TAHOLAH, Wash. - A big question is confronting international leaders in the Paris climate talks: How do they help poor, island and coastal nations threatened by rising oceans, extreme weather and other climate change-related risks?
In the Northwest, sea-level rise is forcing a Native American tribe to consider abandoning lands it has inhabited for thousands of years.
The Quinault Indian Nation, whose small village lies at the mouth of the Quinault River on the outer coast of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, now relies on a 2,000-foot-long sea wall to protect it from the encroaching Pacific Ocean.
Small, ramshackle homes back up to the modest wall of rock and gravel. Last March, Quinault Tribal Council President Fawn Sharp got a call in the middle of the night from an elder who lives in one of those homes.
“The ocean breached into his back yard and took out his smokehouse,” Sharp said. “Shortly after I talked to him, we lost power. So in the midst of trying to draft an emergency declaration the power went out.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers repaired the sea wall but it’s a temporary fix. A more permanent solution is on the table, but it won’t be cheap or easy. The Quinault tribe has developed a $60 million plan to move the entire village of Taholah uphill and out of harm’s way. That will mean moving the school, the courthouse, the police station and the homes of 700 tribal members a safer distance from the encroaching Pacific.
“It’s a heavy price tag,” Sharp acknowledged, adding that she and others with the Quinault will be turning to Congress, philanthropists and the tribe’s own financial resources to pay for the project.
“When it comes to extreme measures taken to adapt to climate change it does take an entire collaborative approach among agencies it can’t be done alone,” she said.
The threat of climate change for the Quinault doesn’t end with sea level rise. About five years ago the Anderson Glacier, which contributed cool water to the Quinault River at critical times of year, disappeared for good. It had been receding since locals began photographing it, but Fawn Sharp still remembers the day when she saw that it was completely gone.
“In that moment I could feel my heart sinking, thinking that the glacier that feeds the mighty Quinault River has now disappeared,” Sharp said.
The absence of Anderson Glacier is already being felt. Very little snow fell on the Olympic Mountains this past winter, leading to minimal inputs of snowmelt into the Olympic Peninsula’s rivers, including the Quinault. Normally, glacial melt supplements river flows late in the summer and early fall.
But without the glacier, the Quinault River was lower than ever before recorded, so low that while walking through a newly exposed stretch of river bed, one tribal member accidentally stubbed his toe on what turned out to be a mastodon jaw that may have been submerged since the last ice age.
For the salmon that migrate home to cool, glacially fed Northwest rivers like the Quinault, things were difficult this year.
Of the 700 people that live in the Quinault village of Taholah, almost half are directly dependent on salmon fishing. Earlier this fall, Shane Underwood stood at the Quinault fish processing facility he manages and looked out over the mouth of the Quinault River. Lines of gill nets stretched across different spots along the banks, each one representing a tribal family that has been catching returning salmon there for generations.
“That fishing ground over there. That ground belongs to my dad,” Underwood said, pointing across the water to a man in a small skiff pulling up his net. “My brother fishes that ground and he has a family of 10 people in his household that he has to support. His sole source of income is fishing.”
The warm ocean waters and dry summer made for a confusing and hostile environment for salmon, which rely on cool river flows to find their way home to spawning grounds above Lake Quinault. Normally at this time of year with the chinook and coho running, the Quinault seafood plant processes 70,000 pounds of salmon per day. But Underwood said tribal fishers were catching half of that this season. The tribe decided to stop fishing to help more salmon live long enough to spawn.
Shane Underwood’s son David joined us by the river. He’s 23 and has been fishing since he was 7.
“It’s my favorite thing to do. I want my grandchildren to know what salmon are,” he said. “The rivers are a lot warmer now. Climate change could take all our salmon away. Climate change really worries me a lot.”
The average American will move 11 times in his or her lifetime, but Native American tribes are place based. David Underwood said it’s hard to explain what relocating would mean for his people.
“I don’t know what I would do. I don’t know what any of us would do. We wouldn’t be …,” he paused for a long time, looking out over the river. “We’d pretty much be lost. This place, right here, where we are, is where my people have lived for thousands of years and each and every member of this tribe, we’re all proud Quinault tribal members, proud Native Americans. I don’t ever want to leave this place, but if the ocean keeps rising we’re going to have to.”
In her role as tribal council president, Sharp has represented her Quinault people at international climate talks before. She traveled to Poznan, Poland, nine years ago for a previous round of climate negotiations.
“Our goal was to engage the international community on including tribal governments, including tribal cultural knowledge and practices,” Sharp said. "So I thought to contend with a global crisis like climate change it’s important to include every segment of knowledge.”
The Quinault Indian Nation put together a climate adaptation and mitigation strategy at the time. It also had considered signing on to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which, as a sovereign nation, it was free to do, despite the fact that the U.S. did not sign the agreement.
The Quinault did not sign on to Kyoto, and Sharp said that when she heads to Paris this November she won’t be going with a pen in hand to sign any international agreements. She’s long been a vocal leader for climate action, but she has received some pushback from tribal members who say her leadership is needed at home on the reservation.
“It’s a balancing act because we have so many significant issues in any given tribal community,” she said.
It's not just phone calls in the middle of the night about sea-level rise and flooded homes. She also gets calls about drug overdoses.
“We have our successes and we have our heartbreak and despair and the impacts of poverty, alcohol and drug addiction,” Sharp said. “It’s something that I really need to focus on and spend time here and work with the community strategically but I also serve as the president of the nation and I’m also the voice externally.”
Sharp says she’s heartened by the increasing presence of representatives from island nations and other developing countries at the international climate gatherings in recent years. Indigenous peoples around the world are often on the front lines of climate change despite the fact that they contribute the smallest amount of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Sharp said the international community should take note of that disparity and take responsibility.
"And if there are areas where a jurisdiction or an entire nation of people don’t have the capacity or financial wherewithal to contend with the issue," she said, "then there is a responsibility in other parts of the world to provide that aid and assistance.”