With deep ties to Interior Alaska and a family history of bringing people together, Nikoosh Carlo is leading the drive for climate change solutions created by and for Indigenous communities.
Nikoosh Carlo remembers the cold. She grew up in Fairbanks when winter temperatures regularly dove deeply below zero. Except in the coldest cold, when the thermometer registered -50 degrees Fahrenheit or colder, Carlo would play outside. Sometimes her father would take her and her sister snowmachining on frozen rivers outside of Fairbanks. Sometimes they’d go for a flight in his tiny ski plane. Sometimes she’d do what kids in cold winters always do: turn snow into all sorts of magical things.
Today, that cold is a memory. Climate change is warming Alaska at twice the national average, and raising winter temperatures the fastest. Carlo, 42, a Koyukon Athabascan who is trained as a neuroscientist, wants to remake government systems and policy to put climate change action at its core, knows we must act now. “We are past urgent,” she says.
Carlo is the daughter of a Koyukon Athabascan father and a white mother of Cherokee descent who came to Alaska as a rural nurse. When she was two, the family moved from the Yukon River village of Tanana to Fairbanks, where she grew up down the street from her Athabascan grandparents, as well as aunts, uncles, and cousins.
The cold of those Fairbanks winters put into sharp relief the warmth of her grandparents’ house, a cedar-sided split level where a wood stove kept temperatures toasty even when it was frigid outside. On dark winter days, the house was a gathering place for the family as well as for university students, friends from villages in town for medical appointments, and mushers from afar who kept their dog teams in the snowy woods out back.
Carlo’s grandmother, Poldine Carlo, who was raised by her own grandparents, speaking fluent Athabascan and living a subsistence way of life along the Yukon, always cooked for a crowd: pickled salmon bellies, moose or goose soup. It was around the grandparents’ kitchen table where Poldine, her husband Bill, and their friends began what would become the Fairbanks Native Association, a multimillion dollar organization and a powerful Native voice in the state. As it turns out, Nikoosh Carlo is a convener herself.
From an early age, Carlo was drawn to science, creating complex science fair projects with her mother’s help. This led to years spent with her head bent over a microscope as she studied the structure of brain cells for a Ph.D. in comparative neuroanatomy at U.C. San Diego. But Carlo was a leader and organizer more interested in working with other people to solve problems than with cells.
Across the planet, Indigenous Peoples have been hit disproportionately hard by climate change while caring for 80% of the planet’s remaining biodiversity and stewarding more than one-quarter of the Earth’s surface. Climate change solutions, therefore, must put the needs, values, and expertise of Indigenous communities at the center, she says.
Carlo served as a senior advisor on Arctic issues during the Obama Administration when the U.S. held the chairmanship of the Arctic Council, helping to gain consensus among the eight member countries around the pressing challenges faced by the region. After becoming a senior advisor to Alaska Governor Bill Walker on climate change and Arctic policy, she quickly rallied a team of diverse leaders from Tribal organizations, the oil and gas sector, science entities, conservation groups, and pro-development associations to provide recommendations on how the state should respond to climate change. “I like to listen,” Carlo says, “and then try to bring people together around common interests.”
Carlo wants to see climate change thinking, solutions, and action integrated into all parts of government systems. But real solutions, she explains, must be insulated from the sort of radical political swings that have shaken up these systems in recent years—Obama to Trump, Walker to Dunleavy—when climate change policy made an instant 180, reversing years of hard-won progress. Carlo has proposed the formation of an independent Climate Response Fund—supported by governments, private donors, and novel revenue sources such as carbon markets—that could provide stable funding for climate change solutions created by and for Indigenous communities.
Effective climate response requires leaders who can bring people together, novel solutions, and recognition that peoples with the deepest connection to a place must play a central role in determining its future. “We absolutely need to push every single lever that we possibly can,” Carlo says.
Nikoosh partnered with Alaska Venture Fund to co-author a paper exploring Indigenous-centered responses to climate change. The paper, entitled ‘Transformative Economics for a Sustainable Alaska: Emergent issues and solutions to address climate change through Indigenous perspectives while centering Alaska Native peoples and communities,’ can be accessed here.
Nikoosh Carlo, Ph.D., is Koyukon Athabascan and the CEO and founder of CNC North Consulting, which focuses on community-driven solutions to climate change, equity, and wellbeing.
Profile written by Miranda Weiss. Miranda is the author of ‘Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska’, and her work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Economist, and elsewhere.
Photography by Jody Rae Patterson.
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