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UNITED NATIONS NATIONS UNIES
DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL AFFAIRS

Division for Social Policy and Development




CLIMATE CHANGE

AN OVERVIEW

Paper prepared by the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

November 2007


Content Page

1. Introduction…………………………………………………………………… 3

2. Effects of Climate Change…………………………………………………..5

3. Adapting to Climate Change……………………………………………….10

4. Normative Framework……………………………………………………….14

5. Biofuels and Carbon Trading………………………………………………17

6. Responses by UN Agencies…………………………………………………19

7. Conclusion ………………………………………………………………………28



1. Introduction:

This paper seeks to outline the myriad of issues around Climate Change and to provide an analysis of the threats and challenges faced by indigenous peoples, UN agencies and others. The conclusion sets out a number of recommendations that the United nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) might wish to consider at the seventh session of the UNPFII (21 April – 2 May 2008).

The UN Permanent Forum is an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council and part of its responsibility is to raise awareness and promote the integration and coordination of activities related to indigenous issues within the UN system. Hence, the UN Permanent Forum is well placed to support indigenous peoples’ in providing a ‘human face’ to the issues regarding climate change and its environmental threats and challenges.

Climate change is a major issue for indigenous peoples around the world so it is no coincidence that the special theme for the seventh session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is “Climate change, bio-cultural diversity and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges.



Climate change is considered to be a critical global challenge and recent events have demonstrated the world’s growing vulnerability to climate change. The impacts of climate change range from affecting agriculture to further endangering food security, to rising sea-levels and the accelerated erosion of coastal zones, increasing intensity of natural disasters, species extinction and the spread of vector-borne diseases.
Climate change is about the growth of greenhouse gas emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels, resulting mainly from industrial activities and motor transportation, hence there is a build up of the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.  The carbon dioxide build up is made worse by the increasing loss of forests, which act as “carbon sinks” that absorb gases and prevent its release into the atmosphere. Further, the increase of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere also enhances the “Greenhouse Effect” (in which more heat is generated), thus leading to temperatures rising.  Based on data  from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it is estimated that the mean global surface temperature has increased by about 0.3 to 0.6 degree Celsius since the late 19th century to the present, and an increase of 0.2 to 0.3 degree over the last 40 years.  A significant rise in temperature can trigger several events, such as melting of the ice sheets, the death of some significant marine life and other biodiversity, and effects on agriculture and human health.
In his address to the High Level Event on Climate Change on 24 September 2007, Mr Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary General of the United Nations, stated “I am convinced that climate change, and what we do about it, will define us, our era, and ultimately the global legacy we leave for future generations. Today, the time for doubt has passed. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has unequivocally affirmed the warming of our climate system, and linked it directly to human activity”. He also stated in the same address “Today, the effects of climate change are being felt around the world. But they are being felt most by those who are the least able to cope. Indeed, the terrible irony for many developing countries is that, though they have contributed the least to the process of climate change, they are the ones most at risk from its consequences. For some island States and peoples this is a matter of survival. The moral imperative could not be clearer”. While not being specific, the Secretary General’s statement could very well have been made about indigenous peoples because they are the ones who will bear the brunt of the consequences of climate change eventhough they have contributed the very least to greenhouse emissions.1
Concerns regarding the impact of climate change on indigenous communities, their traditional knowledge and related biological diversity was also expressed at the annual meeting of the Interagency Support Group on Indigenous Issues (IASG) in Montreal in September 2007. The IASG highlighted the fact “that indigenous peoples are often among the world's most marginalized and impoverished peoples and will bear the brunt of the catastrophe of climate change and as such provide a human face to the climate change crises”. They pointed out that “the most advanced scientific research has concluded that changes in climate will gravely harm the health of indigenous peoples traditional lands and waters and that many of plants and animals upon which they depend for survival will be threatened by the immediate impacts of climate change. It was felt that such conclusions require urgent and unprecedented efforts and interventions from the global community”.2
Despite the fact that these changes are impacting intensely on indigenous peoples and their communities, they are very rarely considered in public discourses on climate change. Indigenous peoples are vital to, and active in, the many ecosystems that inhabit their lands and territories and are therefore, in a position to help enhance the resilience of these ecosystems. In addition, indigenous peoples interpret and react to climate change impacts in creative ways, drawing on traditional knowledge and other technologies to find solutions, which may help society at large to cope with impending changes.3
In many instances, high level meetings and various reports on climate change make only scarce mention of indigenous peoples, and then only in certain regions and as helpless victims of changes beyond their control. Hence, there is a need to shift the focus so that indigenous peoples are primary actors within global climate change monitoring, adaptation and innovation. Indigenous peoples must have a voice in policy formation and action in the same way they do in other relevant UN processes such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the Human Rights Council and, to some extent, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and others.
The inclusion of indigenous peoples’ voices in issues affecting them is an important issue in regards to the ongoing debates around climate change. The right to participate in decision-making is confirmed in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Agenda 21. Article 18 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures, as well as to maintain and develop their own indigenous decision-making institutions”.4 Chapter 26 in Agenda 21 is devoted solely to Recognizing And Strengthening The Role Of Indigenous People And Their Communities and includes a number of references about recognizing indigenous peoples as a major group with a right to participate at all national and international policy and implementation meetings in regards to sustainable development and other program areas of Agenda 21.5

2. Effects of Climate Change:
Below is a brief overview of the effects of climate change which are listed according to the UNPFII’s seven indigenous regions:

(i) Africa

One of the major areas to be affected by climate change in Africa is the Kalahari Desert. There are 2.5 million kilometres of dunes in southern Africa which are covered in vegetation and used for grazing. However the rise in temperatures and the expected dune expansion along with increased wind speeds will result in the region loosing most of its vegetation cover and hence, becoming less feasible for indigenous peoples living in the region. As their traditional resource base diminishes, the traditional practices of cattle and goat farming will no longer survive. There are already areas where indigenous peoples are forced to live around government drilled bores for water and depend on government support for their survival. Food security is a major issue for indigenous peoples residing in the deserts and they are on the frontline of global climate change.6


(ii) Asia

In the tropical rainforests of Asia, temperatures are expected to rise 2-8 degree Celcius and further climatic variation will include decrease in rainfall, crop failures and forest fires. Tropical rainforests are the haven for biodiversity, as well as indigenous peoples’ cultural diversity and forest fires will threaten this heritage of biodiversity.7


People in low-lying areas of Bangladesh could be displaced by a one-meter rise in sea levels. Such a rise could also threaten the coastal zones of Japan and China. The impact will mean that salt water could intrude on inland rivers, threatening some supplies of fresh water.
In the high altitude regions of the Himalayans, there are glacial melts which effect hundreds of millions of rural dwellers who depend on the seasonal flow of water; there might be more water in the short term, but less in the long run as glaciers and snow cover shrink. The warming of the high altitude regions are likely to mean that population growth, settlement expansion and encroachment are likely to become a major management challenge and these external influences are likely to have an impact on indigenous peoples and their lands. 8
The poor, many of whom are indigenous peoples, are highly vulnerable to climate change in urban areas because of their limited access to profitable livelihood opportunities and limited access to areas that are fit for safe and healthy habitation. Consequently, the poor sector will be exposed to more risks from floods and other climate related hazards in areas where they are forced to live.9

(iii) Central and South America and the Caribbean

This region is very diverse from the Chilean deserts to the tropical rainforests of Brazil and Ecuador to high altitudes of the Peruvian Andes.


Like elsewhere in the world, indigenous peoples’ use of biodiversity is central to environmental management and livelihoods. In the Andes, alpine warming and deforestation will threaten indigenous peoples’ access to plants and tuba crops for food, medicine, grazing animals and hunting. Once these food crops are replaced by trees that will grow in the region, indigenous peoples will be deprived of important traditional resources which are central to their livelihoods.
The warming of the earth’s surface is forcing indigenous peoples in this region to farm at higher altitudes to grow their staple crops which adds to further deforestation. Not only does this affect the water sources and leads to soil erosion, it also has a cultural impact. The displacement of Andean cultures to higher lands means the loss of the places where their culture is rooted, putting its survival at risk. Indigenous communities in the Imbakucha Basin in Otavalo in Ecuador, the unexpected frosts and long drought periods affect all farming activities. The older generation say they no longer know when to sow because the rains do not come as expected. Migration offers one way out but represents a cultural nemesis and the human and social price to pay is high.10
In the Amazon, the effects of climate change will include deforestation and forest fragmentation and as a result there will be more carbon released into the atmosphere exacerbating and creating further changes. The droughts of 2005 resulted in fires in the western Amazon region and this is likely to occur again as rainforest is replaced by savannas thus, having a huge affect of the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region.11
Many communities in the Caribbean are in coastal locations which are often the centre of government activities, ports and international airports, hence there is dependence on coastal resources for subsistence living. As a result there is rapid and unplanned movements of rural and outer island residents to the major centers. This puts enormous pressures on urban resources to meet the most basic needs and hence creates social and economic stresses and vulnerability to hazardous weather conditions such as cyclones and diseases. Also in the Caribbean, the relationship between climate change and water security will be a major issue as access to safe water already eludes the populations of several Caribbean countries which are dependant on rainfall and groundwater. At the same time, pollution of ground water is a major problem, especially for low-lying islands. Poor water quality affects human health and carries water-borne diseases.12
(iv) Arctic

The polar regions are now experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on earth, which contribute to environmental and socio-economic changes. Indigenous peoples, their culture and the whole ecosystem that they interact with is very much dependent on the cold and the extreme physical conditions of the Arctic region. Indigenous peoples depend on hunting for polar bears, walrus, seals and caribou, herding reindeer, fishing and gathering not only for food to support the local economy, but also as the basis for their cultural and social identity. Some of the concerns facing indigenous peoples include the change in species and availability of traditional food sources, perceived reduction in weather predictions and the safety of travelling in changing ice and weather conditions. All these provide serious challenges to human health and food security.13


According to indigenous peoples, the Arctic is becoming an environment at risk because the sea ice is less stable, unusual weather patterns are occurring, vegetation cover is changing, and particular animals are no longer found in traditional hunting areas during specific seasons. Local landscapes, seascapes and icescapes are becoming unfamiliar, making peoples feel like strangers in their own land.14
Peoples across the Arctic region report changes in the timing, length and character of the seasons including more rain in autumn and winter and more extreme heat in summer. In several indigenous villages in Alaska, entire communities may have to relocate because of erosion due to the thawing of permafrost and large waves slamming against the west and northern shores. Coastal indigenous communities are severely threatened by storm related erosion because of melting sea ice. Hence, up to 80% of Alaskan communities, comprised mainly of indigenous peoples, are vulnerable to either coastal or river erosion.15
In Nunavut the elders can longer predict the weather using their traditional knowledge because the weather has become so unpredictable and extreme. Due to drop in water levels, indigenous hunters are no longer able to travel by boats to caribou hunting grounds because of shallow waters. Hence, many important summer hunting grounds cannot be reached. Storage of traditional foods for the winter months is also a major issue for indigenous peoples in the region, especially in the Northwest Territories due to warmer weather. For example, drying and smoking foods is more difficult because the food is pre-cooked in the summer heat.16
In Finland, Norway and Sweden, rain and mild weather during the winter season often prevents reindeer from accessing lichen, which is a vital food source. This has caused massive loss of reindeers. For Saami communities, reindeers are vital to their culture, subsistence and economy. This has forced many reindeer herders to feed their herds with fodder which is expensive and not economically viable in the long term.17

(v) Central and Eastern Europe, Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia

Like the polar regions, Siberia and the far north-east are now experiencing some of the most rapid and severe climate change on earth, which contribute to environmental and socio-economic changes. The survival of indigenous peoples, who depend on fishing, hunting and agriculture, also depends on the success of their fragile environment and its resources.  As bears and other wild game disappear, the local villages and the people that live in them will suffer particular hardships.  Worse, unique indigenous cultures, traditions and languages will face major challenges in maintaining their diversity.


Indigenous peoples have noticed the arrival of new species of plants which were never seen in the region previously. There is a view the hotter summers have provided the conditions for the new plants to thrive in rivers and lakes where the small flowered duckweed. This had made it difficult for fish hence, people’s fishing opportunities have declined due to closure of lakes because of the new plant growth. Also, new bird species have arrived and birds now stay longer in the villages than previously.18

Changes in migration and foraging patterns of reindeer herds, sparked by fluctuating weather patterns, will also cause problems for many northern communities.  Those who depend on hunting walrus will bear the brunt of melting ice caps and glaciers. One of the main observations in the region has been the changing seasonal weather patterns, the increased unpredictability and instability of the weather, as well as shorter winters and the fall–winter transition is occurring later and spring weather arriving earlier.19


(vi) North America

Climate change is likely to have a major impact on indigenous peoples and their communities that are dependent on natural resources. About 1.2 million tribal members live on or near reservations, and many pursue lifestyles with a mix of traditional subsistence activities and wage labour. Many reservation economies and budgets of indigenous governments depend heavily on agriculture, forest products and tourism.20


Due to global warming there will be less snowfall and more droughts in many parts of North America which will have a significant impact on indigenous peoples. For example, water resources and water quality may decrease with less precipitation. Further, extended heat waves will increase evaporation and deplete the underground water resources. There may be impacts on health, plant cover, wildlife populations, tribal water rights and individual agricultural operations, and a reduction of tribal services due to decrease in income from land leases.21
Natural disasters such as blizzards, ice storms, and floods, electric power outages, lack of transportation, fuel depletion and food supply shortages will isolate indigenous communities. Poor housing conditions and high energy costs as well as limited access to off-reservation emergency assistance will contribute to the risks faced by indigenous peoples. Also, livestock loss due to severe blizzards can force tribal ranchers out of business due to lack of financial resources. Tribal governments are dependent on lease income for their operations. With extreme weather events, the risk of land transfer to non-tribal use and ownership will increase.22
Higher temperatures over extended periods will result in the loss of native grass and medicinal plants, and erosion that allows the invasion of non-native plants. The zones of semi-arid and desert shrubs, cactus, and sagebrush will move northward. Finally, fire frequency could also increase with more fuel and lightning strikes, degrading the land and reducing regional bio-diversity.23
(vii) Pacific

Most of the Pacific region comprises small island states and are affected by rising sea levels due to climate change. Environmental changes are prominent on islands where volcanoes build and erode; coral atolls submerge and reappear and the islands’ biodiversity is in flux. The region has suffered extensively from humankind disasters such as nuclear testing, pollution including shipping-related pollution, hazardous chemicals and hazardous wastes (Persistent Organic Pollutants or POPs), and solid waste management and disposals. These issues as well as the threats of climate change have severely affected the ability of island ecosystems to maintain a healthy and pristine environment for the enjoyment of indigenous peoples.24

The effects of climate change have included high tides which flood causeways linking villages, forcing cars, buses and trucks to drive through seawater. This has been particularly noticeable in Kiribati and a number of other small Pacific island nations that could drown during this century. High tides and stormy seas have also caused problems recently in the Marshall Islands, Cook Island, Tuvalu and low-lying islands of Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Migration will become a major issue as flooding (due to rise in sea level) forces families to move from their homes. For example, the people living in PNG’s Bougainville’s atoll island of Cartaret have asked to be moved to higher ground on the mainland. Also the people of Sikaiana Atoll in the Solomon Islands have been migrating away from their atoll, primarily to Honiara, the capital. Similarly, there has been internal migration from the outer islands of Tuvalu to the capital Funafuti. In the case of Tuvalu, this migration has brought almost half of the national population to Funafuti atoll, with negative environmental consequences, including a demand on local resources.25


In addition, warmer temperatures have led to the bleaching of the Pacific Island’s main source of survival – the coral reefs. Bleaching occurs when reef-building corals, reacting to stress such as warmer waters, loosen the algae that help feed them. Because the algae give them colour, the starved corals look pale, thus the term “bleaching”. Continued bleaching ultimately kills corals. Reef-building corals provide most of the primary productivity of coral reefs and an important shelter for the coral reef organisms. Reduction of abundance and diversity of reef-building corals is thus very likely to have a major influence on the surrounding biodiversity. Tropical fishery yields are on the decline worldwide and it is now clear that the conditions may become critical for the local fish population.26

Agriculture in the Pacific region, especially in small island states, is becoming increasingly vulnerable due to heat stress on plants and salt water incursions. Hence, food security is of great concern to the region.


3. Adapting to Climate Change:
Adaptation to climate change is a necessary strategy to complement climate change mitigation effects. Adaptation often produces benefits as well as forming a basis for coping with future climate change. However, experience demonstrates that there are constraints to achieving the full measure of potential adaptation. There are many instances of, maladaptation, such as promoting development in risk-prone locations, which can occur due to decisions based on short-term considerations. The ability of human systems to adapt to and cope with climate change depends on factors such as wealth, technology, education, information, skills, infrastructure, access to resources and management capabilities.27

There are already a number of documented case studies and examples where indigenous peoples have responded to climate change in innovative ways. Some case studies and examples are listed below according to the UNPFII’s seven indigenous regions:


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