Climate change is a transnational issue at the forefront of the international community’s development plan. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, and natural disasters have displaced thousands of people around the globe, and more are at risk. Indigenous communities are especially vulnerable to suffering the direct consequences of climate change.
According to a United Nations report, climate change further exacerbates the difficulties indigenous people already face, including political and economic marginalization, human rights violations, discrimination, and unemployment. Many indigenous peoples live in geographic areas that are highly vulnerable to climate change. These peoples’ unique ties to the environment mean that a changing climate puts not only their lives at risk but their identities.
Why are indigenous people vulnerable to the effects of climate change?
As high or low temperatures or extreme climate events make resources scarce, the price of food increases. Heatwaves and floods spread diseases and worsen food insecurity. According to a recent study by the World Bank, climate change could push nearly 100 million people back into poverty by 2030. Further, indigenous peoples are overrepresented among the poor, accounting for nearly 15% of the world’s poor population. The World Bank also estimates that more than 370 million indigenous people globally live in East Asia and the Pacific region, which are both highly vulnerable to climate change. Lower crop yields and higher food prices, particularly in Asia, could bring approximately 13 million people from this population into extreme poverty by 2030.
According to a report by the International Labour Organization (I.L.O.), many indigenous people have moved to urban areas as a result of livelihood insecurity. For example, in the Arctic, melting coastal ice, rising sea levels, and increased weather intensities are forcing some indigenous communities in Alaska to relocate. Although migration may be a strategy, it exposes indigenous people to risks of discrimination, loss of identity, and exploitation.
Moving to an urban area is no guarantee of secured employment, either, due to the specificity of many indigenous people’s skills and the lack of support they receive. A recent study by the I.L.O. measuring minimum wage compliance in ten developing countries revealed that there is greater compliance from workers from indigenous backgrounds than non-indigenous workers. It is clear that supporting indigenous communities is key to address climate change. Providing educational and financial support can address the discrimination these people face by helping them learn new skills and make more empowered choices. Further, conducting cultural workshops can help bridge the cultural differences that contribute to the discrimination these people face. Such forms of support are crucial in alleviating poverty and inequality on both a local and a global level.
Local governments should also safeguard indigenous groups’ political and economic rights. In addition to preserving human rights, evidence in the Amazon shows that indigenous territories managed by indigenous people are better protected from environmental change. Indigenous communities’ traditional knowledge is key to preserving ecosystems and the larger environment. Their voices must be heard and incorporated in a collaborative development process whenever governments work on climate-resilient plans.
The United Nations has developed a framework over the years to encourage the international community to reduce their carbon footprints and implement sustainable practices to protect the environment. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was established by the U.N.’s Earth Summit in 1992 to prevent dangerous “human interference” in the climate system. In 1995, the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, legally binding developed country parties to emission reduction targets. In 2015, the Convention agreed to accelerate the actions and investments required for a low carbon future. There are also a number of key international frameworks and instruments for Indigenous Peoples, including the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169, United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous People 2007, World Conference on Indigenous Peoples 2014 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 2015.
Global greenhouse gas emissions for developed nations declined by 6.5% between 2008 and 2018, while emissions from developing countries increased by 43.2% between 2000 to 2013. Opportunities for new, private investment in renewable energy increased financing for climate action by 17% between 2013 to 2016. And the drastic reduction in human activity as a result of COVID-19 has caused emissions to drop by six%.
Most developing countries have also created climate-resilient plans to adapt to climate change. Through the Paris Agreement, National Adaptation Plans (N.A.P.s) were created to help countries reach the global adaptation goal. According to the 2020 United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (S.D.G.) report, 120 out of 153 developing countries had already begun implementing their N.A.P.s, up by 29 nations since the previous year. The Green Climate Fund, which funds N.A.P. formulation with the Least Developed Countries Fund, received 83 proposals for support from 81 countries in December 2019. To date, 40 of those proposals have been approved. 14 of them come from Least Developed Countries.
However, according to the S.D.G. report, the world is way off track to meet the targets laid down in the Paris Agreement. A larger scale of investment is required to achieve a low-carbon, climate-resilient transition.
The window of opportunity to tackle climate change is slowly closing. The international community has shown some progress in reducing our carbon footprints, but more needs to be done to avoid potentially life-threatening consequences for our planet. In addition, indigenous peoples’ rights must be protected, and the injustice they have faced for decades must be addressed and ended. These peoples’ specialized knowledge of the environment is crucial in fighting climate change. More importantly, indigenous rights are human rights. All states must act now to prioritize climate change and its severe impacts on indigenous communities.
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