Climate change to mobilise Indigenous communities 

CDU Senior Research Fellow Dr Kerstin Zander led a research team that discovered many Indigenous people living in coastal areas of northern Australia would be willing to leave their traditional sea country in order to adapt to climate change.

Many Indigenous people living in coastal northern Australia would leave their traditional country in order to adapt to climate change, a Charles Darwin University academic has uncovered.

Research led by CDU Senior Research Fellow Dr Kerstin Zander suggests that although living close to the sea was important for their wellbeing; many Indigenous people would be willing to leave should the threat of severe cyclones increase due to climate change.

Entitled “Stay or leave? Potential climate change adaptation strategies among Aboriginal people in coastal communities in northern Australia”, the research revealed the safety of the respondents’ families was their greatest motivator to move.

Dr Zander said all respondents had heard about climate change, and 48 per cent described environmental changes they had seen, particularly sea level rise, which they attributed to climate change.

“Despite their strong connection to their traditional country, a lot of the cultural aspects of their lives could be carried out in other locations,” Dr Zander said.

“We found that many of those willing to relocate would consider moving inland because they had traditional connections to other regions from either their mother’s or father’s families.

“Indigenous people are traditionally very mobile, and for many, it would not be a big issue to move from their coastal homelands in order to adapt to climate change.

“There’s a lot of literature that suggests how vulnerable Indigenous people are, however, the results of this research suggest Indigenous people might be more resilient to climate change than more sedentary societies.”

Respondents who said they would be unlikely to relocate in the future because of climate change impacts, and would prefer to adapt in situ, would seek government support through the construction of improved cyclone shelters, sea walls and roads for evacuation.

A key recommendation of the study was to accommodate Indigenous peoples’ adaptation preferences into existing policy to minimise social impacts of climate change. Although many Indigenous people were aware of climate change, they made it clear that other social issues (e.g. unemployment, violence) were currently more important and should be addressed first.

CDU’s Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods Professor Stephen Garnett and former CDU PhD student Dr Lisa Petheram of the Australian National University also contributed to the study.