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Rising up: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people leading for climate justice

*** THIS ARTICLE WAS UPDATED AT 4.30PM, 4 NOVEMBER 2021 ***

Introduction by Croakey: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are on the frontlines of the climate emergency, with record temperatures, drought, and loss of biodiversity compounding social and health inequities caused by more than 200 years of colonisation.

It was reported this week that a group of five young Australians, including Wiradjuri teenager, Ethan Lyons, have lodged three human rights complaints with the United Nations over the Morrison Government’s inaction in climate change. And Torres Strait Islander communities, fearful that their islands will be wiped out by sea level incursion and storm damage, have also filed a class action arguing that the Australian Government must cut greenhouse gas emissions by 74 percent.

Below Nicole MacKee reports for the Croakey Conference News Service from a virtual roundtable meeting, recently hosted by the Lowitja Institute in partnership with the National Health Leadership Forum and the Climate and Health Alliance.

At a COP26 side event this Friday, titled ‘Transforming Australia from laggard to leader’, the Lowitja Institute will release a report arising from the roundtable, ‘Climate Change and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health’.


Nicole MacKee writes:

Nor­man Jupurrurla Frank’s house in Tennant Creek was the first Aboriginal Government house in the Northern Territory to have solar panels installed. But that’s where the program stalled; the panels have never delivered the promised cheap, reliable power that is essential in a town that increasingly experiences searing heat.

“I am still waiting for power to be connected, and Power and Water are refusing to connect it up,” said Mr Jupurrurla, a Waru­mungu Tra­di­tion­al Own­er of the land in and around Tennant Creek. “We are waiting for them to flick one switch on, and it has taken almost three months.”

Affordable, secure energy supply is a critical issue in Tennant Creek, where residents are seeing an increasing number of days above 40 degrees Celsius, and the inside temperature of some homes can soar as high as 60 degrees Celsius.

Reliable energy supply takes on added importance for many in the community who require reliable power to undergo kidney dialysis, including Mr Jupurrurla, who requires dialysis three times a week.

The town’s pre-paid system is expensive and unreliable with frequent power outages.

“For a renal patient like me, and there are a lot of renal patients around, we need to keep [heart and diabetes medication] in the fridge, and if we have no power and nothing works, there is no cool place to put things in,” Mr Jupurrurla said.

And the heat is only going to get worse. Mr Jupurrurla reflected on recent heatwaves that had dried out local waterholes and killed off ancient shade trees.

“The seasons don’t really match with our climate in our Country how it used to be,” he said in an upcoming CroakeyVoices podcast.

As I walk my Country and look at my Country dying and very poor, I feel sad. It doesn’t just impact the Country, it impacts us Mob spiritually too you know. My people are very powerfully connected to the land.”

It’s a similar story in Mparntwe/Alice Springs where Vanessa Napaltjarri Davis, a Warlpiri/Northern Arrente woman, is a Senior Aboriginal Researcher with the Tangentyere Council. She said increasing temperatures, ongoing drought, and shifts in seasonality have impacted her community’s ability to source bush medicines and bush tucker.

Vanessa Napaltjarri Davis

“Climate change has really had quite a significant impact on the way we collect bush medicines and bush tucker and do bush hunting,” Davis said, adding that local people were often forced to buy food and takeaway.

“We rely on those bush tuckers for a healthy way of living.”

These powerful personal stories from Central Australia were shared during a landmark roundtable last month to explore the issues raised in the ‘Climate Change and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Discussion Paper’.

The paper was prepared for the Lowitja Institute and the National Health Leadership Forum by the Healthy Environments and Lives (HEAL) Network and the Centre for Research Excellence in Strengthening Systems for Indigenous Health Care Equity (CRE-STRIDE).

Pat Anderson

The final report is expected to be released later this week during a COP26 side meeting, ‘Transforming Australia from Laggard to Leader’.

Ms Pat Anderson, Alyawarre woman and chair of the Lowitja Institute, acknowledged that the stakes in responding to climate change were high.

“The task of tackling climate change feels, quite frankly, overwhelming,” she said.

“It is a huge challenge, especially for young people. We are talking about the survival of the planet and the safeguarding of the future. How are we going to do that for not only for all of us living on this continent, but for humanity?

“That’s the stakes.”

Dr Janine Mohamed, Lowitja Institute CEO, said for at least 65,000 years, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have developed a unique connection and equilibrium with the lands, seas, and environment.

“But colonisation severely disrupted and devastated these connections and our custodianship of our lands,” she said.

Dr Janine Mohamed

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not only rising up because of the disproportionate toll of climate change that we are experiencing; compounding on the long known and existing gaps that already exist.

“We are rising up because — like Indigenous peoples across the globe — we are uniquely equipped to drive solutions to deal with the climate crisis, using experiential, traditional and cultural knowledges.”

Key findings

The discussion paper’s key findings are:

  • Impacts from climate change will vary considerably across Australia, and will include increases in average temperatures and heatwaves, rising sea levels, cyclones, flooding and drought.
  • There are many varied direct and indirect climate change impacts on the morbidity and mortality of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Health services will struggle to operate in extreme weather, and will face increasing demand and a reduced workforce.
  • Climate change presents an opportunity for redress and empowerment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to lead climate action planning based on their intimate traditional and historical knowledges of Country.
Dr Veronica Matthews

Presenting the findings, Dr Veronica Matthews, from the Quandamooka community in Queensland and lead investigator of CRE-STRIDE and the HEAL Network, said previous greenhouse gas emissions had already locked in average global temperature increases of up to 1.5 degrees by 2030.

“This impact will vary across Australia,” said Matthews, a co-author of the discussion paper. “There will be a rise in average temperature across all regions, an increase in the frequency and intensity of heatwaves, especially in northern parts and in inland areas. We will see continuing increases in sea levels, the intensity of cyclones will increase, [while] in southern parts we will see lower rainfall and increased likelihood of drought and extreme fire weather.”

It’s what we do now, though, that will determine the impacts of climate change in the longer term, Matthews said.

“If we don’t act to reduce emissions, the outcome is really unthinkable for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations across Northern and Central Australia,” she said, pointing to the report’s findings that Darwin could experience between 52 days (low emissions, eg, working toward net zero by 2050) and 265 days per year over 35 degrees Celsius (high emissions, eg, no reduction policy) dependent on our climate ambitions.

“The urgency is here,” Matthews said. “If we wish to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees, we need to take action now.”

Amba-Rose Atkinson, a proud Gumbaynggirr woman and discussion paper co-author, outlined the many direct and indirect health impacts of climate change.

Atkinson said extreme heat would exacerbate chronic diseases, accidents, and increase adverse pregnancy outcomes, while sea level rises would lead to a loss of land, homes, food and water, and impact cultural sites.

Amba-Rose Atkinson

Drought, she said, would also impact food and water security, and more frequent extreme weather events brought increased risks of death, injury, water contamination and loss of food resources.

Indirectly, an increasingly hostile and erratic climate, would impact food security, increase the risk of infectious diseases and the resultant health impacts were likely to be exacerbated by poor housing design and energy poverty.

Atkinson also highlighted the impact of climate change on social and emotional wellbeing.

“There is a sense of loss in seeing the land ‘sick’; as many of us know, if our country is suffering … we also suffer.”

Illustration by Julia Curtis.

Energy poverty

Concerns about energy poverty intersect with the health impacts of rising temperatures in Central Australia.

Speaking to CroakeyVoices for an upcoming podcast, Mr Jupurrurla pointed to research he is working on with Dr Simon Quilty, an academic at the Australian National University and specialist physician working as medical advisor for Purple House, on energy poverty experienced by many remote-living Aboriginal people.

“The hot weather is exacerbating this form of poverty,” Quilty said. “It’s getting so hot that the electricity required to run their air conditioners is becoming so [costly] that they run out of power all the time, so the inside of those houses could up well above 50, if not into the 60 degrees Celsius mark.”

Houses in the town are powered using a pre-paid meter system. When credit runs out on a weekend, residents are provided with a “friendly credit”, though may wake up on a Monday morning with the stark choice of paying a $50 power debt to keep the power on or putting food on the table, Quilty explained.

It was these concerns that prompted Mr Jupurrurla to investigate putting solar panels on his roof, but the process to do so was unwieldy and the panels remain unconnected.

“All they need to do is flick the switch on and Norm will get almost free electricity,” Quilty said.

Planning for health

Speaking to Croakey after the roundtable, Donna Murray, CEO of Indigenous Allied Health Australia, said addressing the environmental determinants of health was an important addition to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health plan, which would guide policy until 2031.

“The things that enable us to be well are connectedness to culture, country, kinship, identity, self-determination, our rights, and part of that connectedness and inter-relatedness is obviously everything that’s living, that’s around us, and that’s the environment,” she said.

Murray said a key priority in the revised plan, which was expected to be released by the end of this year, was the re-establishment of an environmental health workforce. The workforce would be place-based, but with a common vision of per-person goals; that is, “living long and healthy lives in a future that is designed by us as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people”, she said.

“There has to be a cultural match to the community priorities,” Murray said, adding that the impacts of climate on the environment and cultural practices in the Torres Strait Islands, which was dealing with rising sea levels and flooding, would be very different to the needs of communities in Central Australia.

“The issues [in Tennant Creek] are to do with heat and housing, where the infrastructure is not appropriate, with access to electricity for cooling and refrigeration difficult which then impacts on food security, health, hygiene, and mental health. Climate change is also impacting our communities with access to fresh drinking water, where the rivers and waterholes that are supposed to sustain life are drying up.”

And, Murray said, the health plan would also help to bring ancient cultural practices to the mainstream agenda and making governments accountable to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and communities by “supporting our ways of working, our priorities and with our leadership”.

“For hundreds of years we have been talking about the impacts that colonisation has had on the environment; look at our cultural burning, it has now become a solution. But this isn’t anything new, it has been happening for over 60,000 years quite efficiently and effectively,” she said.

Colonisation and climate

Speaking from his home in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Dr Rhys Jones (Ngāti Kahungunu), a public health physician and Senior Lecturer in Māori Health at the University of Auckland, said the groundwork for climate change and its impacts had been laid with centuries of colonisation.

Dr Rhys Jones

“What we are seeing now is not just the impacts of industrial and other processes that have contributed to greenhouse gas emissions … but an intensification of that very long and sustained colonial process,” said Jones, who was the founding Co-Convenor of OraTaiao (The New Zealand Climate and Health Council).

He noted that there were several key tensions in efforts to tackle climate change, including: human health versus planetary wellbeing; revolution/decolonisation versus incremental change; and urgency of action versus longer term restoration of relationships.

Jones said that tackling climate change with the requisite urgency risked exacerbating the already marginal positions of Indigenous peoples around the world.

“In the current conditions that we have, any action that is taken like this with urgency to try and address what is clearly a very critical problem, will perpetuate and, in fact, exacerbate those [existing] inequities,” Jones said, pointing to a US research paper that explored the balance between ecological and relational tipping points.

He said effort needed to focus on dismantling “colonial forms of government and policy, health systems” and reinvesting in an “Indigenised way of being, thinking, knowing, [and] doing.”

“What would a climate action/climate justice approach look like if it was truly Indigenous-led, grounded in Indigenous knowledges and drawing on Indigenous ways of knowing and doing?” Jones asked the roundtable.

Illustration by Allirra Moore.

Youth forces

Asking these questions too were young Indigenous climate activists and education advocates.

Speaking from the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations, Amelia Telford, a Bundjalung and South Sea Islander woman and the National Director of the Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network (SEED Mob), told the roundtable that her involvement in environmental activism and protecting country was an extension of her cultural identity.

“This is just being a Blackfulla, right; this is about our values and our responsibility to care for country and care for each other, but that not being seen in the national conversation … about climate change,” she said. “Often, [these conversations are] caught up in the scientists being the experts, and about a price on pollution and carbon dioxide, when really we are talking about protecting Country, and our mob has been doing that for tens of thousands of years.”

Telford said it was also important that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people be considered the “heroes” in the response to climate change, not the victims. She noted that SEED Mob intentionally used the term ‘protecting Country’ rather than ‘climate action’.

“We started shifting to the terminology that our mob has used ever since the land rights movement, which is ‘protecting Country’. That centres us as the experts of Country; we know our Country,” she said, adding that such knowledge could inform local place-based solutions to protecting Country.

Learning through Country

Key to efforts to protect Country, said Hayley McQuire, is an education system that respects and values Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students’ identities and connection to Country.

McQuire, a proud Darumbal and South Sea Islander woman and co-founder and Director of the National Indigenous Youth Education Coalition, said Australia’s education system was the fourth most socially segregated education system in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“Our young people are going through this education system where they can’t be their full selves … while also being responsible for passing down the longest continuing cultures in the world [and] facing complex futures,” she said.

“Climate change, in particular, is taking away the very classroom – which is Country – where we learn who we are. It is our cultural heritage, but it is also our teacher.

“Our knowledge systems have been built through this connection and learning through country.”

In summing up a roundtable breakout group discussion, Amba-Rose Atkinson said her group emphasised the importance of moving towards renewable energy, with collaborative, and community-led efforts honouring First Nations knowledges and education.

“We can’t have climate justice without justice for First Nations peoples,” she said.


Previous #IndigenousClimateJustice21 stories

“Listen to us”: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership on climate and health

Wrapping the tweets from a landmark event, #IndigenousClimateJustice21


This article is part of the #HealthyCOP26 series, which is being published in partnership with the Climate and Health Alliance. This article is also part of Croakey’s contribution to the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented global media collaboration launched last year to put the spotlight on the climate crisis. Croakey Health Media is a member of the collaboration, which was co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian.