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Indigenous Australians Challenge Government Over Climate at UN

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Indigenous Australians Challenge Government Over Climate at UN
© picture-alliance

A group of indigenous Australians plans to submit a complaint to the UN that accuses Australia of failing to act on climate change.


The group resides in the low-lying Torres Strait Islands in the country's north. It argues that Australia's lack of climate change policies is putting their culture and ancestral homeland at risk.

"Tides are rising every year, flooding homes, lands and important cultural sites. Rising sea temperatures are blighting the health of the marine environments around the islands, by bleaching the coral and acidifying the ocean," a statement from the indigenous group said.

"We are seeing this effect on our land and on the social and emotional well-being of our communities who practice culture and traditions," said Kabay Tamu, one of the petitioners.

"Many Islanders are worried that their islands could quite literally disappear in their lifetimes without urgent action," the group said.

The islanders are set to ask the UN to rule that existing international human rights law requires Australia to reduce its emissions to at least 65% below 2005 levels by 2030.

They will also demand that the government invest some $14 million in emergency infrastructure, such as sea walls, to protect Torres Strait communities.

A Human Rights Case

The case represents the first time that government inaction on climate change has been equated with a violation of human rights.

"Climate change is fundamentally a human rights issue," said Sophie Marjanac, the lead lawyer on the case.

"Australia's continued failure to build infrastructure to protect the islands, and to take action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, constitutes a clear violation of the islanders' rights to culture, family and life," she added.

The announcement comes as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the world was "not on track" to confine the rise in global warming and decried a "fading political will to act."

Australia is due to hold parliamentary elections on Saturday. Climate change has been a central issue, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison's opponents accusing him and his government of not supporting emission reduction efforts, while backing the expansion of coal mining.

Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.

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Cottongrass blows in the wind at the edge of Etivlik Lake, Alaska. Western Arctic National Parklands / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.