National and international frameworks

The primary international framework on climate change is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). In 2015, the Paris Agreement was reached under the UNFCCC, which, in effect, reflects the current implementation of agreements under the UNFCCC. A key part of the Paris Agreement is that countries are asked to commit to a nationally determined contribution (NDC), which varies from country to country, of reductions in 2030 greenhouse gas emissions compared with a baseline, which is 2005 for Australia’s NDC. The Paris Agreement also recognises the role of Indigenous peoples and local communities in building a world that is resilient in the face of climate impacts (UNCC 2017).

Previous agreements also exist under the UNFCCC, such as the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Cancun Agreement (2010); some commitments made under those agreements are still current or have not yet reached the end of their reporting period. Climate change is the focus of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts) and its associated targets.

There is no specific Commonwealth climate change Act, but a range of legislation covers various climate change activities at national level. For example, Australian Carbon Credit Units are defined and regulated under the Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Act 2011 and associated Regulations, and the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act 2007 introduced a single national framework for reporting and disseminating company information about greenhouse gas emissions, energy production and energy consumption. Some states and territories have enacted a climate change Act (or equivalent). The scope of such legislation varies between jurisdictions, but can include state-level emissions targets or a process for setting them, and requirements for decision-makers under other legislation to consider climate change in their decisions.

In 2012, the Council of Australian Governments defined roles and responsibilities (SCCC 2012) for the management of climate risk and climate change adaptation within the 3 levels of government, as well as the respective roles of government and the private sector. This emphasised that all levels of government have a significant role in climate change adaptation and risk management.

Indigenous involvement

Indigenous peoples’ involvement in national and international negotiations for greenhouse gas reductions and climate change adaptation is essential, as they are central to environmental protection and conservation (Figure 21) (Baird 2008). Yet there is a key gap in Indigenous voices in such negotiations and in understanding by policy-makers. Indigenous people also experience barriers to exercising their rights to practise their unique cultural methodologies to combat climate change.

Indigenous involvement in land, water and sea management is about how Indigenous people go about caring for their Country (Hill et al. 2013). Time and again, Indigenous people voice the importance of their involvement in managing Country to ensure that impacts (including from climate change) to their traditional knowledge are minimised.

Long-term climate change is impacting Indigenous people and their communities. For example, forecast sea level rises and increases in Australian temperatures such as those experienced in island Indigenous communities may force Indigenous people to migrate from their homelands to urban settings or other locations.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) is a key universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and wellbeing of Indigenous peoples, which is likely to increasingly play a central role in international law. The Australian Government endorsed and signed the UNDRIP in 2009, although this agreement is nonbinding. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction and the Paris Agreement on climate change highlight the growing international concern and commitment to addressing climate change and its social, environmental and economic implications. Indigenous people are among the first to experience the direct impacts of climate change, even though they contribute little to greenhouse gas emissions.

International involvement

Several international forums and organisations support and promote Indigenous people’s voice in environmental discussions and decision-making:

  • The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is the central United Nations coordinating body for matters relating to the concerns and rights of the world’s Indigenous peoples.
  • The formation of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change Facilitative Working Group at the 2019 Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is a starting point in developing a network of Indigenous peoples within a global framework. It argued that Indigenous peoples must have full and effective participation in the UNFCCC. It will also illustrate international human rights law relating to Indigenous peoples (Diaz 2008).
  • The Working Group on Article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity reflects the agreement of parties to the convention under Article 8(j) to respect, preserve and maintain the knowledge, innovations and practices of Indigenous peoples and local communities relevant for the conservation of biological diversity, to promote their wider application with the approval of knowledge holders and to encourage equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of biological diversity. Programs of work undertaken under the convention include inland waters biodiversity, marine and coastal biodiversity, island biodiversity, forest biodiversity, dry and subhumid lands biodiversity, and mountain biodiversity.
  • The Global Forest Coalition (GFC) is an international coalition of nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and Indigenous peoples’ organisations (IPOs) defending social justice and the rights of forest peoples in forest policies. The GFC was founded in 2000 by 19 NGOs and IPOs from all over the world. It is a successor to the Forest Working Group NGO, which was originally established in 1995. The GFC participates in international forest policy meetings and organises joint advocacy campaigns on issues such as Indigenous peoples’ rights, the need for socially just forest policy and the need to address the underlying causes of forest loss. The GFC also hosted the International Expert Group Meeting on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change in Darwin in 2008.
  • The Group on Earth Observations Indigenous Alliance links Indigenous groups to provide networking opportunities between cultural heritage and global observation science and technology.

Such platforms enhance Indigenous voices. However, Indigenous people in Australia are seen as Australians and not viewed as distinct and unique Indigenous nations. This is why the Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade represented the Australian Government in their 2015 address to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues; key Indigenous people attended as Indigenous organisations (UNDESA 2021).

National involvement

Environmental governance in Australia does not recognise Indigenous people’s traditional knowledge unless items of knowledge are defined in specific laws. For example, cultural heritage laws have some protections for Indigenous people and their knowledge (see the Heritage chapter), and could be used to protect knowledge that is a key component of reading Country for climate; this could be a plant species or animal species whose behaviour provides a key natural indicator for climate change, triggering adaptive measures. However, these laws do not protect all species of animals, birds, fish and plants; cultural sites within state-based jurisdictions; or national Indigenous cultural heritage frameworks. Current policies fail to recognise the significant value in applying traditional knowledge to deliver outcomes on climate change mitigation or adaptive projects.

In Australia, the National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change continues to grow; it was funded through the Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub (now the Climate Systems Hub) of the National Environmental Science Program. This gathering, held from 22 March 2021 in Cairns, brought together more than 120 Traditional Owners from around Australia to enhance First Nations people–led climate knowledge (Morgan-Bulled et al. 2021).

However, Indigenous engagement on setting global or jurisdictional frameworks for climate change is limited at best. The lack of acknowledgement of Indigenous people’s direct knowledge of Country has created a significant gap in developing a framework in Australia that genuinely engages their voice and knowledge.

Developing an emissions target for Australia in consultation with First Nations people can help address climate action. Any targets for reduced emissions and achievable timeframes could potentially be enhanced with traditional ecological knowledge. Shifting the tipping point globally is just as much a local government matter as it is for a higher jurisdictional decision-making authority: it is everyone’s business. Engaging First Nations people as equal stakeholders in the development of climate change and emissions target plans will include the Indigenous voice.

Case Study 2021 First Nation Peoples Statement on Climate Change

We, the participants attending the Gathering, acknowledge the voices of the Gimuy Walubarra Yidinji and Yirraganydji, whose lands we meet upon in 2021.

Building on the 2018 statement from First Peoples on Yorta Yorta land, we as First Nation Peoples of Australia recognise that overwhelmingly scientific and traditional knowledge is demanding immediate action against the threats of climate change. When Country is healthy, we are healthy.

Our knowledge systems are interconnected with our environment and it relies on the health of Country. This knowledge is held by our Elders and passed on to the next generation. Solutions to climate change can be found in the landscapes and within our knowledge systems. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have the tools, knowledge, and practices to effectively contribute to the fight against climate change.

We have lived sustainably in Australia for over 100,000 years. First Nations people of Australia contribute the least to climate change, yet the impacts of climate change are affecting us most severely.

We at the Gathering are calling for the following:

  • A commitment from Federal Government to financially support an annual First Nations-led dialogue on climate change. The annual dialogue should be a place where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders can discuss the changing climate in their communities and is a valuable input to inform policy at all levels.
  • A commitment for federal-level funding for an Indigenous-led climate action hub, which would fund both Indigenous-led mitigation and adaptation climate change projects. These projects could focus on:
    • −Domestic emissions reductions through enabling reliable renewable energy supply to off grid communities, Indigenous-led nature-based solutions.
    • −Indigenous-led adaptation planning for communities and the recording and transmission of knowledges and experiences across the country.
  • The establishment of a Torres Strait Island taskforce, led by First Nations peoples of the region, to drive critical and tangible climate change solutions for island communities under present and immediate threat.
  • We call on all Australians to join us in acting on climate change and in protecting the environment. To work collaboratively with us, learn our laws and our ways and respect our knowledges to find solutions together to combat climate change.
  • Climate action that links all levels of government so our people and communities can work collaboratively in an Indigenous-led fight against climate change.
  • The right to manage Country. First Nations peoples must be involved in the national dialogue about climate change and be engaged on any decision that impacts us and our Country. We call for these rights to be respected and observed on an international, national, state and local level. Our knowledge must be included in climate management frameworks.
  • To look beyond ourselves, to include flora and fauna in climate planning and climate management frameworks so the plants and animals that support us can be represented. We are seeing changes in the environment and the declining health of Country and people. We can see our native flora and fauna are suffering and the conditions of our lands, waters, seas and skies declining. For some of our people it is an emergency because the climate crisis has already caused widespread damage.

Our connection to Country represents climate science developed over countless generations, listen to us, work with us and together we can enact a change that will shape our future for all Australians.