Arizona is enduring its worst drought in 1,200 years. The megadrought, which scientists have linked directly to human-caused climate change, has left Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, at only 35% capacity. Dust from dried riverbeds and drinking water restrictions have impacted communities large and small across the American West.

For the Gila River Indian Community, which lays south of Phoenix, water is the lifeblood for the 23,000 tribal members, sprawled across the community’s 370,000 acres. “Water represents not just economic benefit; it represents spiritual benefits. It represents culture, we are all connected to water,” said Gila River Indian Community Governor Stephen Roe Lewis MPA 2006 during a panel discussion in JFK Jr. Forum on Monday, April 4th at Harvard Kennedy School. 

The Institute of Politics and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation’s Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project and Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development convened the discussion to highlight the link between racial justice and climate justice. Lewis was joined in conversation by University of Minnesota’s Karen Diver MPA 2003, a former advisor to President Obama on American Indian affairs who also served as the chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota; and Shamar Bibbins, a senior program officer focused on climate change resiliency from the Kresge Foundation, a Michigan-based philanthropy dedicated to equitable social investments in American cities.  

“Climate change is a threat multiplier. All the inequities that any community is facing, whether social, economic or health, climate change just compounds that.”

Shamar Bibbins

Panelists discussed how Indigenous and communities of color are often left out of federal and state conversations about climate change preparedness and resilience, though they are uniquely suited to generate solutions around environmental sustainability. “These communities are really the best positioned to come with adaption and resilience plans and solutions, to ensure the long-term sustainability of their communities, their regions, and in many cases, globally,” said moderator Megan Hill, director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard and the program director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development.

As an example, Lewis outlined how the Gila River Community is setting the pace for water conversation and restoration in the region. “Because of the growing impact of climate change, the historic flow [of the Gila River] was very irregular. So, we started to take matters into our own hands and start to look at very innovative ways for water management.” The community initiated a “managed aquifer recharge” to restore the local groundwater basin and is exploring a series of pumps so that they can draw on underground water, instead of calling on the stressed Colorado River and Lake Mead. 

Efforts like these are critical for resiliency and environmental restoration, but they are also crucial to the overall health and economic wellbeing of the region, particularly for marginalized groups. "Climate change is a threat multiplier. All the inequities that any community is facing, whether social, economic or health, climate change just compounds that," said Bibbins.

Bibbins brought attention to community-based organizations working across environmental justice, health, and government to advance climate solutions. She also called for more funding for work led by Indigenous groups and people of color—highlighting the gross underfunding of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. These communities, Bibbins noted, currently receive less than 2% of overall philanthropic funding. 

“[Young people] want action, they're holding us as tribal leaders accountable.”

Stephen Roe Lewis

The federal government also has a role to play in helping to ensure climate funding is used in concert with native nations. “It's the golden rule: who has the gold makes the rules,” said Diver. “And the federal government, in this case, has the gold.” Diver called on the federal government to not only increase technical resources and assistance to Indian country but to leverage funding to ensure states are including Indigenous communities in conversations and policies around climate change. 

Climate change requires intergovernmental cooperation, noted Diver. “Climate change doesn't happen up to the border of a reservation and then decide to jump over it, right? If a flooding event is happening, that is happening area-wide and needs a response from multiple jurisdictions.” 

And as the panel reminded the audience, native nations in the United States are sovereign and self-governing. “We are governments. We're responsible, not just for economic development, but for education, health, and the roads. We have a multitude of responsibilities to our tribal membership,” said Diver. 

Among those tribal members are young people, who like their counterparts around the world, feel the fierce urgency of climate change. “[Young people] want action, they're holding us as tribal leaders accountable,” said Lewis. Young people aren’t just advancing conversations around climate change. Lewis credited them with being at the fore of difficult conversations about race and community as well. “I think young people really have something to say, and it's important. And I think they bring their own medicine and their own solutions, and we need to find ways for them to contribute to the conversation.”

Watch the full conversation.

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