Opinion: Indigenous peoples contribute least to global warming, are often first to feel its impacts 

David Ritter has worked as a lawyer and an academic, before spending five years with Greenpeace UK.  In July 2012 he came back to Australia to head up Greenpeace Australia Pacific. 

Twenty years ago, in a different professional life, I sat on a verandah in the West Pilbara with an old man, one of the bosses for that country. Slowly and methodically, he used a thick black marker pen to draw a series of rough circles, evenly spaced along a line, on a big piece of butcher’s paper.

Each loop, he explained, represented a water-hole, with its own name in language, and accompanying stories and rules. Every one of these precious reservoirs, he said, had people who belonged to that place, with obligations under the law that ran through the land, water and sky.

The old man gestured repeatedly with his index finger, adding emphasis, I guessed, to make sure that the young whitefella lawyer from the south didn’t miss the significance of what was being said.

In the years since then, in the air every one of us breathes, carbon dioxide parts per million have risen from 368.1 ppm to 410.81 in 2019.

The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is now at a levels that is completely unprecedented in human history. The consequence of this pollution is global warming, which is now a cause of the climate disasters that are unfolding in real time: the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef, the burning of Tasmania’s temperate rainforests, Townsville under water, millions of dead fish in the Darling River.

There are also the multitude of local changes that don’t make the headlines.

A species of animal disappears from a valley where it has always roamed; moths vanish from a cave where they once gathered in their millions; a copse of old trees die; a creek dries up when it shouldn’t. I think of the pattern of billabongs so carefully drawn by that strong old man two decades ago. I wonder about their resilience.

I’ve now spent about half of my professional life as a native title lawyer and the other half working for Greenpeace.

In my own mind, these are different strands in the same weave, part of a tapestry of planet-wide struggle for fairness, justice and sustainability that is the work of millions of pairs of hands.

Everything that all humans care about is now contingent on the hinge of climate change.

According to the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we now have less than a dozen years to take the action necessary to give us a chance of keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees.

The consequences of climate change are already grim, but our top scientists have warned us that things could become catastrophic on a planetary scale.

Indigenous peoples have contributed the least to global warming and yet are frequently among the first to experience the impacts.

The Indigenous youth climate movement, SEED, has been brave and tireless in bringing this reality to the national conscience. Around the country, the Wangan & Jagalingou peoples’ struggle with Adani, the resistance of the people of the Great Australian Bight to deepwater oil drilling, and the movement to stop fracking in the Northern Territory are among the best-known flashpoints.

As Millie Telford, one of the founders of SEED, has said, ‘the impacts of climate change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aren’t just the severe weather events, it’s the actual destruction of our land from the industries that are fuelling the crisis the digging up of country for coal and gas and oil’.

Stopping each of these projects is not only essential to preventing the 1.5 degree threshold from being breached, but also halting the wholesale devastation of land and waters. The obligation on the nation here is to ensure that economic alternatives are co-created, so that Indigenous polities are not pressured into accepting climate disaster as the tariff for development.

As Pat Dodson said in his 2012 Gandhi Oration ‘[t]here is a need for ecological and social balance to be restored, not only to ensure our own resilience but our very survival as human beings.’

It is an unarguable truth that our lives and future flourishing depend on the natural world around us.  The idea that humanity and the environment are somehow separate is a falsehood.  Indigenous people have long tried to warn the rest of us that you can’t treat the natural world with greed and contempt, and expect there to be no consequences.

Belatedly, as a nation and a global society, we must now hear and receive that ethic of deep custodianship, and be moved to act as rapidly and wholeheartedly as we can.

This is the way of hope, love and reason: an Australia remade with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and cultures celebrated at the very heart of our national identity, with Indigenous polities respected and acknowledged as having the power to make decisions on their own affairs; our whole country powered by clean, renewable energy, owned and managed fairly, for everyone’s benefit; a nation in which all of us recognise the obligations that go with the privilege of belonging, and with an economy that serves people and nature first.

Our wild forests and great oceans, our deserts and grasslands, our paddocks and farms, our creeks and our parks: all are under great strain, but may yet one day flourish again.

There is much work to be done and time is short, but the future is still for the making, for all of the peoples of Australia.

By David Ritter, CEO of Greenpeace Australia Pacific 

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