Weaving The Voices Of Indigenous Communities And Cities For Climate Adaptation

Report from The International Panel on Climate Change

Conference on Cities and the Village of Hope

Edmonton, Canada

March 5-7, 2018


The Cities and Climate Change Science Conference (Cities IPCC Conference) took place from 5-7 March 2018, in Edmonton, Canada. The conference brought together over 750 participants, including researchers, practitioners and policymakers. The objectives of the conference included taking stock of scientific literature, data and other sources of knowledge on cities and climate change since the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) and build ongoing work as part of the AR6 cycle; identify key gaps with the aim of stimulating new research to be assessed by an AR7 special report on climate change and cities; and develop novel assessment frameworks that take into account the systemic linkage, synergies and trade-offs between urban systems and climate change.

As part of the conference IPCC scientists and Indigenous knowledge holders came together in a collaborative session called Village of Hope by The Rockies Institute (TRI) and the Government of Alberta. I participated in the Village of Hope meetings and facilitated a discussion of the climate challenges facing a village in South Africa and the use of Indigenous knowledge with two colleagues from that country. (See the excellent blog from Igshaan Samuels on Indigenous Knowledge Systems which are key to combat climate change impacts
at http://rockiesinstitute.ca/indigenous-knowledge-systems-key-combat-climate-change-impacts-reflections-first-timer-ipcc-conference/ ).

The total population of urban dwellers in the globe reached over 50% sometime around 2010.  This plurality in the global population, combined with the political and financial strength of cities, has led to a focus in the climate adaptation and mitigation debate towards an urban perspective.

This focus on cities, perhaps at the expense of the 48% of the world’s non-urban population, doesn’t take into account the importance of rural ecosystems in supporting urban living standards.  The current IPCC discussions consider cities as isolated population centers, somehow not reliant on the water, energy, agriculture resources in the surrounding rural lands that supply ecological services urban populations.  That urban centric perspective also fails to recognize that a significant portion of the urban population have migrated to the cities in search of jobs, food, water, safety and other resources that have become sporadically available in rural areas – sometimes due to climate induced weather changes.  Cities depend on the water, air, natural resources, recreation, energy and agricultural production of the surrounding rural areas.

While cities clamor for funds to build sea walls and other climate-managing infrastructure, few urban climate adaptation plans even take into account the role of surrounding rural ecosystems in promoting urban resilience.  One notable exception that I was involved in was the City of Palo Alto, which because it owns its own utility, was acutely away of the resilience challenges from changes in precipitation and resulting impacts on hydropower supplies. Most cities, however, fail to take into account surrounding rural areas in developing climate planning exercises. A review of over 10 major climate action plans by cities such as San Francisco, London, Stockholm, and Copenhagen demonstrates that surrounding rural areas are all too often excluded from a comprehensive assessment of climate challenges in cities.

Weaving Indigenous knowledge into managing those surrounding is critical for climate resilience of both the rural and urban communities.  For example, in my home in the San Francisco Bay Area, our entire water and hydroelectricity resources come from the lands traditionally managed by the Miwok, Nisenan and Washo peoples.  If cities in the Bay Area are determined to reduce climate risks for their inhabitants, they need to understand and integrate rural land use practices and cultures.

Very little is being spent on the 4.2 billion people who live in rural communities to adapt to climate change.  According to the African Development Bank, less than 3% of all funds committed to fund climate activities go to mitigating the increasing challenges to the peoples of Africa who are dealing with climate related flooding, desertification, droughts and declines in agricultural production.  Yet in Africa, wide swaths of population are migrating because of lack of food and water, lowered crop production and increased mortality of livestock due to drought.

As a result, climate migrants move into cities which are unprepared for providing services for the influx.  For example, in Kenya, climate induced drought resulted in 2 million people fleeing their homes. In Kiribati, President Tong orchestrated the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, about 2,000km away, so that Kiribati peoples will have somewhere to go when their islands become uninhabitable in the next few years.  Tragically, climate migrants are often only able build makeshift houses in vacant areas that are themselves more prone to seasonal flooding and sea level rise.  These instances are repeated across the developing world from Cap Hatien in Haiti, to Senegal to Vietnam.  Just understanding the number of climate migrants spurred by drought, desertification, sea-level rise or coastal erosion poses a challenge – these migration flows are not necessarily permanent or international, making them difficult to capture or serve.

Nearly 90% of the funds spent on climate adaptation, as epitomized by the funding through the Green Climate Fund, goes to mitigation and funding reviewable energy projects or providing credit support for such projects.  While such projects are important, the critical and urgent need is to provide rural communities with the tools and capacity to manage the impacts of climate change to reduce the need of these communities to abandon their traditional lands and migrate to cities.  And managing such climate risks will have a direct and positive impact on urban dwellers.

We need a new paradigm in thinking about resilience planning and to tear down the wall between cities and Indigenous communities in responding to climate change.  Ecosystems and their processes don’t recognize urban boundaries and while we continue to promote this false dichotomy, our efforts are mitigating climate risks will not succeed.

The Rockies Institute is one leading organization that has embraced this new paradigm in  weaving Indigenous knowledge with western climate science. In addition to leading the IPPC discussions mentioned above, TRI is working with two of tribes in the Blackfoot Confederacy – the Kainai and Piikani First Nations in Alberta to develop climate change resilience – bridging knowledge systems and developing community-relevant solutions.

This approach is now being expanded to the Nama peoples of South Africa through a joint TRI project with the South African National Parks and the South African Agricultural Research Council.  The Nama peoples of South Africa and southern Namibia are the oldest tribes on Earth and still maintain a semi-nomadic life as pastoralists.   Because they range over vast areas of arid lands, they practice a policy of communal land ownership that ensures the sustainable use of natural resources.  Land use customs are maintained through music, poetry and storytelling and these oral traditions are extremely important in Nama culture which are passed down through the generations.  These oral traditions serve as the basis for Indigenous knowledge and an historical record of changes in the climate over centuries. As such, they serve as a rich data source for long-term climate change assessments.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems are key to combat climate change impacts – reflections from a first timer at an IPCC conference

Immediately, one might ask, what impacts? Well, where Im from, Cape Town, South Africa, I can tell you about one of the worst drought in recent memory, that the city could run out of water for more than 4 million citizens in the next few months. Read about the wildfire in North America? What about the melting of ice in the Artic that will have catastrophic implications for the indigenous people and the environment?  These are just a few of the impacts of climate change around the world.

Well, scientists have sufficient knowledge about the impacts of climate change on the environment, people and biodiversity and have made great strides in combatting these impacts. However, we are still on a downward trajectory towards extinction. Extinction not only in terms of biodiversity and landscapes, but also of people, their cultures and traditions. The most affected people, are indigenous people who live in close association with nature. What is weird is that these beautiful peoples have the necessary knowledge and skills to deal with a changing climate, and have done so for centuries. However, their actions have recently become hindered by a magnitude of barriers including a lack of support from their governments.

This is why I came to Canada to share my experiences on working with indigenous communities in southern Africa and how they adapt to their changing climate. I was invited to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Cities and Climate Change conference by the Government of Alberta and The Rockies Institute (TRI) from 4-7 March 2018 to partake in two panel discussions about the value and use of Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS) in combatting climate change. The conference brought together thousands of scientists, policy makers, practitioners and others from around the globe to Edmonton, Alberta to assess current climate change knowledge and to discuss a way forward in terms of research and cities’ responses to climate change.

My first panel contribution was in the ‘Village of Hope’ pre-conference session. It was the first time such a platform was created for indigenous peoples and scientists to share their views on climate change and its associated impacts. We had our discussions in sharing circles, as indigenous peoples usually do, and over plenty of good cultural foods throughout the session. There was no time limits and no ‘celebrities’ where everyone was treated equally and acknowledged for their own valuable contribution towards the discussions.  At least for this short period, at hopefully many more in the near future, we did it the indigenous way, which was very different from the colonial and Eurocentric ways of formality, structure and top down.

Given this unique platform, people were very comfortable and ideas were flowing. In circle one, we learned that there is an increased need for some indigenous community members in Canada to understand how climate change affect them, including the elders, youth and women. As such, TRI and the Blackfoot community embarked on a process to create climate change awareness and understanding through community workshops and hiring a climate change coordinator who is based on the Blood tribe reservation. Their next steps would include developing adaptation and mitigation strategies with the participation of all relevant stakeholders. We also heard from Dr Leroy Little Bear, the most fascinating and knowledgeable speaker I ever heard in my entire life, that for the Blackfoot tribes who live in sync with nature, landscape degradation and disappearance of species as a result of climate change would make them less Blackfoot, and in a sense less human. This could be said to all indigenous people having their livelihoods closely coupled to nature.

In the circle, where I presented in, a practical model for knowledge sharing between the global north and south specifically on climate change adaptation was discussed. The discussion identified that we need to consider that for this model to work, it needs to be a bottom up process, include vulnerable youth and women, and view the climate crises holistically in combination of other societal issues such as poverty and crime. We also recognised that international treaties such as the Paris Agreement are difficult to implement due to resource limitations and this will raise challenges that would prolong adaptation responses. The benefit of building climate resilient indigenous communities for cities around the world would include; a sustainable landscape where they could harvest resources such as water, energy and food from and a reduction in climate migrants who seek a better life by migrating out of rural areas to cities. Given this heap of benefits in building resilient livelihoods, we are exciting about bringing the Blood tribe to South Africa and take the Nama clans to Canada for knowledge exchange and learning on climate change adaptation.

The conversation on the important role IKS could play in climate change adaptations continued the Monday during a panel session on Application of Multiple Knowledge Systems for Evidence-Based Decision Making: Opportunities and Challenges for Ensuring Resilient Communities. Here, we discussed why it is important to braid the two knowledge systems (indigenous and scientific) to inform climate change adaptation and mitigation programmes. There was great passion from the panel and they all unanimously agreed that firstly, IKS is an important source of info and secondly, that it could be used to inform not only future IPCC reports but also climate change adaptation actions at landscape levels where impacts are mostly felt. Indigenous knowledge holders could also inform research agendas where some of their indigenous methodologies and theories could be used and tested. The process, of exactly how these two knowledge systems could be effectively braided is still under discussion but examples at local level where they have been braided (not integrated) have been given, but these examples are few. However, key messages emerged that when these knowledge systems are braided it should be a transparent and participatory process, validation needs to occur at appropriate levels, trust building needs to take place and that people’s rights and their valuable contribution they can make towards combatting climate change should be respected.

Session: Application of Multiple Knowledge Systems for Evidence-Based Decision Making

My interactions with indigenous Blood tribe of Treaty Seven at Standoff

I was full of expectation that travelling to the other end of the globe to meet up with the Canadian Blood tribe. My expectations were fundamentally fashioned by the limited material that was available on the internet on the tribe and based on my more than a decade of working with the descendants of Nama clan. The Nama people essentially suffered the same fate regarding the impact of colonialism on the Blood tribe but are still continuing their traditions of pastoralism in the South African version of ‘reserves’ for indigenous people. And this was basically my frame of reference in understanding the impact of acculturation and the dispossession of grazing land have on indigenous tribes. Furthermore, literature I’ve accessed on acculturation mostly painted a negative picture on the degeneration of cultural practices, boundless socio-economic challenges, and a perceived backwardness in terms of agricultural production systems. To be honest my perceptions didn’t carry a lot of positivity.

My two-day trip from Cape Town to Canada didn’t allow me enough time to mentally prepare for the extreme Canadian cold that I would face, which is in complete contrast to the extremely hot conditions in Namaqualand, South Africa.  Protected from the cold with layers of layers of insolation our travels to the Blood tribe took me to the place called Standoff. I gazed through the vehicle’s windows to catch my first sighting of a traditional tipi, but to my surprise it was the well-established infrastructure that first caught my eye. This is something I’m not familiar with from my South African context.

It was such a privilege for me and my colleagues from the United States (Dr Karl van Orsdol) and South Africa (Dr Mmoto Masubelele) to set foot onto Treaty Seven territory, the Blackfoot Reservation after the conference. To welcome first comers like us with such great openness and humility is almost unprecedented these days. And to honour us with gifts, resembling Blackfoot culture and traditions was really overwhelming. As in the Blackfoot way, we had very insightful conversations over some cultural food. We were offered delicious Saskatchewan berry soup together with some biscuits and meat, dried the traditional way.

The director of the Blood Tribe Lands Administration, CLoAnn Wells, presented a short PowerPoint on the Treaty Seven Land, the institutional arrangements of her administration and their links to the Chief and Council. Afterwards, we discussed their functions and the challenges as an administration including the roles of the environmental protection agency (EPA). I was so impressed by their ‘efficacy’ and from my experience, they function better than any other traditional land agency I ever interacted with.

The EPA team took us out into the field, thanks Elders William and Adam, and the two vibrant young ladies, Kansie and Diandra. We braved the cold, and were shown the different land uses on the reserve which included extraction of oil by companies which they lease some parts of their lands to and some cattle ranches. We discussed challenges of the lack of reliable stocking rates and a rotational resting system to inform management of the rangeland, and the impacts of wildfires on the reserve. However, the EPA team is working hard to gather the necessary data and have been monitoring the rangeland for impacts including those brought about by climate change.

I saw similarities and differences in the challenges the Blood tribe and the Nama people in South Africa are experiencing in terms of climate change and the use of indigenous knowledge. 1) Current IKS are not keeping up with the rapid changes in climate and this impede their ability to adapt, 2) knowledge transfer is inadequate between elders and youth who often aspire more modern city lifestyles, 3) losing valuable indigenous knowledge since this knowledge is often kept orally in songs, ceremonies and theatre, and 4) indigenous knowledge is not adequately used in climate change adaptation plans and programme that affect their land. We hope that these few observations could spark the conversations between the Nama and the Blood Tribe when we will bring them together in both Canada and South Africa in the near future.

I left Canada inspired but mindfully reiterating the words of Dr Leroy Little Bear, that “we as humans need to take a step back and rethink the way we interact with nature, we need to change our ways or we will all become less human” to remind myself that we still have a lot to do to build resilient climate communities.

Our enegagement with the Blood tribe in Standoff


Having meaningful conversations in the field


Photo credits: Karl van Orsdol


Tipping into the future

A history of tipping points from an ecological perspective and how they inform resilience thinking in global development.

Original Article here. 

Approximately 720 million years ago, the world was encased in ice, frozen from pole to pole. This “Snowball Earth” – an uninhabitable planet, save for a few spots of refuge for bacteria along the equator – stayed frozen for about 80 million years before thawing out. Carbon dioxide had been bubbling from volcanoes and vents underneath the surface of the ice for millions of years.

Finally the carbon dioxide probably built up to 300 times today’s levels – surpassing a critical tipping point – and the greenhouse effect caused the ice sheets to melt. “We went out of the freezer and into the frying pan”, says Timothy Lenton, an Earth system scientist at the University of Exeter.

Since the unfreezing of Snowball Earth, multicellular life has emerged. Dinosaurs came and went. For the last tiny fraction of geological time, humans have populated the planet. If the Earth has been around for 24 hours, humans appeared in the last few seconds. In an even shorter amount of time, the industrial revolution has unfolded and human activities in parts of the world now put demands on natural systems across the globe in unprecedented ways.

Overfishing has led to the collapse of cod populations in the United Kingdom, Canada, and other Atlantic Ocean countries. Nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff have led to algal blooms that suck oxygen from lake waters and are sometimes toxic. And continued human-driven, or anthropogenic, global temperature rise has altered India’s summer monsoon patterns – Lenton and his colleagues speculate that the consequences of human activities will eventually turn the Amazon rain forest into savanna, and melt the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica.1

From a human-centred point of view, we are in danger of putting ourselves into a situation that seems nearly as untenable for our civilisation as Snowball Earth, and on a much faster timetable. As the habitable version of Earth spins on its tilted axis, the different systems contained within it – the biosphere, atmosphere, and geosphere – currently provide services vital to our survival and well-being.

But they can also shift at critical tipping points. A tipping point is where a system can flip and turn into something different. Reversing the actions that pushed the system to tip does not mean the system will tip back. And the scale at which these changes happen – from your back garden to the boundaries of the atmosphere – becomes important.

Identifying tipping points, researchers say, could help communities stave off potentially drastic changes in the future. Or it could help them push towards tipping points to create changes that might lead to more desirable circumstances.

Where did the term “tipping points” originate?

The idea of a tipping point had been around since the 19th century when French mathematician Henri Poincaré was studying the movement of celestial bodies and realised that systems could shift rapidly from one equilibrium to another. He didn’t call the point at which the system shifted a “tipping point”, but knew that systems could reach a critical point where they would bifurcate. Literally, systems come to a fork in the road and can follow one path or the other.

A bifurcation in a system can happen abruptly, even with a seemingly small change in its underlying functions. Illustration: E. Wikander/Azote.

The recognition of tipping points runs counter to the idea of linear thinking, where one event leads to another. In a linear world view, effects are additive and predictable, and to a large extent reversible. The real world has shown us repeatedly that this is not the case. Tipping points are most visible in single events, but actually stem from the dynamics of multiple factors.

For example, the cod population of the Atlantic northwest collapsed in what was seemingly a single event of overfishing in the 1990s, but was actually the result of decades of overfishing by many fishing fleets, improvements in fishing technology, a growing market and demand for cod, and other factors. The ensuing fishing restrictions did not lead to a rapid recovery of the fish population and, 20-plus years on, it has still not returned to what it was.

Not until 1957 did Morton Grodzins, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, first formally use the phrase “tip point”. He used it to describe the threshold at which whites began to move out of a neighbourhood once African Americans started moving in.2 The first ecological application of a “tipping point” appeared approximately two decades later, when ecologist C. S. “Buzz” Holling was studying forests in Canada that were prone to spruce budworm infestations. In one possible state, predators could keep the destructive spruce budworms in check. In another, the pests could unleash their prowess by defoliating the forest and thrive until the trees died out. Holling was able to show that certain stressors could flip what seemed to be a stable ecosystem into an alternative state.

But the term wasn’t popularised until Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Pointwas published in 2000. In it, Gladwell highlighted myriad social examples where sudden and unexpected change made a big difference. For instance, he describes how epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases can take off because of the interactions of multiple conditions, from housing infrastructure to the availability of medical care.

While the concept had been around in the ecological sciences for decades, the climate science community didn’t use the term “tipping point” until after Gladwell’s book revived the phrase, first formalised in the scientific literature by Lenton and his colleagues in the mid-2000s. Then, in 2009, 28 leading scientists – including Lenton and Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre – identified nine “planetary boundaries” that mark conditions vital for human survival.3

The nine boundaries together represent an Earth system that maintains the functions and processes that have made it possible for humans to survive and thrive, particularly in the past 10,000 years, or the current geologic era called the Holocene. The researchers were able to quantify seven of them, and showed that we’ve crossed four: climate change, biodiversity loss, land-system change, and altered nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans. The planetary boundaries do not directly correspond to tipping points, instead they describe conditions that mean an increased risk of reaching them.

The nine planetary boundaries represent a framework of ideal conditions for humanity. Illustration: Globaïa.

“We worked together to articulate that tipping points are possible, that it’d be good to study them, and any sensible approach to the future would at least account for them”, Lenton says.

In 2015, he and other researchers wrote that “perhaps the most ‘dangerous’ aspect of future climate change is the possibility that human activities will push parts of the climate system past tipping points, leading to irreversible impacts.”4 In light of this, Lenton believes it’s important to map out the early warning signals that can indicate that a system is close to tipping from one state into another.

If the tipping points in different systems can be identified, then individuals, policy makers, and communities can conceivably change their actions to prevent reaching these tipping points altogether. And, if there’s no way to avoid the tipping points, the stakeholders can take action to absorb the consequences once system A tips into system B. “A trivial investment in the millions [for an early detection system] could warn us of something that could hurt us in the trillions”, Lenton says.

Early warnings, however, rely on understanding the feedbacks in a system that shape it and that could cause it to tip. That can be difficult. “When you get closer to a tipping point, your system will become more variable”, says Oonsie Biggs, a researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre. “It can be very unclear as to where the system is going.”

Ball-and-cup model: As conditions change, as in this metamorphosing blue landscape, a system (the orange ball) changes, represented by its motion. Sometimes a system might jump to another configuration (one of the other cups here) as the barriers to jump into a new state shift — crossing a tipping point. Animation/illustration: E. Wikander/Azote.

Tipping points in practice

“People are generally managing systems like there are no thresholds”, says Biggs. She thinks that it is “better to assume that there are many of these thresholds and what they may be rather than assume that there are none.”

In her research, Biggs and her colleagues have studied multiple ecological systems that have tipped from one state into another and documented these instances in the Regime Shifts DataBase.5 By understanding how shifts can happen in certain systems, people can get a better sense of the conditions under which they occur, and ultimately be able to influence how those systems are managed to avoid reaching tipping points – or to push towards them, Biggs says.

Avoiding undesirable thresholds or tipping points requires resilience. Resilience describes the capacity of a system – be it an individual, lake, forest, city, or economy – to deal with disturbance, change, and development, through persistance, adaptation, or transformation. Resilience in itself, however, is neither a good nor a bad thing.

“You may value some components of an ecosystem whereas other people value different components of an ecosystem”, says Anne Salomon, a marine ecologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada. “It’s not a matter of good or bad, it’s a matter of difference.” Asking questions about the specific context helps clarify wanted outcomes: resilience of what system, to what tipping point, and for whom?


Mangroves, like these in West Bali National Park, live at the edge of salt and freshwater systems around the world; 30% have disappeared in the past half century as humans cut them down for aquaculture or other changes in land use (http://www.regimeshifts.org/item/565-mangrove-transitions). Photo: Ron from Oxfordshire, Netherlands / UK [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Resilience thinking, then, embraces the idea that humans and nature are so inextricably intertwined that they should be thought of cohesively as one social-ecological system. It describes an approach for looking at systems, how they function, how they are perturbed, and what drives the behaviour that causes such perturbations.Resilience researchers have proposed seven principles that contribute to building resilience to minimise risk of hitting undesirable social-ecological tipping points. For instance, having more diversity in a system could give it a greater capacity to deal with change. Having connectivity between different elements in a system could also offset potential disturbances. “But you don’t want to be overconnected”, says Biggs, pointing to the risk of diseases, pests, or other unwanted epidemics spreading far and fast. Learning about a system and building social trust in it, as well as the willingness to act, can also be vital. “If this foundation is laid before a crisis, you can just draw on social resources or capital to act in a coherent way”, she says.

In South Africa’s national parks, for example, scientists, park managers, and rangers have come together to identify the potential thresholds in ecosystems to lay a foundation to manage the fish in their rivers, their elephant populations, savanna ecosystems, and the spread of fire. By identifying potential tipping points, rangers and managers can then look for indicators to monitor the activity in their ecosystems of interest. If they see anything alarming, “then they will have a management meeting where they make a decision to avoid hitting the threshold or to reverse the course of activity”, says Biggs.

Tipping for good

While much attention has been paid to “negative” tipping points – that is, when a stable equilibrium suddenly reaches a critical point and changes into something else entirely – an equal amount of attention might be necessary in investigating “positive” tipping points, or the restoration of a particular ecosystem.

Ecologist Gerry Marten founded the EcoTipping Points Project in 2004 and the website highlights only positive cases where communities were able to steer away from critical tipping points. The project has documented how a marine sanctuary at Apo Island in the Philippines overturned decades of overfishing to restore the island’s coral reef ecosystem and fishery; how villages in Thailand and indigenous communities in southern Mexico reversed their patterns of deforestation; and how cotton farmers all around India upended a cycle of pesticide resistance by using other pest control methods.

The featured stories share similar ingredients for success, such as genuine community participation, the co-adaptation of a community and ecosystem, and allowing nature to run its course and unveil its capacity for self-organisation and restoration. “The main ingredients for success centre around the characteristics of the technology that enable things to be turned around, and the second is about the social organisation for making these changes happen”, says Marten. And the biggest barriers, according to Marten, are overcoming social obstacles that stand in the way of tipping a system back.

As humans can derive value from different states of a system, we may want to control which way a system tips. “The health of an ecosystem is in the eye of the beholder”, says Salomon of Simon Fraser University. “Health is a normative term, depending on what you want from an ecosystem.” Salomon has gathered some insights into resilience thinking from studying kelp forests – the “poster child of tipping points”, she says – along the British Columbia coast. Kelp forests are known to switch dramatically between forested and deforested states, and communities along the coast have maintained a mosaic of both states.

In one state, a rocky reef could have what looks like a liquid forest made of kelp floating above it. In another, the kelp is gone and sea urchins cover the rocky reefs. Depending on how humans enact laws or practices that modify the populations of sea otters, which are known to prey on sea urchins, the reefs can either be lush and green, or rocky and seemingly barren. But because coastal communities derive value from both kelp and sea urchins – urchins can be harvested and sold commercially, whereas kelp provides a habitat for fish and shellfish – they have maintained a patchwork of forested and deforested states by controlling the hunting of sea otters.

What Salomon has learned from transforming the state of kelp forests from one state to another ties back to the fundamentals of resilience in social-ecological systems. “It’s recognising that humans are just one component of a complex system with strong feedbacks and interactions, recognising the ecological and social interactions within these complex systems, and then collaboratively figuring out how to change our governance of the systems and how we interact with them to get them to a desirable state”, she says.

A kelp forest maintained by the Haida offshore of the Haida Gwaii islands, along the coast of British Columbia. Photo: Mark Wunsch.

Seeing tipping points before they tip

Tipping points happen at many levels, from sea urchins and kelp forests to the entire planet’s atmosphere. We know that a Snowball Earth is not good for humans. We also know the same is true for global warming. One conceivable future resulting from climate change would be one where the Sahara desert could be a greener, wetter place with more vegetation – which could be good news for farmers and herders in the region. But elsewhere, people will suffer, as climate change also leads to large and irreversible sea-level rise that will wipe out whole island nations, as well as large deltas where humans have tended to settle over multiple generations.

What risks are societies willing to accept – and which ones can actually be foretold in a chaotic and non-linear world? Seeing tipping points could give some actors, whether they are policymakers, corporations, or communities, the power to change course. But can tipping points actually be identified?6

While we can conceive of futures caused by climate change, pinpointing the exact moments that, for instance, will lead to the greening of the Sahara, or the reversal of ocean currents, might be more difficult. Acknowledging, and maybe even identifying, tipping points in the social-ecological systems in which people live and on which they depend means having a better chance of modifying behaviour to tip the scales for the outcomes people want.

Original Article here. 

Why place-based research is important to global sustainability

TRI’s co-founder and volunteer president, Laura Lynes recently co-authored a paper titled: Interconnected place-based social-ecological research can inform global sustainability published in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. Highlights of the paper are:

  • Long-term networks of place-based research can inform global sustainability.
  • Place-based research fosters co-construction of local sustainability solutions.
  • Transference and scaling-up of place-based insights faces several challenges.
  • New institutional frameworks, settings and communities foster place-based research.

Click here to access the full article.

Can the COP cope? – Thoughts on the COP23 Meetings

By Karl Van Orsdol

You may have noticed that the United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) 23rd annual Conference of the Parties meeting (referred to as COP 23) concluded in Bonn recently.  In the US, the meeting went largely under the radar, displaced by stories on tax legislation and the increasing scrutiny of the sexual misconduct of alpha males within our culture.  Everywhere else in the world, the meetings were front page news due the attendance of nearly every major political leader in the world, except of course, from the US.

The French booth tag line

I attended the COP 23 meetings as an official observer on behalf of The Rockies Institute over their two-week period.  It was my first COP attendance, and it was extraordinary, enlightening and simultaneously, quite sobering.  While the conference was held in Germany, the official host of the meeting was Fiji.  The conference is held in two sections: the official Conference of Parties negotiations carried out in the UN buildings, and the “side events” held in a massive temporary structure that housed over 12 large meeting rooms, a vast floor area of hundreds of small booths from every conceivable UNFCC organization and NGO, as well as large exhibition spaces for over 35 countries ranging from France and Germany to Guinea and Mali.  In a separate large tent, adjacent to the official negotiation center, was the Michael Bloomberg-funded US Climate Action Center, which modestly could only accommodate several thousand attendees.  This center, branded as the “we are still in it” pavilion, was the direct response to the Trump Administration’s pronouncements about leaving the global climate agreement in 2020.

The COP is an official policy and negotiations event at the country level, combined with an educational, informational and policy-influencing side conference.  The side event was overwhelming in scope, with more than 100 sessions daily on all aspects of climate change plus hundreds of more sessions sponsored by countries and featuring case studies and policy discussions.  The total attendees for the two events was estimated at over 25,000 participants.

Navigating such a surfeit of opportunities was challenging.  I was there to discuss my project interests: 1) how to finance actionable adaptation support to Indigenous peoples struggling to live with climate change and 2) how cities can best adapt to a changing set of environmental conditions that threaten basic services to many in the urban population.  Thus, I chose my sessions with these two main interests in mind.  Because of this, my understanding and perceptions of the side-event are a tad narrow – I couldn’t possible attend everything of interest.

Overall, my major take-aways from the COP are as follows:

1) The key discussions now are about migration and adaptation. Adaptation isn’t a surrender to climate change; it’s an on-ramp for many peoples.  The world recognizes that the reduction of greenhouse gases is not occurring at the rate required to minimize global damage or stabilize the climate.  (You should visit James Hansen’s website for the compelling scientific information about the changes humans are making in the global climate).  At the practical level, we have gone too far down the carbon emissions path to save countries and civilizations.  As Mr. Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati said in one packed session “We will have to move, even if every country in the world stopped emitting CO2 today, our lands will still be swamped and the residents will have to relocate, regardless of what happens.  “Migration with dignity” was an oft-spoken concept by the island nations of the south Pacific.  Before he left office, President Tong orchestrated the purchase of 20 sq km on Vanua Levu, one of the Fiji islands, about 2,000km away, so that Kiribati peoples will have somewhere to go when their islands become uninhabitable.

One key challenge for the UNFCCC COP process is developing processes for gaining insight from local Indigenous knowledge and using that insight to create adaptation plans.  Solutions are not integrated in with the Indigenous communities. Chief Bill Erasmus of the Dene Nation Canada spoke about Indigenous peoples having created their own governments and institutions, but the UN only recognizes sovereign national governments, not Indigenous governments.  Simon Bradshaw of OXFAM, summarized the key actions that are required to avert the loss of many cultures threatened by climate change:   1) Minimizing Displacement 2) Upholding rights for people on the move 3) Supporting long-term strategies for safe and dignified migration, and 4) providing finance and resources for people forced to move.  The COP process is a long way from implementing these actions.

2) Practical actions to manage climate change risks and adapt to climate impacts at the local level are laughably inadequate.  Much of the current funding, such as through the UN’s Green Climate Fund (GCF) are focused on either carrying out country level emissions estimates (known as the Nationally Determined Contributions – or NDC’s) required for implementation of the Paris Agreement, or for reducing the risks of the private sector in developing low-carbon energy generation projects.  Very little is spent to actually help countries or communities adapt to climate change.  According to the African Development Bank, less than 3% of all funds committed to fund climate activities go to mitigating the increasing challenges to the peoples of Africa who are dealing with climate related flooding, desertification, droughts and declines in agricultural production.  Yet in Africa, wide swaths of population are migrating because of lack of food and water, lowered crop production and increased mortality of livestock due to drought.

Dr. Caroline Zickgraf, of the Hugo Observatory at the University of Liège, illustrated the dynamics of settlement of climate refugees. Climate migrants move into cities which are unprepared for providing services for the influx.  Tragically, these refugees are only able build makeshift houses in vacant areas that are themselves more prone to seasonal flooding and sea level rise.   These instances are repeated across the developing world from Cap Hatien in Haiti, to Senegal to Vietnam.  Just understanding the number of climate refugees spurred by drought, desertification, sea-level rise or coastal erosion poses a challenge – these migration flows are not necessarily permanent or international, making them difficult to capture or serve.

The GCF is only now starting to incorporate an Indigenous People’s Policy and assessing how best to assist these populations.

A map illustrating the number of climate refugees in each country.

3) Cities are making amazing strides with both mitigation and adaptation.  While a number of US cities have made strides in reducing their carbon emissions, the case studies presented COP which were the most compelling were of older, often European cities.  These cities practically demonstrated at the COP the path forward for urban centers to reduce emissions and develop low carbon transportation and energy systems.  The City of Helsinki, for example is carrying out an integrated approach to transportation in the city center through a combination of prohibiting parking on the street, driving new ride sharing programs, and fully integrating feeder systems to mass transit. This system is aiming at reducing to 4% the number of cars required to produce the same number of passenger trips.  The City of Leipzig demonstrated its unified inter-mobility system where customers at kiosks throughout the city can instantaneously see multiple transportation choices and trip durations for arriving at a specific destination through the use of tram, bus and rail service, as well as car sharing, bike sharing, and electric car fleet.  Leipzig expects to reduce solo car trips by over 50% by 2025.

To manage resilience in the face of climate change, cities are incorporating new technics for urban design.  John Schnellnhuber, the Director of Potsdam Institute for Climate Research, noted that single center cities are not as resilient as multi-central cities.   Cities which have multiple smaller urban centers and neighborhoods woven throughout the urban fabric, are able to manage the complex web of mobility far better than single center cities.

Cities don’t have the financial resources to meet these goals and targets and they need financial innovations.  The C40 Financial Innovation Initiative is aimed at driving and financing climate action plans.  Could there be a clean development bank for just cities? Mayors need access to funds outside of municipal coffers to initiate significant climate actions in cities.  Mayors are looking at urban planning policies, food policy for adapting cities to climate change and mitigating economic risk and enhancing food security.  There is interest from municipalities in being more inclusive with a broader array of stakeholders as part of their climate change strategy.  A very interesting comment from C40 is that mayors are becoming very concerned about the climate-induced migration trends inside their cities, as climate induced weather changes differentially impact various neighborhoods within a city’s limits.

4) Financial approaches to dealing with climate change are not addressing the key challenges.
At the COP, there were many sessions dealing with financing mitigation, and far fewer dealing with adaptation or the financial risks of climate change. But the physical risks of climate change are increasingly evident.  For example, the damage in 2017 from Hurricane Maria was was calculated at upwards of 90% of Dominica’s entire GDP.  This is on top of the damage imposed on the island in 2015 in which the destruction totaled 100% of GDP.  In Kenya, climate induced drought resulted in 2 million people fleeing their homes.  Between 2008 – 2011, Kenya lost $12 million due to a drought.  This impacted the most vulnerable and is overwhelming the country’s ability to manage losses.

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was set up at Warsaw in 2013 to mobilize finance for climate damages, to mitigate the financial impacts of migration due to climate change, and to deal with “slow onset” events and their impacts.  But so much more is needed than is currently available and the insurance industry is not really able to meet this challenge.  In addition, insurance is an unlikely support in response to slow impact events, such as gradual sea level rise.

5) US States are moving forward with clean carbon solutions, often through agreements with sovereign nations. Key governors from US States such as Jerry Brown from California, Kate Brown from Oregon and Jay Inslee from Washington, were everywhere at the conference talking about collaboration with multiple provinces of Canada and the nations of China, Germany and others.  It is one of the first instances where states, which disagree with federal policy, have set out on their own direction and formed agreements with sovereign nations to driver a clean economy.  These agreements are focused on technology transfers, private sector investments and policy discussions.  However, at this stage, the linkages between subnational entities (such as California) and national and regional entities around linking carbon markets are problematic.  The Paris agreement does not allow for subnational parties to sign agreements around carbon reductions.


Perhaps my most memorable moment from COP came from Bertrand Piccard, the pilot who flew around the world in zero carbon plane.  He said what we were lacking was not solutions, but rather a limit of imagination imposed by our existing paradigms of thought.  He noted that the first plane built by the Wright Brothers was constructed of wood and cotton (canvas).  So, he said the Egyptians could have flown in gliders if it wasn’t for religious paradigms that said that flying was only for gods and birds.  Leonardo da Vinci designed flying machines that would work – but he was unable to build them because authorities (i.e. the Vatican) wouldn’t approve of human flight.  It wasn’t until we threw away conventions and paradigms of the past that Orville and Wilbur first created a plane in 1903.  Innovation isn’t so much imagination, it’s about throwing out limitations and paradigms of the past.  If we as a planet, are to prevent the mass extinction of Indigenous cultures and make our cities of the future livable and resilient in the face of climate change, we need to throw out our limitations about what is practical and possible.