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Indigenous Solutions to Climate Crisis Could Lie in Archaeology, Experts Say

Climate
Indigenous Solutions to Climate Crisis Could Lie in Archaeology, Experts Say
Indigenous knowledge has only recently begun to be seriously considered in international climate policy debates. FG Trade / Getty Images

By Ian Morse

For the first time last August, indigenous groups felt the global community was taking seriously their potential contributions to climate crisis policy.


Indigenous peoples have long been labeled among the "most vulnerable" to climate impacts, but considering the local knowledge accumulated over millennia was another question, scientists and native groups have said.

Now, two archaeologists – a professor and museum curator — are urging policymakers to look to their field to determine the origins of vulnerability and uncover local solutions.

"There's plenty of opportunity to draw on a huge resource, which is centuries and, in many cases, thousands of years of strategizing and experimenting with what works and what doesn't work in a particular landscape to deal with climate change," Kristina Douglass, archaeologist at Pennsylvania State University, said in an interview.

Unearthing oral histories and a rich archaeological record can lead to more accurate markers of vulnerability and may unlock more precise methods to address climate impacts, Douglass writes in a recent paper with Jago Cooper, curator of the Americas section at the British Museum.

"We identified the islands in the Caribbean and the southwestern Indian Ocean that are extremely vulnerable, particularly because they have these colonial legacies that have really lessened peoples' ability to access long-term knowledge of environmental change," Douglass says.

The U.N. ranks indigenous peoples on the world's islands among the most vulnerable to climate change impacts, but the authors believe that obscures the thousands of years of indigenous knowledge that has been eradicated. In some cases, acknowledging or even recovering those tactics can help communities endure the impacts of climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assesses vulnerability to climate impacts through several stresses on physical, biological and human systems.

"Those indicators don't take into account those historical injustices that have contributed very much to a lack of adaptability to climate change impacts and increased vulnerability," Douglass says.

Communities in the southwestern Indian Ocean and Caribbean Sea, where Douglass and Cooper are respective specialists, survived in the face of climate twists and turns before European colonizers arrived, the authors say. For many, the knowledge and tools to adapt disappeared when sedentary, market agriculture was encouraged and imposed.

Now, many face rising sea levels, stronger storms, more frequent droughts, and declining fisheries — but the tactics they would have used to maintain resilience are either unviable or lost to history.

Douglass cites the example of the prickly pear cactus. As French colonial policies on Madagascar required people to stay in one place, local communities began using the prickly pear as an additional hydration source for themselves and their livestock to buffer the loss of water in drought.

In the 1930s, French officials unleashed a pest, the cochineal, to destroy the cactus. This devastated accumulated wealth in cattle and land, and pushed locals into a cash crop economy, which put them at greater risk of famine in ensuing droughts.

"The prickly pear is a very clear-cut example of how particular policies that were put in place during the French colonial period on Madagascar were in this case directly aimed at changing local livelihoods, because it was thought that cattle pastoralism was not a productive use of land," Douglass says.

Migration had long been a method of mitigating the impacts of climate change, but forced cash crop cultivation and delineated fisheries keeps people in one place.

"What's happening now is a lot of development policy that's sort of top-down policy — that could be aimed at mitigating climate or at improving livelihoods, et cetera — all of that is encouraging people to stay put," Douglass says.

In the Caribbean, indigenous customs were more completely eradicated after the arrival of Columbus, but there remains paleoclimatological evidence that sea level rise, storm surges, and increased precipitation was a more common occurrence, and archaeological evidence indicates people lived in a more adaptive way.

"The environmental injustice of the Caribbean is that the islands have gone through these massive changes that do put them at risk, because things like monoculture has come in and chopped down all the trees, there are big stresses on water supplies, there's a real sort of centralized food distribution system," Cooper said in an interview.

Household construction, for example, was more resilient for its ability to be quickly rebuilt with locally available materials. Archaeological evidence shows that when storms came, those elements may have been lost, but the house posts stayed firmly in the ground for often hundreds of years.

"So the impact of the hurricane means that you can recover very quickly, whereas today, the concrete houses still get smashed down, then you come out of your shelter and the cost of recovery is huge," Cooper says.

"I think it's very important to really acknowledge the impact of those historical environmental impacts in order to then learn the lessons and try and be resilient in the modern day," he says.

The IPCC helps inform global decision-making and government policies on climate change, but it has faced criticism for disregarding the insights that indigenous knowledge could bring.

A working group in 2008 has been the only collection of work focused on indigenous peoples, and scholars have called for the U.N. to take traditional knowledge seriously.

A 2016 perspective paper in Nature Climate Change found the IPCC reports exhibited "limited critical engagement with the diversity, range, and complexities of indigenous knowledge systems." The report found that diverting from the human dimensions of climate impacts "directs attention away from the underlying root causes of vulnerability, and constrains the potential for linking adaptation to broader policy goals or decolonizing processes."

In the IPCC's 2019 report on climate and land, the authors wrote that, "Agricultural practices that include indigenous and local knowledge can contribute to overcoming the combined challenges of climate change, food security, biodiversity conservation, and combating desertification and land degradation."

Indigenous peoples' organizations expressed their support of the IPCC statement, writing, "The freedom to govern ourselves, leverage our traditional knowledge, and adapt to our changing circumstances is essential to realizing a more sustainable and climate-resilient future."

The next step, the authors say, is to collect traditional knowledge and incorporate it into U.N. and government policy. As a start, Douglass has begun recording oral histories when she works in sites in the southwestern Indian Ocean islands.

"It would be a very worthwhile investment to collect oral histories to map ancient trading routes and ancient social networks and just to understand how people have adapted in the past," she says. "It would not cost that much."

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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