Climate Crisis: What We Can Learn From Indigenous Traditions
Indigenous people around the world have lived in concert with nature for centuries, practicing responsible land management, regenerative farming practices and water conservation.
But as Indigenous populations continue to be pushed off of their lands by development, it's more important than ever to learn how their practices can counter the climate crisis.
"By ignoring what Indigenous people know about how to protect their forests, we lose potential solutions to the climate crisis. We lose time and we lose money. It is unstrategic and unethical," Marcia Nunes Macedo and Valéria Paye Pereira wrote in The New York Times.
From the Americas to the Amazon to Australia, culturally significant controlled burns have been an integral part of proactive fire management that prevents forest fires from spreading.
In one example, Karuk tribal traditions in Northern California use frequent, low-intensity fires to help restore and maintain the region's flora and fauna, according to researchers in The Conversation. More specifically, the fires help restore grassland for elk and for making basketry. Meanwhile, smoke from summer fires provides cool temperatures for river fish.
"[Cultural burning] links back to the tribal philosophy of fire as medicine," Frank Kanawha Lake, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, firefighter and Karuk descendent, told the The History Channel. "When you prescribe it, you're getting the right dose to maintain the abundance of productivity of all ecosystem services to support the ecology in your culture."
Aboriginal Australians monitor controlled fires to prevent them from damaging seedlings or soil nutrients. They also avoid burning logs or trees that house insects and animals. Furthermore, the controlled burns help to restore growth and strengthen ecosystems, Yes! Magazine reported.
Over in the Amazon, the Kuikuro people in the Xingu Indigenous Territory use an elaborate system of ditches, dikes and roads to create a break that controls the spread of wildfires, according to The New York Times.
Australia has been under a severe drought for years, threatening Sydney's water supply. As a result, the regional governments of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia have teamed up with Aboriginal tribes to learn Indigenous water management techniques. For example, the Ngarrindjeri Nation in South Australia helped implement innovative environmental solutions during the Millennium Drought that lasted from 2001-2009.
"When Indigenous nations become sovereign partners in environmental management, the power structures and worldviews that underlie decision-making can be productively challenged... creating new solutions to pressing environmental issues," Dr. Samantha Muller, lead author of Indigenous sovereignties: relational ontologies and environmental management, said in Science Daily.
"Indigenous agency and governance is driving innovations in land management worldwide that provide more equitable solutions and strategic approaches to looking after the lands, waters and all living things, particularly in the face of climate change," she added.
To increase respect for water usage, Western Australia has issued lesson plans and instructional videos about water's role in Aboriginal culture.
Farming and Land Management
The efficient use of water often goes hand-in-hand with farming practices. The Konso people in East Africa have used water and land so effectively that their community is officially recognized and protected by UNESCO as a cultural heritage site. For example, one study noted, "They work together to build attractive terracing landscapes and complex village compounds in addition to construction and protection of water systems. To strengthen their togetherness, they frequently use the proverb 'Living together means sharing resources.' This social cohesion is the basic underlying factor in achieving sustainability even in modern management."
Indigenous communities also use fire to clear small plots of land and strengthen their harvest. In the Amazon, communities grow cassava and then let the land lie fallow for years while farming another section. The fallow period allows the vegetation to improve and helps to prevent soil erosion. The restored land is again burned, with the ashes fertilizing the soil, Mongabay reported.
The idea of Indigenous land control is reinforced by Greenpeace campaigners in Al-Jazeera. The authors explain how this transfer away from the industrial world would help meet climate goals and reduce pollution. For example, "In Mexico's Cabo Pulmo, local communities secured legal protection and are reviving marine life and livelihoods," they write.
"There is a lot of potential in providing people with the means to resist industrial expansion that is contributing to species loss, climate breakdown and deepening inequalities," they add.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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