Climate change – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities

Climate change – Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island communities


Sharing Knowledge Project, CSIRO and Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales.

The project focuses on the impacts and adaptation strategies for Indigenous Australian communities living in northern Australia. Here you can find information on climate change projections for regional areas in the north as well as suggested direct and indirect impacts that may occur as a result. Working with Indigenous communities the aim is to encourage a better understanding of climate change impacts on their communities and to determine the best ways to mitigate or reduce these detrimental impacts on their way of life. Furthermore by acquiring a greater understanding of the traditional environmental knowledge that has accumulated over thousands of years such knowledge can be integrated with modern environmental and climate science and applied in a broader sense for the wider Australian community.

Map, Climate change impacts in Northern Australia, Sharing Knowledge Project.

This site presents a combination of regional climate change projections and associated impacts, along with locally specific traditional knowledge. Click on the map to the left of this text to find out more.

The Human Rights Implications of Climate Change for Indigenous Australians, Indigenous Law Centre, Faculty of Law, UNSW.

This project of the Indigenous Law Centre will examine the human rights implications of climate change for Australian Indigenous peoples through an analysis of international mechanisms and bodies and the way in which they may be used to garner a ‘seat at the table’. Issues relevant to indigenous peoples on a global scale (eg loss of traditional life and land; ‘environmental refugees’) will be analysed for their social and cultural implications and subsequently for the way in which other indigenous nations have looked to address them. On the local level, this project will look at current legislation which impacts on Indigenous Australians and the way in which climate change will affect or even alter this impact.

  • International documents of significance

  • International organisations of relevance

  • Organisations and peoples involved within Australia Domestic areas of concern

Indigenous communities, Social impacts of climate change, CANA.

Indigenous Weather Knowledge, Bureau of Meteorology

Seasonal weather calendars, developed over thousands of years by Indigenous communities, are displayed on this new Bureau of Meteorology Indigenous Weather Knowledge website.

The project recognises the knowledge of weather and climate developed over countless generations by Australia’s Indigenous communities, nicely complementing science and statistically based approaches.

The calendars recognise the complexity and diversity of weather over the Australian continent and are finely tuned to local conditions and natural events. Unlike the European spring, summer, autumn and winter, the Indigenous versions include often five, and sometimes seven, distinct seasons.

The Resilience of Indigenous Australians to Climate Change, Donna Green, AdaptNet Policy Forum, 20 May 2008.

Given Indigenous Australians’ past ability to respond to environmental change, it is reasonable to assume that they would be among the best placed Australians to cope with environmental impacts caused by anthropogenic climate change. In fact the opposite is true, for two key reasons.

The first reason relates to the rate of environmental change. Projections of anthropogenic climate change indicate appreciable direct biophysical impacts occurring over decades. In contrast, prior environmental change occurred over millennia. The second factor relates to social and cultural resilience. Many of these communities are fighting a number of devastating social problems, the result of decades of profound government mismanagement and neglect.

The Sharing Knowledge project breaks new ground in Australia by being a source of both regional climate projections for northern Australia and local Indigenous observations of environment changes. Combining traditional knowledge with western science will assist in the creation of strategies for adapting to climate change that are culturally and geographically relevant, and therefore far more likely to be of practical use to the communities of northern Australia.

My experience in working with Indigenous communities across northern Australia has demonstrated the importance of giving people reliable information on climate change, as well as paying them the respect of asking their views on how best to adapt to those likely changes. Once empowered with that information, Indigenous people have responded strongly and are keen to act. But the lack of government and private funding to assist them in doing so remains a major obstacle.

Climate Change and Health: Impacts on Remote Indigenous Communities in Northern Australia, Donna Green, Climate Change Impacts and Risk, CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research Paper 012, November 2006.

Many of these biophysical impacts have direct and indirect effects on the health and well-being of people living in affected regions, especially those who are sensitive to environmental change and who, for various reasons, have a low capacity to adapt. Such people include thousands of Indigenous Australians living in outstations scattered across northern Australia from the Kimberley, through to Arnhem land, the central deserts, far north Queensland and the Torres Strait. These communities are disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of biophysical change due to a number of factors. Many Indigenous people living in remote areas have a heightened sensitivity to ecosystem change due to the close connections that exist for them between the health of their ‘country’, their physical and mental well-being and the maintenance of their cultural practices. A biophysical change manifested in a changing ecosystem has, for example, the potential to affect their mental health in a way not usually considered in non-Indigenous societies. A lack of basic infrastructure, lower social and economic status and existing chronic health problems also contribute to many of these communities having lower adaptive capacity. Even though Indigenous Australians living in remote communities have been recognised as highly vulnerable in the international climate impacts literature, there is little domestic research that considers their specific vulnerability which could be used to guide policy makers.

How Might Climate Change Affect Island Culture in the Torres Strait? Donna Green, Climate Change Impacts and Risk, CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research Paper 011, November 2006.

The Torres Strait Islands are frequently ‘left off the map’ in research on biophysical change in Australia. There are few observational data sets from which modelling work or inundation studies can be performed—even though these communities may be facing imminent threats to their existence. Some of these islands are only a metre or two above local mean sea level; and in the last two years several have suffered major inundation incidents due to a combination of king tides and strong winds. Most of these islands have inadequate infrastructure, health services and employment opportunities. This social context is highly significant in terms of these communities’ resilience to climate hazards because social and economic disadvantage reduces their ability to cope and their capacity to adapt to rapid environmental change. This concern is compounded by a cultural issue not normally considered by natural scientists working on identifying climate impacts in human settlements. Many Islanders connect the health of their land and sea country to their mental and physical wellbeing and, more broadly, their cultural integrity. Therefore, direct biophysical impacts such as rising temperatures, extreme weather events or secondary impacts resulting from these biophysical changes are likely to have significant indirect impacts on the social and cultural cohesion of these communities. In the near term, projected changes could affect subsistence hunting as well as commercial fishery operations with significant nutritional, economic and cultural ramifications. Similarly, change in rainfall could exacerbate existing pressures on potable water supplies unless significant anticipatory planning is initiated to reduce this climate related risk. In the longer term, the very existence of Ailan Kastom (Island Custom) may be threatened if projected sea level rise in combination with extreme weather events increases the frequency and/or severity of inundation incidents and necessitates relocation from the islands. In conclusion, highly participatory adaptation planning is vital to reduce climate risks and their subsequent impacts on Islanders’ cultural integrity in the mid to long term.

Sharing Knowledge: A Workshop on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Northern Australian Indigenous Communities, 29-31 March 2006,Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.

The aims of the workshop are to:

  • Determine the present state of knowledge about the impacts of climate change in northern Australia with particular reference to areas of concern for Traditional Owners and remote Indigenous communities

  • Identify and prioritise main issues of common concern and culturally appropriate research methods to allow ongoing study of these issues

  • Strengthen collaboration between experts (Traditional Owners, researchers and scientists) and build a network of interested individuals and institutions

  • Use traditional expertise to identify appropriate climate change adaptation strategies.

Intended Outcomes:

  • Establish a forum for ongoing Indigenous community engagement with scientists, researchers and government representatives on climate impacts

  • Develop a research agenda reflecting priorities and concerns to inform climate adaptation strategies

  • Build an online clearing house of information to facilitate ongoing contact between a wider group of interested individuals. This site would include a workshop report with contributions from workshop attendees.

Thoughts on vulnerability and resilience to climate change, Simon Batterbury, Sharing Knowledge: A Workshop on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Northern Australian Indigenous Communities, Darwin, March 30-31, 2006.

Management of Coastal Erosion and Inundation, Kevin Parnell, Sharing Knowledge: A Workshop on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Northern Australian Indigenous Communities, Darwin, March 30-31, 2006.

Rolling With The Environmental Punches: Indigenous Societies’ Capacity to Adapt to Environmental Change, Dermot Smyth, Sharing Knowledge: A Workshop on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Northern Australian Indigenous Communities, Darwin, March 30-31, 2006.

Climate Change in Northern Australia, Benjamin L. Preston, Donna Green, Barrie Pittock, CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research, Sharing Knowledge: A Workshop on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Northern Australian Indigenous Communities, Darwin, March 30-31, 2006.

Climate Change and Risks to Health  in Remote Indigenous Communities, Tony McMichael, Sharing Knowledge: A Workshop on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Strategies for Northern Australian Indigenous Communities, Darwin, March 30-31, 2006.  [PDF 2.6 Mb]



Indigenous Knowledge and Changing Environments:Biological and cultural diversities in transition, International Experts Meeting, UNESCO, 19 to 23 August 2007, Cairns Australia

Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change, Jan Salick and Anja Byg, Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, Oxford, May 2007.

Social Justice and Aboriginal People’s Adaptation to Climate Change, Siri Veland

Indigenous and Traditional Peoples and Climate Change-Issue Paper, Mirjam Macchi et al., International Union for Conservation of Nature and Nature (IUCN), March 2008 [PDF]

Climate change is having serious implications on the livelihoods and cultures of indigenous and traditional peoples. Even though these peoples develop adaptation strategies to these changes, the magnitude of future hazards may limit their adaptation capacity. The paper explores culturally appropriate ways to enhance the resilience of indigenous peoples and to reduce factors which hinder adaptation.

See also

 Project coordinator: Richard Tanter
20 May 2008