Indigenous people most affected by climate change

October 23, 2013
Indigenous people play a crucial role in environmental management through managing their estates and hunting for traditional foo

A leaked draft of the second Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, due to be released in March, gives a sobering picture of what lies ahead for Aboriginal communities in Australia as climate change intensifies.

Last month, the IPCC said it was 95% certain that human activity was the main cause of climate change. The recent leaked report did not look at the science, but rather the impacts climate change will have, particularly in areas of vulnerability and adaptation.

As far back as 2001, the IPCC noted that “the effects of climate change on health will be most severe in populations that already are marginal” and specifically identified the incredible disadvantage experienced by Indigenous Australians as an area of concern.

The latest report goes into more detail. It says “Australia is set to experience a 6°C rise in average temperatures on its hottest days,” the Guardian reported on October 14.

As the climate warms, fragile ecosystems in northern Australia will disappear, such as the wetlands in Kakadu National Park. Reptile, mammal and bird species will also disappear. But climate change also poses serious threats to human health and survival, and — as is too often the case — Indigenous people will suffer disproportionately.

Most Indigenous Australians live in urban centres, but many live in areas that are likely to be most affected by climate change, such as in the Top End, home to some of the world’s most fragile and untouched ecologies.

Aboriginal people living on their country, managing their estates and hunting for traditional foods, are playing a crucial role in environmental management, and stand to lose much as species disappear and sea levels rise.

But rising temperatures and increases in humidity also bring specific health issues. The IPCC predicts water and food-borne diseases will increase dramatically. While the IPCC doesn’t specifically link this general threat to Aboriginal people, it is well understood that the already heavy disease burden in Indigenous communities leaves people there more vulnerable to treatable illnesses.

The IPCC report said: “Little adaptation of Indigenous communities to climate change is apparent to date."

But the very role Indigenous people already play in caring for this continent’s fragile north, as land and sea rangers, means they could be vital partners in mitigation and adaptation planning, if the government took the issue seriously and genuinely learns from and works with these communities.

SBS Radio reported on October 16 that Indigenous people are already noticing the impacts of climate change including “erosion, the salination of freshwater, changes in flowering patterns and fish moving to colder water”.

Lisa Strelein from the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies told SBS: "There's so much that can be learned by Indigenous communities that [have] tens of thousands of years of experience monitoring climate change — not necessarily the kind of rapid climate change we have at the moment and that's a really important distinction to make.

“[It’s] really important to engage Indigenous communities in the knowledge of how things once were compared to how they are now [to] give you some hints about the rate of change and the impact of change, so that kind of traditional knowledge.”

In 2001, the IPCC suggested: “Policies that aim to improve resilience to climate change impacts could encompass efforts to reduce relevant social liabilities — poverty, poor education, unemployment, and incarceration — and support mechanisms that maintain cultural integrity.”

Numerous reports have shown that living on country is a key factor in improved health and wellbeing among Indigenous Australians.

A responsible approach to climate change would be a massive allocation of resources to Indigenous land and sea managers. A genuine collaboration in response to this emergency could allow Indigenous people — who stand to lose the most — play a central role in tackling climate change.

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