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Image: Getty/Tina Tiller
Image: Getty/Tina Tiller

SocietyApril 20, 2023

Call to combine western and Indigenous knowledge to combat the climate crisis

Image: Getty/Tina Tiller
Image: Getty/Tina Tiller

Experts vouch that traditional knowledge can work in harmony alongside western scientific approaches to address the Pacific’s climate challenges.

People in Kiribati have noticed over the years that the taste of their water is not as fresh as it once was. Ground water in Kiribati is shallow and easily contaminated by the inadequate waste disposal system. That system coupled with rising sea levels, high tides and storm surges means Kiribati has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the Pacific.

This is the reality of a climate crisis. Kiribati has been the poster nation for climate change, with reports of its sinking from the early 2000s.

The small village Eita has become a separate island during high tide. The people of Kiribati are under pressure to relocate due to sea level rise. Each year, the sea level rises by about half an inch. (Photo: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The recent IPCC synthesis report highlighted that in order for climate resilient development to be effective, it needs to have the foundation of diverse values and worldviews, including Indigenous knowledge.

Research manager for the Pacific Ocean Climate Crisis Assessment Dr Christina Laalaai-Tausa commented to the Science Media Centre that for years, Pacific communities relied on Indigenous knowledge that provided alternative ways for survival, and she agrees these methods need to be integrated with science and technology to ensure lives and ecosystems survive.

To do this, prioritising investment in climate finance to support adaptation and mitigation in the Pacific region is required, as the impacts are more urgently felt there. “The report highlighted that there is a huge threat to water and food security, which is the basis for survival,” Laalaai-Tausa says.

Last September, solar water distillation was installed in areas around Kiribati, with the first unit installed at Santo Iotebwa. But Laalaai-Tausa says more needs to be done, noting that climate financing per the Paris Agreement is still well below $100b a year, which she says is “utterly unacceptable”.

Former Kiribati president Anote Tong has predicted that his island nation will likely become uninhabitable in 30-60 years. (Photo: Reuters/David Gray, CC BY-ND)

The political scientist says investing in renewable energy for electricity and sustainable development throughout the Pacific is crucial to reduce emissions by almost half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2050.

Fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas are by far the largest contributor to the changing climate, accounting for over 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of all carbon dioxide emissions.

Laalaai-Tausa believes the Pacific needs to look at long term national and regional planning – like renewable energy sources – rather than short fixes that are no longer sustainable and in fact add more vulnerabilities to the region.

“Climate crisis is no longer just about climate. It is now an urgent matter of equity, social and climate justice and inclusion.”

While the report provided an improved understanding of climate resilient development, political and social scientist Dr Dalila Gharbaoui – who is also a part of the Pacific Ocean Climate Crisis Assessment – told The Spinoff it needed to address the benefits of collaboration in knowledge.

Dr Dalila Gharbaoui from University of Canterbury
Dr Dalila Gharbaoui from University of Canterbury. (Photo: Supplied)

“It is a missed opportunity to understand how cultural capital, value systems, community-based social protection, collective actions, reciprocity, relational networks, trust and other important cultural mechanisms could be used to respond to the climate crisis,” she says.

Gharbaoui also noted that Indigenous lead authors are still underrepresented in the report, despite Indigenous peoples being the first impacted by the climate crisis.

She explains that an example of utilising Indigenous knowledge would be understanding climate mobility. “Research has shown that thresholds of inhabitability can vary; a place would be considered uninhabitable from a climate science perspective, but that same place would not be considered as such by communities that have various ways of defining habitability,” she says. 

A sense of belonging is important for a lot of Pacific people, and climate mobility cannot be understood through one-way thinking. “More and more evidence from across the globe is showing that people will mostly adapt to climate change using people-centred and social capital mechanisms and traditional knowledge can support understanding how these can be holistically addressed in future climate policy.”

The Pacific Ocean Climate Crisis Assessment (POCCA), a research partnership between the University of Canterbury and the University of South Pacific and funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, aims to provide an integrated assessment of the climate crisis in the Pacific that gives voice to Pacific Indigenous knowledge systems and how they can work together in harmony with formal scientific approaches. 

This interdisciplinary approach incorporates Indigenous voices often missing from more conventional studies on climate change. Gharbaoui says it’s important that learnings, data, policy recommendations and results from such projects are considered in the design of future climate policies.

There are decades of evidence that traditional knowledge is an important form of knowledge that can support communities and policymakers to address the climate crisis. “For centuries, Indigenous peoples have been surviving in an extreme environment by using their traditional knowledge that provides alternative ways to protect nature and cope with extreme environmental conditions,” she says.

“This form of knowledge needs to be integrated with formal science and technology to support our future survival.”

This is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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