Climate change

Climate change is affecting all aspects of our environment and is disproportionately affecting Indigenous people (see the Climate chapter).

Traditional Owners at the National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change in 2021 made a strong statement about climate change, strengthening their calls for action made at an earlier national dialogue (Morgan-Bulled et al. 2021:2):

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.

Changes to Country due to climate change apply multiple pressures to Indigenous people. The National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation’s recent submission to the Senate Inquiry into the Australian Government’s response to the drought (NACCHO 2020a), and the appropriateness of policies and measures to support farmers, regional communities and the Australian economy, highlights the many disproportionate effects that climate change poses for Indigenous communities (see the Urban chapter).

The media has highlighted climate refugees in Australia due to rising temperatures and drought in the desert regions (Allam & Evershed 2019). There are concerns that unbearable living conditions due to heat, and poor water quality and supply, will force Indigenous people to leave their Country, harming people’s connection to their homelands and their culture. Climate change is also a pressing issue for communities in the Torres Strait Islands who face rising sea levels, increasing air and sea temperatures, and changes to ocean acidity (TSRA 2021).

Changes to seasons, flora and fauna

In the consultation for this chapter, all Indigenous community participants gave plentiful examples of identifiable changes to seasons, coastlines and waterways, and to flora and fauna. Many of these centred on changes to key indicator species – plants such as wattle flowering randomly and not following any defined seasonal patterns, and the ironbark orchid now rarely flowering at all. In the Northern Territory, changes in seasonal patterns were linked to changes in insect behaviours – for example, dragonflies not knowing when to arrive during migration, flying ants hatching too prematurely and fewer insects being observed more generally. Indigenous people are also concerned that these are signals of changes to things that cannot be directly observed, such as to microorganisms. This in turn affects the health of soil, plants and animals. Changes to the seasonal timing of specific events (e.g. the timing in the fruiting or flowering of specific ‘calendar’ plants) can lead to a disconnect with the lifecycle stage of its culturally paired species. This leads to concerning disruptions to local Indigenous seasonal understanding of optimal times to hunt, fish and gather resources throughout the year.

The changes to seasons also reflect changes to tides, sea levels and saltwater intrusion into freshwater Country. Freshwater and saltwater quality have both been affected, as has vegetation, including a decrease in growth. This leads to a decrease in wildlife that, particularly for rural and remote communities, has impacts on lifestyle and food.

Our seasons have never been Euro-centric but fluid and constantly changing. But climate change is making things change faster than ever before. SoE Indigenous workshop participant, Australian Capital Territory (Murawin 2021c)

Indigenous people have reported negative impacts of climate change on native animals across the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Victoria (Murawin 2021a, Murawin 2021c, Murawin 2021b). Examples are broad, such as a general loss of animals on Country, and specific, such as kangaroos dying of thirst in the northern New South Wales and Queensland border region.

The spread of invasive species such as cane toads has led to a corresponding decrease in land goannas, blue-tongue lizards and venomous snakes in and around Darwin. In central Northern Territory, there is considerable anecdotal concern about the level of mulga woodlands die-off due to increased heat and drought. Die-off has never been seen to this extent before and this is impacting the other plant and animal life connected to these woodlands.

Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) is taking over large areas of the Northern Territory. Pastoralists tend to see it as beneficial, but many Indigenous people and environmentalists see it as an invasive weed, impacting cultural practices (including fire practice) and sites. Its presence makes it harder to access traditional foods, provides increased hiding places for snakes and makes it more difficult to manage traditional burning regimes. The grass burns hotter than native grasses and has a big impact on other native fauna and flora. Indigenous respondents conveyed that governments appear disinterested in doing anything about it. At the Alice Springs consultation, respondents raised the need for funding towards managing the grass spread before the situation spirals out of control (Murawin 2021b).

Case Study Salt water encroaching on freshwater habitats in Kakadu National Park

Source: Bayliss & Finlayson (2018)

Kakadu National Park is a jointly managed iconic World Heritage-listed site dominated by extensive low-lying freshwater wetlands and coastal floodplain systems. Traditional Owners highly value these biodiverse environments, as they support a range of values and activities that enable continued connection to Country through hunting, fishing, social engagement and as sites of intergenerational transfer of knowledge. The natural and cultural values of Kakadu National Park are highly interconnected, with Traditional Owners playing a central role in their management via a co-management arrangement with the Australian Government. Bininj/Mungguy people, the Traditional Owners of Kakadu National Park, have been acutely aware of environmental change in the area for many decades, and several management actions have been taken by Bininj/Mungguy to protect important cultural sites.

Feral pigs (Sus scrofa) and highly invasive weed species, including paragrass (Urochloa mutica), threaten the park. Future saltwater inundation because of climate-induced sea level rise and increases in extreme weather events including storm surges and flooding represent a significant risk. Historically, introduced buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) caused the destruction of levee banks, allowing salt water to intrude into freshwater systems. More recently, rising sea levels have converted culturally important freshwater billabongs into saline areas – resulting in a loss of habitat and key cultural species of interest to Bininj/Mungguy, including freshwater fish and turtles, magpie geese, and lilies and other freshwater plants.

Coastal communities in northern Australia, like those whose livelihoods depend on the continued integrity of natural and cultural values in Kakadu National Park, will be particularly impacted by climate change–induced sea level rises because they have the potential to exacerbate existing threats to the environment, such as invasive species. Such cumulative impacts risk reducing opportunities for biodiversity conservation and realising the benefits of ecosystem-based livelihoods such as ecotourism.

Case Study Indigenous peoples and scientists share knowledge on sea level rise

Provided by Djungan Neal, Samarla Deshong, Hilda Mosby, Kathy McInnes, Julian O’Grady

Djungan Neal, from the Djungan people, Samarla Deshong from the Konjimal people, Hilda Mosby from the Torres Strait Regional Authority, and Kathy McInnes and Julian O’Grady from CSIRO shared their knowledge on sea level rise, its impacts and possible solutions, at the National First Peoples Gathering on Climate Change held in Cairns in March 2021.

Indigenous peoples have witnessed and recorded many past changes to Country, such as volcanic eruptions and sea level rise, including the rapid rise of seas by around 150 metres in the past 20,000 years. Djungan people have stories about the crisis and how they got together and adopted new kinship and hunting laws, and kept caring for the Country under the sea.

In the coming years when (the places on Country) go back underwater it will still be culturally significant to us. Djungan Neal, Djungan Traditional Owner

Indigenous peoples in Australia have adapted to sea level changes of up to several metres in the past (Nunn & Reid 2015), demonstrating cultural resilience to significant landscape change.

A yarning circle at the Gathering identified that sea level rise has many impacts, including:

  • loss of culturally important sites, including burial sites in sand dunes and midden sites being washed away
  • saltwater intrusion into mangroves, which affects fish abundance, especially for the culturally significant salmon
  • coral bleaching in Torres Strait from sediments being pushed onto the reef during monsoonal weather
  • migration of fish and birds (e.g. the eels that travel up and down the Coral Sea)
  • decline in food sources and opportunities to hunt
  • higher tides on turtle nests
  • monsoon seasons becoming more intense, which impacts infrastructure (e.g. the Tiwi Islands have had infrastructure destroyed and there are no cyclone shelters)
  • monsoons causing environmental change (e.g. creeks drying out due to climate change, causing loss of species such as freshwater stingray and native fish)
  • the seasonal abundance of animals (seasonal calendars) – for example, sharks, rays and insects are out of step with the usual seasonal changes.

Konjimal people are currently losing vital cultural sites through sea level rise on the Country in the Mackay region. Figure 6 is a photograph from an aerial survey (circa 2006) showing a big fish trap that has since been damaged by erosion and sea level rise.

Figure 6 Koinmerburra, Mackay region, 2006

Photo: Matt Bloor

Six low-lying islands where Torres Strait Islanders live are currently dramatically threatened by sea level rise, as are numerous uninhabited coral cays. Coastal erosion threatens food and fuel delivery, increasing the already high cost of living. Hilda Mosby, Torres Strait Regional Authority, explained the rate of change is increasing: ‘Climate change changes the usual. Changes are happening faster than they have in the past’.

Scientists have measured about 30 centimetres of sea level rise in the past century. This means that king tides and storm surges are having greater impact, and this impact will increase in the future. Parts of Cairns are projected to be covered by a 1-in-100-year storm tide by 2050, and the much greater area projected to be covered by a 1-in-100-year storm tide by 2100 (also see Figure 7):

Many generations are going to be dealing with sea level rise … If we limit (climate change) to 2 degrees then sea rise will be between 0.2 and 0.6 metres, but if it doesn’t stop we can have 5 metres by 2300. Kathy McInnes, CSIRO

Indigenous peoples and scientists identified that disaster resilience plans that provide solutions from both Indigenous and western knowledge systems, based on equity between these knowledge systems, are needed to adequately plan for sea level rise. However, understanding the bigger picture is also vital – how climate change is interacting with impacts from tourism, mining and high carbon emission development. It is vital to provide resources for Indigenous people to be on Country, with governance systems that satisfy lore and involve more people, especially youth, in land management.

Figure 7 Cairns storm tide inundation projections for (a) 2050: 1-in-100-year storm tide (2.13 metres) + 0.27 metre sea level rise and (b) 2100: 1-in-100-year storm tide (2.13 metres) + 1.14 metre sea level rise

Source: CRA (2021)

More information: Morgan et al. (2019) and Morgan-Bulled et al. (2021)

Extreme events

Extreme events that are a result of human-induced climate change are having many impacts (see the Extreme events chapter). Sea level rise is eroding and inundating coastal sites and island homes (Tamu 2019). Rising temperatures are making central Australia too hot for rangers to work outside (Hill et al. 2020) and are bringing new infectious diseases to the Torres Strait and northern Australia (Hall et al. 2021). Extreme bushfires are occurring in many places, particularly where Indigenous cultural burning is not in place (Steffensen 2020). Severe droughts have resulted in rivers with almost no flow, which is leading to high salt levels and acidic conditions in soils. This damages culturally significant places, plants and animals, including sudden fish deaths never experienced before (Hemming et al. 2019).

Extreme events can often exacerbate existing socio-economic disadvantage. During and after the 2011 floods in northern New South Wales, Indigenous people reported similar rates of flooding and displacement from their home as those on income support. However, Indigenous people were 4 times as likely to report flooding and displacement from the home of a significant other (Matthews et al. 2019). In addition, Indigenous people were significantly more likely to report mental health distress, anxiety and depression because of the floods than any other group (Matthews et al. 2019).

The responses to extreme events also frequently disproportionately neglect Indigenous people and further exacerbate disadvantage (Weir et al. 2021). In the extreme fire events of 2019–20, for example, an Indigenous-led study found that Indigenous people were among those most affected in south-eastern Australia (Williamson et al. 2020). Bhiamie Eckford-Williamson, an Euahlayi man and academic from the Australian National University, told the 2020 Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements that 96,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, including 35,000 children, were affected by the fires (Williamson 2020).

However, aside from renewed public interest in cultural burning practices, Indigenous people have received little attention in the post-bushfire response. This silencing speaks to failures to ensure Indigenous representation on relevant government committees involved in decision-making, planning and implementation of disaster risk management, and to emphasise Indigenous people’s voices across the bushfire planning, preparation, recovery and response spectrum. Given that extreme events are likely to become more regular as a result of climate change, the absence of, and calls for, the inclusion of Indigenous people in disaster planning and recovery are notable (Williamson et al. 2020):

The neglect of Aboriginal people in bushfire responses impoverishes the capacity of governments, agencies and communities to successfully carry out their work. Indeed, their continued marginalisation diminishes all of us – in terms of our values in living within a just society, as well as the possibilities offered by new and old ideas of how to live with fire-prone landscapes. As diverse peoples accustomed to living with trauma and the disruption of ongoing colonisation, there is much to be learned about the resilience and inherent strengths Aboriginal communities possess. It was never acceptable to silence Aboriginal peoples in the responses to major disasters, and it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that these colonial practices of erasure are relegated to the past.

The need to meaningfully include Indigenous communities in preparedness and response is also echoed in many current dialogues regarding the heightened vulnerability of marginalised communities in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are many parallels between COVID-19 and climate change (Ebi et al. 2021). We can learn from this and adapt, to ensure that these unacceptable situations do not happen in the future. But we can only do so when we accept that this situation was entirely preventable, with structural inequity as the root cause.

The desperate situation that has unfolded in western New South Wales in the second half of 2021 is testament to the structural inequity that Indigenous communities face, further exposed through COVID-19. In the town of Wilcannia for example, the Indigenous community were left highly vulnerable to the rapid spread of COVID-19 due to various pressures in housing and infrastructure within their community and a lack of foresight, proactive planning, care, provision of services and resourcing from government authorities. Community members went hungry when the local shop was closed, families were infected through overcrowding in housing, existing health facilities were unable to rapidly respond to meet needs and were not adequately resourced or staffed, responses from government were slow, ineffectual and culturally insensitive, with added pressures such as a heightened incidence of chronic disease within community and a low vaccine uptake compounding an already dire situation. (Green 2021)

A recent academic study concluded that (Thurber et al. 2021):

The portrayal of communities as biologically destined to be sick and permanently ‘disorganised’ and dependent can be used to justify paternalistic policies and dismiss calls for self-determination. Further, it can lead to policy responses that ignore the root cause of inequities, creating missed opportunities for prevention and limiting the effectiveness of interventions.