14.06.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

Turning Tables on Climate Change: Indigenous assessments of impacts and adaptation


'In recent years there has been a growing awareness that scientific knowledge alone is inadequate for solving the climate crisis. The knowledge of local and indigenous peoples is increasingly recognized as an important source of climate knowledge and adaptation strategies.'

(Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation)

For indigenous communities around the world, climate change impacts are not a future prospect. Familiar homelands are already disrupted by unusual occurrences that fall outside the lived experience of community elders. Seasonal rains arrive late or fail altogether, sea ice platforms break-up earlier than in previous springs, king tides flood villages and contaminate food gardens with saltwater. Indigenous peoples bear witness to these worrisome transformations of hereditary territories and their life-giving resources. As they have always done in the past, they make careful observations, exchange information and experiences, and debate their significance and implications for the future. This growing indigenous knowledge of the unfolding of climate change and its effects on people’s lives is an immense, but as yet little known resource for the global community. It constitutes the very heart of indigenous peoples’ resilience in the face of change.

'For generations, we have managed ecosystems nurturing their integrity and complexity in sustainable and culturally diverse ways… Traditional knowledge, innovations and adaptation practices embody local adaptive management to the changing environment, and complement scientific research, observations and monitoring.'
International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (2009)

On 13 June 2012 in the framework of the UNESCO-ICSU Science Forum for Rio+20, UNESCO and UNU launched the book 'Weathering Uncertainty: traditional knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation'. This unique resource draws attention to a rapidly growing scientific literature on the contribution of indigenous and traditional knowledge to understanding climate change vulnerability, resilience and adaptation. It broadens the awareness and understanding of these knowledge systems by climate change scientists and decision-makers, including Authors and Reviewers of the forthcoming Fifth Assessment Report (AR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Dr. Gretchen Kalonji, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences, emphasized that 'This new UNESCO-UNU book underlines the critical role that indigenous peoples and local communities can play in ongoing international efforts to monitor the progress of global climate change impacts and to develop capacities to respond.'

Despite the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Rio two decades ago, the global debate has been dominated almost exclusively by climate scientists and policy-makers. Only in 2007, with the release of IPCC’s iconoclastic Fourth Assessment Report, did the centre of gravity shift away from climate science and towards climate change adaptation. In its Fourth Assessment Report, IPCC also recognized traditional knowledge as ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change.’ The challenge for the Authors and Reviewers of the Fifth AR to be released in 2014 is to convert that recognition into a genuine incorporation of indigenous observations, knowledge and interpretations, alongside science, into the processes of climate change assessment and adaptation.

'Resilience in the face of change is rooted in indigenous knowledge and know-how…'
From the publication: Weathering Uncertainty

For the global community, climate change adaptation is a new challenge. Neither scientists nor indigenous knowledge holders know the shape of things to come. But even though the climate change challenge is global, adaptation will happen locally. For this reason, it is essential to understand local impacts and to build adaptation planning and action around community-level concerns, priorities and aspirations. Indigenous knowledge and community-based coping strategies provide a foundation for national adaptation planning that can be both appropriate and effective.

'The choice of adaptation policies is significant as they may either reinforce community resilience, enabling them to mobilize fully their endogenous adaptive capacities, or hamper or undermine their response.'
From the publication: Weathering Uncertainty

Effective adaptation policies will need to be formulated on the basis of interdisciplinary research that brings together indigenous knowledge holders and scientists, both natural and social, to build mutual understanding and reinforce dialogue. It is essential that indigenous peoples – who are active resource users and bearers of traditional knowledge – play a central role in this process. Recent partnerships between indigenous peoples and scientists are producing new knowledge in response to the emerging challenges of climate change. This co-produced knowledge that derives from synergies between both systems of knowledge may point the way forward to promising and productive ways to address the complexities of climate change adaptation.

This publication was launched during the Plenary Thematic Session 'Indigenous Knowledge and Science: From Recognition to Knowledge Co-production' on 13 June 2012 during the five-day Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, in Rio de Janeiro.

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About the publication

Weathering Uncertainty: traditional knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation
Co-published by UNESCO and UNU, the volume is the product of an inter-agency partnership that also includes the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the UNDP GEF Small Grants Programme. The document was first planned and its preparation discussed at the international experts meeting on 'Indigenous Peoples, Marginalized Populations and Climate Change' that was held in Mexico from 19-21 July 2011, jointly organised with IPCC’s Working Group II on Adaptation, SCBD, UNDP-GEF SGP, UNESCO and UNU.
In its 120 pages, Weathering Uncertainty references 280 publications from the scientific literature (peer-reviewed and grey) and covers themes at the core of the Fifth AR such as foundations for decision-making on indigenous knowledge, traditional livelihoods, vulnerability, resilience, and adaptation policy and planning. The report is freely available to specialists, indigenous communities and the general public (pdf).

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