The process begins with talking to tribal leaders and citizens and creating opportunities for various governmental and community sectors to discuss how to prepare for climate change. "Tribes have internal ethical decisions to make," said Whyte, "such as how to balance cultural, economic, and political values, finding effective ways to integrate organizational 'silos,' and weighing the pressing needs of the community against potential problems in the future." Working with tribal leaders and citizens to discuss climate change has created opportunities for some tribes to have cross-cutting dialogues about building resilience in ways that connect their longstanding wisdom about how to adapt with the contemporary challenges of climate change.

The Partnership

Chris Caldwell, who took over the directorship of the Sustainable Development Institute at College of Menominee Nation in 2012, has been partnering with Kyle Whyte for several years. According to Caldwell, Whyte brings a wealth of resources to the task of developing tribal resilience to climate change. Not only does he bring connections with individuals throughout Indian country and in the federal government, Caldwell said, "Kyle is always thinking steps ahead of everyone else."

When the group was developing a strategy for connecting with tribes through site visits, and asking "How do we go to the tribes and ask, 'What do you need to address climate change on your terms?'" Whyte was able to break down on the white board who they would approach and how they would raise these important issues.

"Kyle understands and respects tribes' values—those that come from their connection and relationship with the land," Caldwell said.

This perspective found its way into the Shifting Seasons Summit. During the event, there was a focus on defining climate change and disseminating information, but more importantly there was a determined effort to build connections between various groups. As one attendee observed, "Meetings like these, they provide a wealth of information, but also they provide a chance to network, to meet with folks that maybe you could ask that question that will help you move two steps further in your planning process or adaptation process."

  • Written by Matthew Forster, University Outreach and Engagement

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