Climate

Our most meaningful solutions to the climate crisis are hidden in plain sight

A florist rests in the shade as a heat wave begins to grip Los Angeles on July 1, 2024.

A florist rests in the shade as a heat wave begins to grip Los Angeles on July 1, 2024.

This week alone, a massive Category 5 hurricane tore through the Caribbean, and major rainstorms in Switzerland, France, and Italy have caused flooding and landslides and have led to the deaths of at least seven people. Meanwhile, a severe heat wave forecasted to put many Californians through several consecutive days of triple-degree temperatures has gripped the West Coast.

These extreme weather events are notable for their ferocity and duration, and for how early in what climate scientists regard as “the disaster season” they have come. But the surprise is that they are not at all surprising.

Hurricane Beryl’s 165-mile winds this week marked the earliest point in the season on record that a tropical storm has reached this intensity. This is exactly in line with what scientists have been predicting as climate change grows worse.

Ocean surface temperatures serve as the engine for hurricanes and the last year provided some of the hottest underwater temperatures we’ve ever seen. Normally, by early July, the ocean wouldn’t be warm enough to power a major hurricane like Beryl. But the Atlantic Ocean absorbed a tremendous amount of heat in the past year as the planet heated up to the hottest average temperature on record.

As my colleague Umair Irfan wrote yesterday: “The Atlantic Ocean has been gathering the raw materials for a raucous hurricane season for months and is now assembling them into major storms. Beryl is the Atlantic’s first big project for 2024.”

And this is only the start of what’s poised to be an unprecedented season. In the coming months, more people are likely to be experiencing extreme conditions and climate disasters all around the world. The need for adaptations and solutions is more urgent than ever. And those solutions may very well come from a place that few would expect.

Some of our most effective solutions are the simplest

In recent years, there’s been a growing appreciation for Indigenous land stewardship and traditional knowledge. But what gets overlooked is that successfully managing those lands means that Indigenous people have already survived severe climate events and extreme weather.

Now, Indigenous communities are leading the way in climate adaptations — from living alongside rapidly melting ice to building resilient coasts and community support networks.

Indigenous knowledge does not mean going back to “traditional” methods; it means evolving, a characteristic that has always been a part of Indigenous life.

Today, we launched a new Vox Climate project, Changing With Our Climate, a limited series exploring Indigenous solutions to extreme weather rooted in history — and the future. Every month, we’ll be publishing one feature that centers an Indigenous community confronting extreme weather on the front lines. Our first story, out today, by Aquinnah Wampanoag writer Joseph Lee, explains how Alaska Natives are responding to extreme heat in a place built on ice — one that is warming drastically faster than the rest of the world.

There’s no easy fix for the planet. But Indigenous people have simple solutions rooted in the depth of their knowledge. These stories will not mythologize Indigenous communities with bespoke, unapproachable, or mystic traditional practices and solutions. The series, instead, underscores humility as a throughline: Indigenous people realize we cannot bend the world to our human will. We’re far better and more resilient when we tune in and lean into changes when possible.

Take Lee’s story on extreme heat, which we’ve excerpted below. For a landscape adapted to ice, “extreme” heat means a matter of just a few degrees. Alaska is warming up to three times faster than the rest of the world, and the Arctic is warming nearly double that. Alaska’s North Slope saw an average annual temperature increase of 6 degrees since 1971. Since 1970, the US as a whole has warmed by 2.6 degrees.

 (You can read the rest of the story here.)

In Bethel, Alaska, the Kuskokwim River is the heart of the community, providing food, transportation, employment, and community throughout the year. 

The only way to get to Bethel is by plane, which can be very expensive — or by the river. In the winter, snow machines zip through town, heading up and down the frozen river to the dozens of villages that depend on Bethel for food, supplies, health care, and much more. In the summer, people travel by boat to spend days at their fish camps on the river, smoking salmon to eat throughout the rest of the year. In between, when the ice is forming or beginning to break up, the river can be dangerous: too frozen for boats, but too unstable for snow machines and cars. 

Lately, those shoulder seasons have been shifting, extending, and becoming terrifyingly unpredictable. 

Every year, flooding and erosion get worse, fish are dying, and the winter ice is becoming more dangerous. Kevin Whitworth, the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, says declining salmon populations are especially concerning. “Its hard times,” he said. “Our people are subsistence-based people. Theyre not economy-based people. They rely on the river as their grocery store. Their life is the river.” 

Fifty-six percent of the statewide subsistence harvest is made up of fish. Beyond its cultural and community importance, subsistence is crucial for Alaska Natives because of the high cost of groceries. In a study of 261 urban communities across the country, the Council for Community and Economic Research found that the three most expensive places for groceries were Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage. Prices in more remote communities like Bethel are often even higher. 

Salmon’s drastic decline can be attributed to a number of causes, including warming waters and increased offshore trawling. Every year, ocean trawlers fishing primarily for pollock catch, kill, and discard about 141 million pounds of salmon, halibut, and other species, an extraordinarily wasteful practice that Indigenous people and other groups in Alaska have been rallying against. Meanwhile, communities upriver are severely limited in the number of salmon they can take from the river. “Right now, the salmon are crashing and we’re seeing big changes with the climate,” Whitworth says.

So, facing declining salmon populations and a dangerous river, Indigenous people in the region are shifting their norms, too. While chinook and chum salmon are restricted, sockeye salmon, a less traditionally popular and available fish, has become an increasingly viable alternative. 

Traditional salmon fishing techniques make it hard to separate different species of salmon, so Whitworth and the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission have been encouraging local fishers to use dip nets, large circular nets that allow people to target sockeye. 

In the commission’s 2023 end of season report, sockeye made up about 40 percent of the estimated total salmon harvest on the lower Kuskokwim, a number that Whitworth says is much higher than it used to be. 

These shifts may sound like tiny changes in the face of global climate trends, but these are the kinds of local adaptations that will help communities thrive in a warming world. Outside of Alaska, planting trees to create more shade in urban heat islands or hiring more lifeguards for public pools could have a similar impact.

But these solutions are within reach and meaningful — they literally save lives. 

Read more here.

This story originally appeared in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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