Credit: Lucy Dunn

How can Indigenous knowledge help us fight the climate crisis?

By Rebecca Brimble

Writer Rebecca Brimble discusses the importance of Indigenous knowledge in guiding decisions made following COP26.

The preservation and use of Inuit Indigenous knowledge (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit or ‘IQ’) is essential for effective, efficient, and just implementation of the Paris Agreement. Following COP26, it is imperative that world leaders adopt an indigenised approach to climate change law.

Inuit have documented numerous significant changes in their environment as a result of climate change, including weather patterns, decreased safety on the ice, food insecurity, housing, and health. Some have migrated to adapt; however, many are now facing unemployment, mental illness, and addiction as a result of this significant lifestyle change.

Other indigenous communities, alongside Inuit, have faced several difficulties as they have tried to action change. These challenges include Western paternalism, a lack of, or misdirected, attention and funds. Articles 7, 9, and 11 of the Paris Agreement set out the obligation of developed countries to provide financial resources for mitigation and adaptation in developing countries, ensuring that action is “based on and guided by traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems”. However, the efforts of developed countries in furtherance of these obligations have been insufficient.

“We’re often known as the face of climate change, but we are also the mind, the backbone, and the soul to climate change solutions.”

–    Adelaine Ahmasuk (ICC, Inuit Perspectives Panel, COP26).

The COP26 Inuit Knowledge, Innovation and Infrastructure Panel emphasised that one of the central adaptation issues is the funding of infrastructure which includes proper consultation with Inuit to ensure its efficacy, longevity, and cultural appropriateness. For example, as permafrost melts, housing is being damaged due to cracking. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that some housing projects funded by foreign investors failed to properly consult locals and have inadvertently built upon particularly unstable land. Additionally, only Inuit know the location of unmarked burial sites and this knowledge has relevance for adaptation projects, development projects, and displacement.

The Panel also highlighted the importance of not forcing development on indigenous people just for the sake of development. For example, there are plans (despite the UNDRIP right to indigenous demilitarisation) to build a military base in Sitŋasuaq, Alaska. This development will cause noise disruption and pollution, further disturbing traditional hunting methods in this area.

Credit: Lucy Dunn

A central difficulty with adaptation is sourcing significant funds with long-term commitments: under a capitalist framework, investments are unlikely unless they can provide a return for investors.  When asked about infrastructure adaptation finance strategies, Crystal Martin-Lapenskie (ICC) emphasised that before Inuit can begin to negotiate the specifics of finance, they must first be granted a seat at the negotiation table. She highlighted that “you cannot put a price on Inuit Knowledge”. Indigenous knowledge is invaluable to both the indigenous groups themselves in ensuring effective adaptation, and to Western actors as a source of information for developing a sustainable lifestyle.

“Under a capitalist framework, investments are unlikely unless they can provide a return for investors…”

Thomas Brose (Climate Alliance) provided invaluable insights during my interview with him: the Western world cannot effectively tackle climate change without understanding the indigenous perspective; by providing financial assistance to indigenous people, Western investors can gain knowledge in return. Indigenous knowledge should not be treated as a commodity that can be bought; however, it can act as an incentive for Western actors to assist with adaptation. He noted that some indigenous societies have a vastly different approach to the relationship between law and nature; in Ecuador, nature is treated as a legal person with rights under the constitution. Western societies cannot effectively stop climate change if we continue to view the environment as a commodity that can either be exploited or preserved. Instead, we must view it as a being, alongside which we exist and upon which we depend. Indigenous societies have lived sustainably for millennia and there is much to be learned from their societal systems.

Inuit communities are suffering from the effects of industrialised states damaging the global environment and it is therefore unjust that they should not receive the appropriate funds and platforms. Inuit must be made central figures in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ensure sufficient attention is paid to the knowledge of indigenous people. This approach would allow more tailored and effective strategies to be implemented, as required under the Paris Agreement. The use of IQ also helps to prevent resources from being wasted. Effective and efficient adaptation strategies are required for climate justice, but the act of putting Inuit knowledge at the centre of climate strategy is itself an act of climate justice. The particular difficulty with the importance of IQ is that the longer it is ignored, the more it disappears. It is therefore imperative that IQ is preserved and used as a matter of urgency.

“The act of putting Inuit knowledge at the centre of climate strategy is itself an act of climate justice.”

International leaders must adopt an indigenised approach to climate change adaptation strategies as they put them into practice following COP26. Specifically, they must, as a matter of urgency, recognise the value of Inuit and other indigenous knowledge for effective, efficient, and just adaptation. They must also ensure the meaningful inclusion of Inuit and other indigenous people in negotiations, research, and discussions. Imperatively, they should use Inuit and other indigenous knowledge in the IPCC assessment process and Paris Agreement Global Stocktake; and make high-value, long-term, culturally and environmentally appropriate investments in indigenous-led adaptation projects in indigenous societies.


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