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Amid new global heat records, we take in some views from Saibai in the Torres Straits to Dubai and COP28

Introduction by Croakey: The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has officially confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year on record, by a huge margin.

Six leading international datasets used for monitoring global temperatures show that the annual average global temperature was 1.45 ± 0.12 °C above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) in 2023, according to a WMO statement on 12 January.

Global temperatures in every month between June and December set new monthly records, the WMO said. July and August were the two hottest months on record. Since the 1980s, each decade has been warmer than the previous one. The past nine years have been the warmest on record.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a related statement that “humanity’s actions are scorching the earth”, and that “2023 was a mere preview of the catastrophic future that awaits if we don’t act now”.

The WMO statement noted that global temperatures are just one indicator of how the climate is changing, with other key indicators – including atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, ocean heat and acidification, sea level, sea ice extent and glacier mass balance – also worsening.

WMO will issue the final version of its State of the Global Climate 2023 report in March, and this will include details on socioeconomic impacts on food security, displacement, and health.

Meanwhile, Francis Nona, a Torres Strait Islander scholar, shares some reflections below from global climate negotiations in Dubai last month, and stresses the importance of listening to Indigenous elders in tackling the climate crisis.


Francis Nona writes:

I was one of the almost 100,000 attendees at December’s international climate talks in Dubai. As I departed Australia as a funded representative of the Healthy Environments and Lives Network, I spoke to my father back on Saibai Island in the outer Torres Strait Islands. He asked me, how does a boy from Saibai end up in Dubai?

After 14 nonstop days of delivering six presentations at side events, meeting with international organisations working with Indigenous communities from around the world, presenting with Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney, having multiple one-on-one meetings and collecting two handfuls of business cards from organisations that are potential collaborators, I returned home to Australia with a new vision for what may be possible for my Country and Australia.

The audacity of the COP28 task

I was initially overwhelmed by the size of the 28th Conference of Parties (COP28) event, with so many people all in one place with a focus on climate change. The pace of COP28 was so frenetic that it was a challenge to keep up with the presentations and negotiations to address climate change.

There were so many events that I wanted to attend, and it was encouraging that health is now on the agenda for COP, as climate change is such a major threat to the health of the peoples of the globe.

Climate change threatens human health through increased frequency and intensity of adverse weather events such as extreme storms and heat waves, damage to infrastructure including food systems, water and sanitation and an increase in prevalence of noncommunicable diseases and the spread of infectious diseases.

Indigenous voices from across the globe – all telling a similar climate story

The international focus, with perspectives from many countries on how climate change has and will affect them, was invigorating.

Indigenous peoples from so many places across the world were telling their stories and these resonated strongly with me. The Indigenous voices from so many places had so many similarities to what I have heard from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and individuals in Australia.

A special moment for me was meeting inspiring and brave young people from the Torres Straits who were representatives of the Decarbonize students from Australia.

The Indigenous people who spoke came from similar backgrounds of histories of colonisation, dispossession of country and resources, marginalisation, systemic racism, and poorer outcomes across all the social determinants of health. Indigenous peoples had all been the custodians and cared for the environment until colonisation interrupted their connection to their homelands.

I felt a sense of hope listening to the voices of the young Indigenous people from across the world and how they envisioned a better future.

I was excited to listen to strategies from Indigenous communities that had given an increased level of self-determination to the traditional owners to address climate change.

One of these strategies was a global fund that bought back land and gave it back to the First Nations people to manage. They replanted rainforests and managed these using traditional ecological practices. The rainforest trees are integral to capturing atmospheric carbon and the traditional owners were able to continue cultural practices within an environment on their own homelands, in an ecology that is regenerating.

COP28’s breakthrough achievements

The key achievements from COP28 included the Loss and Damage Fund, which will help lower income countries pay for climate-related disasters including extreme storms, cyclones or hurricanes, flood and drought events that damage infrastructure or food systems.

Another key outcome is the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, aimed out phasing out fossil fuels and supporting greater reliance on renewable energy sources. More than 130 world leaders endorsed the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture and Food systems, with commitments to more sustainable agricultural practices with less carbon emissions and promoting the UN Sustainable Development Goals through increased food security.

There was also the COP28 Declaration on Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace, a call for action from governments and all other stakeholders to collectively address climate resilience in financially disadvantaged countries that are disproportionately affected by climate change.

It was disappointing that the world is not on track on progress from the Paris Agreement as demonstrated by the first Global Stocktake at COP28, but there were promising developments. However, action is not happening fast enough to address climate change, especially as 2023 was the hottest year on record globally.

A joint commitment to climate action

Even though large numbers of people attended COP28, I had a sense that each attendee was committed to varying degrees to addressing climate change and its current and future impacts.

At times I wondered if I was preaching to the converted.

I also wondered how the important messages from COP28 could be disseminated to the approximately eight billion people in the world who were not part of the event. To make an impact on mitigation and adaption strategies to address climate change will require every global citizen to be engaged.

My community-centred climate work in 2024

I was both exhausted and enthusiastic when COP28 came to an end.

I made so many invaluable connections with others from across the globe. I learnt so much about how others are addressing climate change with both adaption and mitigation strategies and planning, as climate change becomes more severe and there is a renewed sense of the urgency to act to save our world and ourselves. I hope Australia can host COP31 in partnership with the Pacific and hope that we can be leaders in addressing climate change.

For my part, this year I’ll continue working in collaboration with my community and a range of interdisciplinary teams to address climate mitigation and adaptation on the ground where the impacts are already being felt – including my homeland in the Torres Strait. I’m looking to further expand community-led local initiatives that protect food, culture, essential services in a changing climate.

In addition, I’ll be working on amplifying the rights-based approach to climate action for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders that is enshrined in Australia’s many international agreements and needs to be delivered upon – especially in remote communities where the impacts are so apparent.

In reflecting on my father’s wise words, I feel that for us to make change, we need to hear the voices of our elders at a policy level. Understand the strengths and importance of Indigenous knowledges for climate change mitigation and adaptation.

• Francis Nona is a climate scholar at Carumba Institute, QUT


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