Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Leon Kaye headshot

In the Latest IPCC Report, the ‘I’ Stands for Indigenous

As expected, the latest IPCC assessment report offers a grim outlook, notably for Indigenous communities - but it doesn't have to be that way.
By Leon Kaye
IPCC report

Puerto Nariño, Amazonas, southern Colombia

The latest assessment report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was released on Monday, and as expected, the scientists’ outlook is ominous. Sure, there is some hope to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by mid-century, but only if the most aggressive measures are taken. What stands out, however, is the report’s acknowledgement of the role that Indigenous communities worldwide can have on mitigating climate change.

IPCC scientists share a grim reminder that the economic policies over the past several decades have made wealthy nations (i.e., the Global North) wealthier while poorer nations and Indigenous people paid a huge price for the extraction of resources without gaining any of the benefits. The latest report is also the first time the IPCC has directly called out centuries of colonialism for creating much of the mess in which we find ourselves today — and the authors warn against any top-down approach where the terms for climate action are set by wealthy nations. “The necessary transformational changes can be positive if they are rooted in the development aspirations of the economy and society in which they take place, but they can also lead to carbon colonialism if the transformations are imposed by Northern donors or perceived as such,” the report reads.

At the same time, the scientists make clear that if governments, the private sector and nonprofits can cooperate, Indigenous populations can (finally) start to reap some benefits, too.

Within this massive, 3,600-page document, the IPCC looks at how the world must engage Indigenous citizens if society is to have any chance at curbing the risks of climate change. But don’t take it from us, continue to read the IPCC’s very own words. At a higher level, here are three takeaways.

Again, Indigenous people face the greatest risk from climate change

The latest report, the final in the IPCC's current assessment cycle, focuses on climate mitigation and practical solutions for combating the climate crisis, but scientists are quick to note that not all solutions are equal (or equitable). “…Carbon sequestration and GHG emission reduction options have both co-benefits and risks in terms of biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, food and water security, wood supply, livelihoods and land tenure and land-use rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities and small land owners,” the 270 authors of the IPCC report observe. In a subtle swipe at industries such as mining and energy that tout tactics such as carbon capture and storage as a solution, they add: “Many options have co-benefits but those that compete for land and land-based resources can pose risks.”

Further, while Global North countries generated benefits from the extraction of resources such as petroleum and palm oil, “worldwide, racialized and Indigenous people bear the brunt of environmental and climate injustices through geographic location in extraction and energy ‘sacrifice zones,’ areas most impacted by extreme weather events, and/or through inequitable energy access,” says the IPCC.

Editor's note: Be sure to subscribe to our Brands Taking Stands newsletter, which comes out every Wednesday.

It's not only the usual suspects, mining and energy, that are behind many of these challenges that Indigenous communities face. Most recently, the harsh impacts of the palm oil industry have not only exacted their own environmental problems, but social problems as well. “In the absence of the policy intervention, the expansion of oil-palm plantations has provided limited benefits to indigenous and Afro-descended communities," the IPCC observes. "Even when oil-palm expansion improves rural livelihoods, the benefits are unevenly distributed across the rural population."

Conducting business as usual will have its own consequences, particularly in South America. “…If current policies and trends continue, the Amazon may reach an irreversible tipping point beyond which it will be impossible to remediate lost ecosystems and restore carbon sinks and indigenous people knowledge,” the scientists wrote.

Indigenous communities have a large role in sequestering carbon

As Indigenous activists and nonprofits have long argued these communities are in the best position to safeguard land that is important for climate mitigation, it’s clear that the IPCC has gotten the message.

For example, the U.N. body notes that “Indigenous Peoples, private forest owners, local farmers and communities manage a significant share of global forests and agricultural land and play a central role in land-based mitigation options.” In other words, these communities must be a part of these conversations: “Scaling successful policies and measures relies on governance that emphasizes integrated land use planning and management framed by the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals], with support for implementation.”

Further along in the IPCC report, scientists also indicate that people often most overlooked should be listened to the most: “The contributions of women, racialized people, and Indigenous people who are socially positioned as those first and most affected by climate change — and therefore experts on appropriate climate responses — are substantial.”

And while there is no shortage of “experts” who can speak to how society can approach climate action, the IPCC admits that the ones who know the lay of the land have been there all along: “Indigenous knowledge is an important source of guidance for biodiversity conservation, impact assessment, governance, disaster preparedness and resilience,” the scientists conclude.

IPCC: Communities who know the land best are the ones who must be consulted

For activists who have appeared at the U.N. COP (Conference of Parties) climate talks and events like Climate Week in New York City, even if seats at the decision-making table haven’t been extended, at a minimum, IPCC scientists indicate they have been heard. Witness the IPCC report: “The extent to which civil society actors, political actors, businesses, youth, labor, media, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities are engaged influences political support for climate change mitigation and eventual policy outcomes.”

Such invitations, infers the IPCC, are past due. “Indeed, development decisions often do not properly integrate the burdens and risks placed on marginalized groups, like indigenous peoples, while risk assessments tend to reinforce existing power imbalances by failing to differentiate between how benefits and risks might impact on certain groups.”

Part of the problem in taking on global climate change is that many local and Indigenous communities have ideas and potential solutions, but they have not been taken seriously. “Indigenous knowledge can be a unique source for techniques for adaptation,” the scientists say, “[but] expert driven, technical solutions such as infrastructural interventions can undermine the knowledge of lower income countries, communities or indigenous knowledge holders."

Further, many of the solutions that are constantly discussed don’t address the challenges that many of these communities face: “Technical solutions, such as electric vehicles or smart grids, rarely address the needs and capabilities of disadvantaged communities that may not be able to afford these technologies,” the scientists write.

Why do these conclusions matter, especially for Indigenous communities? Each IPCC report is not only discussed and vetted by the scores of scientists who contribute and add to the report, but also by diplomats from the 195 member countries of the IPCC. Considering that Indigenous people have had their rights trampled on, and then ignored, for years, the fact that such discussions make up a significant part of the IPCC report indicates that some progress could soon be at hand.

Image credit: alevision.co via Unsplash

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye