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.

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