Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

This will be an Indigenous People’s Day to remember. The United Nations released its 6th Assessment on Climate Change on Aug. 9 calling this moment a “code red” for the planet.

The report describes extreme weather events brought by climate change – heatwaves and droughts, flooding, storm surges, extreme rainfall, wildfires, and reduced snowfall – many of them compounded by their social and economic effects. Diminishing sea ice in the Arctic is affecting the northern hemisphere’s atmosphere and ocean currents.

“Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years,” the UN’s announcement on the report stated.

What’s worse, “Nations are “nowhere close” to the level of action needed to fight global warming,” the report said. It called countries to adopt stronger and more ambitious plans to reach the Paris Agreement goals, and limit the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, by the end of the century.

“However, strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change. While benefits for air quality would come quickly, it could take 20-30 years to see global temperatures stabilize, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis.” Scientists from around the world authored the report. Two more sections of the 3-part report will be released in the coming year.

Scientists say there must be a 45 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and to reach zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Indigenous people around the world are impacted by climate change, from the wildfires that destroy timber resources, and the lack of water for irrigation and drinking in the American Southwest.

NDN Collective, an Indigenous-led advocacy organization based in South Dakota, said the report “confirms how severe the climate crisis actually is.”

“In the past, @IPCC_CH climate reports have been viewed as suggestions. Today's IPCC report is not just a guide or a set of affirmations but a mandate. We have reached the tipping point. #COP26 must include Indigenous leaders in decision-making processes & @potus must #StopLine3,” the organization tweeted.

Dr. Dalee Sambo Dorough, Inuit, is international chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, a non-governmental organization that represents approximately 165,000 Inuit from the Russian Far East, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

She said the summary and the policy sections, “both reinforce things that we've been saying for decades, that human beings are contributing to climate change, that this it's not a matter of “if” climate change is real, we know climate change is real and that the changes and the pace and the rate of change in the Arctic is in all likelihood, faster than even what International Panel on Climate Change is willing to say with high confidence,” Dorough said.

She said the report included sections on issues of importance to the Inuit people. It discusses the melting of permafrost – which is undermining riverbanks, lake beds, buildings, roads and ice cellars – and the disappearing sea ice.

Sea ice once formed reliably every winter extending miles out into the ocean and 10 to 15 feet thick. Walrus, seals, and polar bears feed from the ice, and give birth on it. Inuit use it as a hunting platform, and it buffers villages from fierce winter storms. Without the sea ice, villages are eroding into the sea. Hunting is more risky due to the thinning ice.

“I think it's pretty significant that both the policy summary and the technical summary make specific reference to the conditions for sea ice that, for example, in the technical summary that the sea ice is becoming younger, thinner, and more dynamic, meaning changing even more. And our hunters, the people out there and on the coastal seas, risking their lives in order to harvest walrus, seals, the whaling activity, they've been seeing it and their knowledge and their observations, reinforce the science.”

“Indigenous peoples must be part of the solution to climate change,” said UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa, of Guatamala. “This is because they have the traditional knowledge of their ancestors. The important value of that knowledge simply cannot — and must not — be understated.”

“No doubt we face an incredible challenge together,” Espinosa said.

She said she’s encouraged by the growing number of countries -- not just national governments, but cities, regions, and investors -- that are moving forward with ambitious policy changes. “We are moving in the right direction but at too slow a pace. We must move more quickly and more decisively,” Espinosa said.

In a prepared statement, UN officials said “respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples and enhancing their participation in climate policy is critical to achieving the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and fostering climate resilience.”

To foster that participation, the UN in 2015 set up a Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Dourough said it puts Indigenous people alongside governments in the UN’s climate discussions and activities.

At a press conference announcing the report’s release, Petteri Taalas, Secretary-General of the World Meteorological Organization, said the panel once faced skepticism about climate change. Now it is getting pressure from a different perspective. Critics point to the extreme weather events with apocalyptic views, and accuse the panel’s reports as too mild.

The task the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had set for itself was mammoth: to review and compile the best information from scientific research around the world into one report.

Panel officials said the next section of the 6th Assessment by Working Group II, draws on and respects Indigenous knowledge all around the world. That report will discuss resilience of traditional agriculture practices, Indigenous knowledge systems and practices that allow local people to adapt to many climatic changes and Indigenous mitigation of climate change.

ICT logo bridge

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 contribution today to help Indian Country Today carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.