Western science has contributed much in recent years to our comprehension of global climate change and its implications for ecosystems. The experiences and observations of indigenous peoples over generations have also contributed to an increased understanding this global phenomenon. Since many indigenous peoples depend directly on their environment for their livelihoods, they are the ones most likely to be the “miner’s canaries” of climate change.
Every culture and ecosystem on earth is affected by global climate change. Scientists and TEK practitioners all agree that we are only just beginning to feel its effects, and that we can expect more dramatic changes, from glaciers melting at a rapid pace and oceans rising, to deteriorating protection from the ozone layer, resulting in increased incidents of cancer and crop difficulties in regions currently most affected. Rainfall patterns are shifting, leading to droughts and floods, while warming oceans are changing sea life in every body of water on the planet.
From the Declaration of the First International Forum of Indigenous Peoples on Climate Change held in Lyon, France on September 4-6, 2000:
We, the Indigenous Peoples, have historically played an active role in the conservation of eco-systems crucial to the prevention of climate change such as forests, wetlands and coastal and marine areas. Long ago, our sciences foretold the severe impacts of Western "development" models based on indiscriminate clear-cutting, oil exploitation, mining, carbon-emitting industries, persistent organic pollutants and the insatiable consumption of the industrialized countries. These unsustainable models threaten the very life of Mother Earth and the lives of all of us who are her children.
The scientists of Western society have dismissed us as sentimental and superstitious and accused us of being an obstacle to development. Paradoxically, those that previously turned deaf ears to our warnings about global warming, now are dismayed because their own model of "development’ endangers our Mother Earth.
It is clear to scientists and TEK experts alike that we are still unable to predict all the far-reaching effects of climate change on species and natural processes. But local effects that are appearing in native communities have been tracked for decades by indigenous peoples and their observations will assist our predictive capabilities. Likewise, local solutions may help guide Western science in finding ways to mitigate larger-scale climate change effects while at the same time, scientific solutions may help indigenous communities with their adaptation, mitigation and survival.
The most common observation among the indigenous peoples of the Arctic is that the weather is no longer predictable: elders within a single generation are unable to predict weather patterns as their forefathers once did. Recent weather records indicate an increase in the frequency of spring storms bringing warm air to northern Alaska. Climate change has far reaching implications for all aspects of the indigenous lifestyle, most importantly hunting and fishing. For herders, the economic impact of climate change can be complex and devastating as limited mobility reduces their ability to adapt.
“The use of indigenous knowledge is a recognition that Arctic peoples are a part of the Arctic ecosystem, that their voices are important as we consider how climate is changing and what that means.” (Henry P. Huntington, 2004)
South Pacific Perspectives
Many tribal customs and practices related to fishing, hunting and planting are dependent on the capacity to predict changes in weather and climate. In Somoa, the calendar is based on observations of environmental change and not astronomical events. Thus, extreme weather and climatic events play an important role in seasonal decision-making: elders often rely on changes in plant and animal behavior to predict tropical storms and cyclones, and thus prepare to cope with the oncoming weather.