Understanding coastal urban and peri-urban Indigenous people’s vulnerability and adaptive capacity to climate change

Author: NCCARF
Year: 2015

Climate change is expected to have social, economic and environmental impacts on urban and peri-urban Indigenous communities inhabiting coastal areas throughout south-eastern Australia. These impacts include a loss of community and environmental assets, including cultural heritage sites, with significant impact on the quality of life of populations inhabiting these areas, and the establishment of potential favourable conditions for the spread of plant diseases, weeds and pests. Over most of south-eastern Australia, including southern Victoria and the Adelaide region, climate change is expected to lead to increased risk of heatwaves, longer drought periods, increased bushfire risk, increased risks of flood events and more frequent coastal inundation and associated impacts such as coastal erosion.

A review of the literature examining the impacts climate change on peri-urban and urban Indigenous people found that there is limited research on the topic in Australia and globally. The review did show that lower socio-economic members of this group are more vulnerable to climate change compared to the general Australian population. Their adaptive capacity is low as a result of the same systemic issues confronting Indigenous people that have led to disadvantage. As such, research on climate change adaptation positions climate change as one of the many issues facing Indigenous people and needs to be addressed collaboratively and not in isolation. Research from other more remote regions in Australia and abroad indicate collaborative community-based approaches are needed for effective climate change vulnerability assessments and the building of individual and collective adaptive capacity.

Several aspects collectively emerged from the literature research and the project workshops, namely:

  • Specific Indigenous climate change adaptation (CCA) policy is absent in government policies and strategies and Indigenous representation in government climate change adaptation policy forums is poor – there is a need for a specific Indigenous voice in climate change adaptation discussions at the state and national levels;
  • Adaptive capacity could be improved if Indigenous groups had enhanced access to their country;
  • Due to ongoing historical disadvantage, socio-economic issues tend to override climate change adaptation considerations;
  • Whilst important economically, wild plants and animals have cultural importance in contemporary identity building and exploitation of the wild food network presents important opportunities for urban and peri-urban Aboriginal people;
  • Aboriginal language and words hold certain commonalities that have within them appraisals of longitudinally environmental patterns and changes, but opportunity to study urban and peri-urban Indigenous peoples understanding of climate change through these mediums will be seriously constrained through the decline in Indigenous language speakers amongst urban and peri-urban Aboriginal communities;
  • There is concern about changes occurring within a background of peri-urban and urban expansion which have the potential to further disconnect Aboriginal communities from their country and seriously limit their stewardship opportunity;
  • Peri-urban expansion is having a major deterioration upon the physical environment (land and water), which threatens cultural assets such as Aboriginal sites and is exacerbated by climate change;
  • Many of the climate change adaptation challenges can be overcome through collaborative approaches especially those that build in traditional knowledge so that it does not undermine cultural identity; and 
  • There is an urgent need to ensure that the next generation of Aboriginal communities is across climate change adaptation and other environmental management issues related to country whilst addressing issues of succession planning.

The evidence emerging from this research clearly demonstrates that Aboriginal people’s consideration of the future, even with the overlay of climate change and the requirements for serious considerations of adaptation, are significantly influenced and dominated by economic aspirations which are seen as fundamental survival strategies for their communities.

Opportunities do not readily exist for a higher level of engagement with climate change adaptation policy and initiatives and this is further exacerbated by existing acute shortage of qualified / experiences members in urban and peri-urban Indigenous communities. Any opportunity to engage in climate change debate and policy formulation should not be missed for urban and peri-urban Indigenous communities. This is largely because many other initiatives can be linked and / or run in parallel with climate change adaptation initiatives which can start to address some long standing issues of a socio-economic and human capacity nature.

The recommended collaborative and comprehensive approach involves a high degree of inclusive participation and youth engagement leading to greater Indigenous connection to country, thus improving the chances of enhancing the adaptive capacity of individual and collective Indigenous people. This should lead to more meaningful engagement that maximises the gains from existing and emergent Indigenous Land Use Agreement (ILUA) process through the embedment of climate change adaptation intentions and support commitments along with serious employment of protocols in the ILUA process. All of these initiatives should lead to meaningful and higher order engagement by urban and peri-urban Indigenous communities in formal climate change adaptation policy agendas.

Much can be driven through the implementation of the proposed Research Plan which is a cornerstone of this research project.

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