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Policy, people and prospects: reflections on climate action and the unaddressed reality of stolen land

Introduction by Croakey: Last November, Gumbaynggirr nyami Amba-Rose Atkinson joined First Nations Peoples from around the world in Egypt for the COP27 meeting. Below, she shares reflections from that experience through the lenses of ‘policy, people and prospects’.

She also issues a challenge to the Australian Government, which is bidding to host the COP31 meeting in 2026, to actively work towards a meeting that is not just culturally inclusive, but First Nations-led.


Amba-Rose Atkinson writes:

In the few months since the 2022 Conference of the Parties (COP27) Australia has felt the ongoing impacts of climate change, with an increased severity and frequency of extreme weather events plaguing Oceania.

The Kimberly region of Western Australia, particularly Fitzroy Crossing, experienced severe flooding over the holiday period; Aotearoa was just hit with one of the most serious tropical cyclones; Antarctica is melting faster than previously thought, with a Doomsday glacier intensifying rising sea levels;  and South Australia is in the midst of a five-day heatwave.

In November 2022, at COP27 I heard many First Nations peoples from across the globe call out the structural colonial forces that frame the ongoing environmental, climate, and health crises. However, the spaces that most needed to be acknowledging and addressing such forces, remained silent. There was a resounding call amongst global First Nations peoples that there must be tangible outcomes for all the discussions, debates, and solutions put forward by First Nations peoples.

While the adoption of a loss and damage fund was marked as a historic decision, climate change will not be solved through compensatory financial mechanisms alone. The symptomatic nature of climate change must be addressed.

Turtle Island-based Indigenous Environmental Network states that real solutions foreground Indigenous Peoples and Mother Earth. Environmental, climate, and health solutions cannot equitably stem from financial institutions, or other governmental and non-state actors operating and benefitting from stolen land.

At COP27 major discussions of renewable energy, carbon markets, and ceasing deforestation continued to take place without critical analyses of land tenure and land rights.

Renowned Indigenous scholar Dr Farhana Sultana writes that dominant discussions around climate change tend to make it seem apolitical – as a physical phenomenon to be fixed with technology and finance – instead of a restructuring of power relations and relationships to the Country, waterways, and communities that we are connected to.

CGI map in Pavilion B at COP27.

Policy: where are our voices?

First Nations communities have a significant interest in the surging climate and energy developments, particularly in the movement around decarbonisation of industry and renewable energy transition.

At the Australian pavilion, most panels and discussions regarding developmental interventions positioned (largely Eurocentric) science-based decision making as uniquely best placed to address current environmental problems. Colleagues from the University of Queensland, Dr Pedram Rashidi, Professor Kristin Lyons and Jim Walker, explain that this approach upholds systematic exclusions of First Peoples and fails to uphold international Indigenous rights obligations.

Renewable energy

The first panel session I watched in the Australian Pavilion discussed renewable energy systems. There was no mention of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples, Country, or Indigenous-led solutions despite Australia’s plans to become a world leader in renewable energy. Once again, discussions about utilising Indigenous land are occurring without Indigenous peoples.

Australia has one of the largest interconnected electricity systems in the world, covering 40,000km. The Government plans to grow the renewable share of the National Electricity Market to 82% by 2030.

While this marks a positive shift in an increased uptake in renewable energy supply, we must take a holistic approach to energy policy. Moving forward, it is imperative that large-scale renewable-energy projects built in Australia must obtain free, prior, and informed consent from relevant Indigenous stakeholders; support Indigenous peoples’ access to energy; provide financial compensation for land use and a stake in ownership.

Forest protection

According to the 2022 United Nations (UN) Integrity Matters report, deforestation driven by land-use change and agriculture contributes around 11 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG).

Consequently, the world cannot reach net zero by 2050 without ending deforestation by 2025. During COP27, Australia became a founding member of the Forests and Climate Leaders Partnership, which aims to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 – five years too late.

Carbon trading

Indigenous authors from Aotearoa, Kiribati, Samoa, and Vanuatu identify that Indigenous peoples are more likely to be impacted negatively by market-based, neo-colonial mechanisms, particularly related to climate change mitigation and/or carbon-trading.

Levi Sucre Romero, of the Bribri Indigenous peoples of Costa Rica, writes that one of the most contentious debates at COP27 was around fair rules for the new carbon trading system that is expected to start in 2024 as part of the 2015 Paris agreement. Romero explains that fundamental to any carbon initiative is the recognition of Indigenous land rights; the only guarantee that ensures Country is protected.

As Sultana affirms, neo-colonial structures of governance and green capitalism render possibilities of transformation more difficult. Policy intending on incorporating nature-based solutions cannot do so without the perspectives and Knowledge Systems of First Nations peoples, grounded in an Indigenous rights-based approach.

Fossil fuels

Climate Change Performance Index (CCPI) experts in the 2023 report ‘Monitoring Climate Mitigation Efforts of 59 Countries plus the EU – covering 92% of the Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions’ express concerns about Australia’s continued fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and continued subsidies for fossil fuel infrastructure and projects.

The report stated that Australia is one of the world’s largest liquified natural gas and coal exporters, and continues to heavily subsidise the fossil fuel industry while refusing to limit fossil fuel production.

Australia cannot keep celebrating shallow targets under the guise of achievement. In nearly 20 years, Australia’s emissions have only reduced by 20 percent, this is not aggressive enough – we must halve our emissions by 2030 to avoid irreparable planetary damage. Time is running out.

People

There is immense power in mobilising a global Indigenous collective advocating for Country; why aren’t the world’s organisations listening?

I experienced many impactful moments throughout my time at COP27. One was hearing the largest International Indigenous Peoples Forum on Climate Change (IIPFCC) caucus introduce themselves one-by-one in their languages. Another was when I had the opportunity to speak with global Indigenous leaders and Elders from Papua New Guinea, Alaska, and Canada – asking them what their message to global leaders and governments would be.

Chief Bill Erasmus from the Deme Nation in Canada emphasised that many of the world’s leading governments today are based on colonisation – whole systems based on oppressing and not sharing. Having attended many COPs, Chief Bill noted that “they’re all fighting to have a minimum amount of change”.

Ursula Rakova from Bougainville in Papua New Guinea replied that the theme of COP27, ‘Together for Implementation’, means that the “government, the civil society, private sector need to come together and work together so that they combat climate change… my takeaway is that the government in each of the countries need to work a lot better with local communities who have solutions”.

Chief Gary Harrison from the Chickaloon Native Village in Alaska replied that it’s going to take reducing consumption and changing the way renewable energies are implemented. Governments and non-state actors need to be more careful about renewable energies and where these projects are, “because some of them are damming up the rivers… and then the fish can’t get back to their spawning grounds”.

Chief Gary Harrison explained that “you’ve got to understand how the nature and how the people work with what’s going on” and said that people “need to work with Indigenous peoples, so that they can figure out how to do these renewable energies without hurting the cycles of the animals, Mother Earth and her cycles, so that we can have true climate change mitigation”.

After an insightful and moving conversation, Chief Bill Erasmus concluded that “the important thing is, as peoples, we’ve always been here, and we have a way of seeing the world… and that was provided to us in the beginning of time. We have our laws from the beginning of time. There’s a reason those laws were given to us… those laws will continue into the future. Stay with your own laws, understand your own world and function and flourish with it”.

Presentation at the Indigenous Peoples Pavilion in Pavilion C at COP27.

Prospects

How will Australia foreground Indigenous voices and solutions as potential COP31 hosts?

In Australia and as witnessed at COP27, strong and knowledgeable Indigenous peoples from around the world are working tirelessly to defend their Country and culture. Elders, knowledge holders, community leaders and young people are powerful agents of change. To realise substantive progress in the climate crisis – and intersecting crises – such voices need to be at the forefront of policy, governance, and broader discussions.

After my experience at COP27, I implore the Australian Government to actively work towards a COP31 that is not just culturally inclusive, but First Nations-led.

We are the oldest continuing culture in the world – it would be unscrupulous to bring the world to our shores to parade feigned climate action. With only three years to go before COP31 in 2026, Australia must acknowledge the significant contribution of colonisation to climate change, and address the ongoing implications of being a major GHG contributor for both Australia and the Pacific.

Moving forward we need not only greater ambition on climate action, we need to end reliance on fossil fuels. We need to listen and to work with Indigenous people on nature-based solutions that are grounded in an Indigenous-rights based approach.

To salvage the future of the planet, and humanity, we must challenge existing systems of colonialism, capitalism, and extractivism that fuels climate change. Show the world Australia is an advocate for the necessary, and urgent transformation required to protect and sustain life for future generations to come.

Darrundang,

Amba-Rose.

Wattle on Kabi Kabi dja (Country). Photos supplied by author.

Author details

Amba-Rose Atkinson is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) Candidate at the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health Research and School of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, the University of Queensland. Her PhD study looks at the relationship between Country, Climate, and First Nations Peoples’ Health; and how the knowledge systems of this relationship can and must be embedded in localised and place-based environmental, climate, and health solutions. See her previous article: At COP27 and beyond: First Nations voices and solutions must be “heard at all times and at every level of society”.


This is the final article in the #HealthyCOP27 series. Croakey Health Media acknowledges and thanks the Lord Mayor’s Charitable Foundation for funding the series, and Adjunct Professor Janine Mohamed and the Lowitja Institute for partnering with us on the project.

 

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