Learning from Tribal Innovations: Lessons in Climate Change Adaptation

20 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2019 Last revised: 12 Dec 2019

See all articles by Morgan Hepler

Morgan Hepler

University of Kansas

Elizabeth Ann Kronk Warner

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law

Date Written: August 28, 2019


The threat of climate change is real and has the capacity to impact every American in some way. Yet, despite this threat, the federal government is currently doing nothing to either mitigate or adapt to the impacts of climate change. Within this leadership void, other sovereigns, such as states, are stepping up to address the plague that is climate change. Although the vast amount of literature focuses on the efforts of states to address climate change, they are not the only sovereigns who are working to address the negative impacts of climate change in the vacuum left by the federal government. As demonstrated by this Article, tribal governments have also emerged as innovators in this area. This Article fills the scholarly void by demonstrating that, despite the fact that tribes are not part of the federalist system, they are still capable of regulatory innovation that may prove helpful to other sovereigns, such as other tribes, states, and the federal government. The Article examines what steps tribes are taking related to climate change adaptation and mitigation. This examination results in a wealth of information related to tribal regulations, in addition to helpful themes and patterns. This in and of itself is valuable to other sovereigns – tribes are enacting regulations related to climate change mitigation and adaptation, and, as a result, other sovereigns may learn from these tribal “experiments.” The Article goes on to demonstrate, however, that tribal climate change adaptation planning is truly innovative in some notable ways when compared to state climate change adaptation planning. First, the inclusion of traditional ecological knowledge in tribal climate change adaptation plans is truly unique to tribes and incorporation of such knowledge can prove quite beneficial to effective adaptation planning. Traditional adaptation and mitigation strategies promote methods of community resiliency that are effective, utilize years of ecological knowledge, and are more cost-effective than alternative solutions. Tribes also involve their communities in their plans, unlike most states, by surveying and involving community members in the adaptation implementation phase. Furthermore, tribal adaptation plans stand out from plans created by states by promoting the preservation of cultural resources. In this regard, other sovereigns would do well to learn from these tribal innovations, as tribes are providing valuable paths forward in the effort to develop effective climate change adaptation measures. This Article is therefore truly groundbreaking in that it is the first to survey tribal climate change adaptation since 2015 and in that it demonstrates tribal innovations that are potentially of great value to other sovereigns engaged in this work.

Keywords: climate change, tribal governments, climate change mitigation, tribal adaptation, tribal innovation

Suggested Citation

Hepler, Morgan and Kronk Warner, Elizabeth Ann, Learning from Tribal Innovations: Lessons in Climate Change Adaptation (August 28, 2019). University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 328, Environmental Law Reporter, Vol. 49, No. 11130, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3444403 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3444403

Morgan Hepler

University of Kansas ( email )

Lawrence, KS
United States

Elizabeth Ann Kronk Warner (Contact Author)

University of Utah - S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States

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