In largest ever study, Indigenous and local communities report the impacts of climate change

Indigenous peoples and local communities are reporting a series of tangible and nuanced impacts of climate change, according to a new study. The study collected 1,661 firsthand reports of change in sites across all inhabited continents and aggregated the reports into 369 indicators of climate change impacts, including changes in precipitation, plant cultivation and marine ecosystems.

Existing measures to track climate change impacts are barely able to relate to the diverse and complex ways in which local people experience and observe environmental changes, according to the authors. For instance, instrumental measurements might capture changes in rainfall patterns but miss crucial relationships between climate change awareness, sensitivity and vulnerability.

This research constitutes the largest global effort by Indigenous peoples and local communities to compile and categorize local observations of climate change and its impacts.

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From the article:

The authors of the paper, published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment, say the data provide evidence that climate change impacts on Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) are tangible, widespread and affect multiple elements of their ecosystems.

“There is the idea existing in the scientific community that local knowledge is not a valid source of knowledge, and the study aims to bridge this gap,” says Victoria Reyes-García, research professor at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and lead author of the study.

The study collected 1,661 firsthand reports of change in 48 sites inhabited by Indigenous peoples and local communities, covering all climate zones and nature-dependent livelihoods across all inhabited continents. The research is the largest global effort to compile and categorize local observations of climate change and its impacts by IPLCs.

Based on the information collected, Indigenous peoples and local communities across all continents are facing nuanced impacts of climate change that are hyperlocal.

Existing measures to track climate change impacts are barely able to relate to the diverse and complex ways in which local people understand and experience these environmental impacts, according to the study. This limits researchers in their risk analysis and adaptation planning, the researchers say.

For instance, instrumental measurements might capture changes in rainfall patterns but miss crucial relationships between climate change sensitivity and vulnerability. This underscores the significance of incorporating local knowledge and experience in climate research and policy for better climate adaption strategies, they say.

By gathering IPLC reports, they documented 369 local indicators of climate change impacts: 94 indicators of climate change (referring to changes in elements of the atmospheric system) and 275 indicators of climate change impacts (referring to changes in elements of the physical and the life systems).

The authors note that the study’s method isn’t able to discern whether the reported impacts can be fully attributed to climate change. Other intermingling environmental factors, such as land use change and overextraction of resources, make it difficult. Rather, climate change is understood as one driver, among multiple others, that exacerbate the environmental changes experienced by communities.

About 20% of reports showed changes in precipitation, especially in areas where agriculture prevailed. However, changes in air masses and impacts on marine ecosystems were more frequently observed in sites where fishing rivaled other livelihoods. Indicators referring to changes in freshwater were higher in tropical climates than in polar climates. But, the average number of indicators referring to impacts in pastures and grasslands was significantly higher in arid and polar climates than in tropical climates. And impacts on pastures, grasslands and land cover were more frequent where pastoralism dominated.

According to the report, these finding provide a basis to the previously untested hypothesis that the way local people interact with the environment through livelihood activities is an important predictor of the changes they observe.

The next part of the article discusses specific examples.

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