How Can Laws, Institutions, and Plans Facilitate Alaska Native Village Adaptation to Climate Change?

Ristroph, Elizaveta Barrett
Coffman, Makena
Urban & Regional Planning
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While many communities are struggling with the effects of climate change, Alaska Native Villages (ANVs) are facing particular challenges. These 229 federally recognized tribes are typically small, remote, subsistence-dependent, and lack the resources, capacity, and jurisdiction to undertake large-scale adaptation actions. Climate change, among other changes brought by colonization, development, and laws, poses threats to the ANV subsistence lifeway. The traditional lands and waters of ANVs are warming more rapidly than many other parts of the world. Permafrost and ice is melting, flooding and erosion are increasing, and subsistence is becoming more difficult. This research explores how ANVs are adapting to and planning for climate change (specifically, flooding, erosion, and subsistence impacts), and how different strategies, laws, and institutions help or hinder these processes. Research is based on (1) legal analysis of state and federal laws and institutions, (2) content analysis of plans applicable to 59 selected ANVs, and (3) interviews with participants in these ANVs as well as participants outside ANVs who make or influence laws and plans that affect ANVs. Findings are divided into three articles. In the first article, I ask whether a new law or agency should be created to address climate change and whether greater jurisdiction over resources helpful to adaptation should be transferred to ANVs. I find that such a law or agency would not necessarily be helpful. Further, I find that a transfer of jurisdiction to ANVs without efforts to increase their capacity to navigate and take advantage of Western laws and funding opportunities would not be helpful. Rather, there is a need for better understanding and coordination among existing agencies, programs, and ANVs, and incremental changes to existing laws. In the second article, I identify the types of adaptation planning processes taking place across ANVs and analyze their contribution to community resilience. I find that while there are many planning efforts related to adaptation, particularly through hazard mitigation plans, the manner in which these plans are created and the resulting products are not necessarily preparing ANVs for climate change impacts. Planning processes could be improved by organizing around cultural events to increase community engagement, and by scaling down plans to better focus on community needs and community capacity to implement these plans. In the third article, I consider how laws and agencies specific to subsistence hinder adaptation by their inflexibility and limited opportunities for participation in decision-making. I find that meaningful co-management opportunities in which ANVs could cooperate with agencies are limited due to the lack of Western science capacity expected by agencies. I find a need for strategies for building Western science capacity of ANVs while also recognizing the importance of their traditional and indigenous knowledges. I also suggest incremental legal changes to increase flexibility and participation. Several reoccurring themes emerge from this research. One is that adaptation obstacles are not primarily of a legal nature, but more so related to a lack of political will, understanding, and capacity. There is a need not just for adaptive capacity on the part of ANVs, but also for capacity to navigate existing laws, institutions, and processes that rely on Western science. Building self-reliance is an important part of building capacity, as is social capital in the form of partnerships within ANVs and with those in a position to help. Better collaboration is important not only for ANVs, but also for the many agencies that have some responsibility for assisting communities with adaptation. Improved understanding of opportunities and collaboration to achieve them may not overcome problems related to political will, but could improve adaptation within the existing legal system.
Urban planning, Law, Native American studies, Alaska Native, climate change adaptation, community planning, hazard mitigation, indigenous communities, subsistence
172 pages
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