What 90,000 indigenous people have to say about climate change

A new study attempts to inject some anecdotal heft into the science of climate change by collecting observations from more than 90,000 people that historically depended on nature for their traditional way of life.

Six researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia gathered over 10,000 observations from 137 countries, primarily in places like Central Africa, Central America, and the Himalayas where climate records are sparse and not well documented. In doing so the study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, attempts to help fill gaps in the climate record where instrumental data is not available as well as to corroborate existing records.

After sorting through all the observations, which were collated from around 1,000 studies, what the researchers found was largely consistent with climate models predicting changes in temperature and rainfall due to human-caused global warming.

Lead author Valentina Savo told Fusion that there were many similarities among changes across the globe, such as descriptions of patchy or irregular rainfall in several distant locations.

In several areas people were observing climatic phenomena that never happened before.

“It was also interesting to note that in several areas people were observing climatic phenomena that never happened before, such as hail,” she said.

Savo said it’s important to remember that the observations are just reports of changes, not attributions to climate change.

“People know if their crops are failing because of drought or the delayed rains,” she said. “Then if they believe that climate change, god, bad luck, or whatever are responsible for the alterations of rain patterns that does not change the fact that they do not have their rains and crops.”

Savo said that while many of the observations matched empirical data used in climate models, there are “also places where people’s observations and other sources of data don’t match and these are interesting places to go and better understand what is really going on.”

We think about climate change as something that you graph or something that happens in the Arctic, but these are the experiences of real people seeing changes firsthand.

Overall, about 70% of the participating communities reported observing changes in the timing and nature of seasons, rainfall, and temperature in a manner that affects critical elements of their livelihood such as fishing, hunting, food gathering, and crop growing.

The study’s authors note the significance of the “secondary impacts” of climate change, such as the challenge of producing food in a changing environment, calling these impacts “extensive” and threatening to both wild and domesticated plants and animals.

“Collectively, our results suggest that climate change is having profound disruptive effects at local levels and that local observations can make an important contribution to understanding the pervasiveness of climate change on ecosystems and societies,” state the authors.

According to the study, documenting human observations is important because it’s a better way to integrate climactic changes with their social and environmental consequences by incorporating the local impacts. Global models, on the other hand, identify broad patterns and physical processes rather than social impacts. By focusing on human observation, poorly understood but important climate-related phenomena such as changing animal migration patterns or pest distribution and abundance could be more effectively analyzed.

“We think about climate change as something that you graph or something that happens in the Arctic, but these are the experiences of real people seeing changes firsthand,” Savo told the Vancouver Sun. “It’s not theoretical. When the timing changes about when to plant and harvest, where rainfall is now concentrated and intense, it’s very disruptive.”

In one example of these climactic shifts influencing a local and longstanding culture, Sami herders in Sweden said they’re abandoning traditional ways of life that revolved around ice formation and other regular weather conditions that are no longer dependable.

In another example, the Obama administration recently declared the Marshall Islands to be experiencing a disaster due to the ongoing severe drought crippling the remote island nation that is also threatened by sea level rise. The declaration allows the U.S. government to fund emergency relief and reconstruction on the archipelago, a request made by Marshallese president Hilda Heine on April 1.

According to the Canadian study, people around the world react to climate-induced changes in a variety of different ways, such as shifting cultural practices, migrating, or fighting over limited resources. Better understanding these ongoing causes and effects helps policymakers create more nuanced solutions that in turn better equip local communities to deal with the impacts.

And these impacts could be devastating in scope. A recent World Bank report estimated that climate change could push more than 100 million people back into poverty by 2030, with Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia being hit the hardest. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, climate change will make food and water security a lot more challenging for millions of people, often forcing them to relocate.

“Such moves, or the adverse effects that climate change may have on natural resources, may spark conflict with other communities, as an increasing number of people compete for a decreasing amount of resources,” states the UNHCR.