Australia’s First Nations peoples descend from more than 60,000 years of reciprocity between people and the planet. This is underpinned by a worldview where land, sea, air, plants and animals are sacred.
In this context, the causes and consequences of climate change affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples uniquely and profoundly.
Despite contributing the least to global emissions, Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of climate change impacts. Land dispossession and cultural erasure due to fossil fuel expansion exacerbates inequality. At the same time, connection to Country often means First Nations Australians experience extreme weather events and rising sea levels disproportionately. Despite these challenges, Indigenous knowledge is crucial to creating a sustainable future, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are powerful agents of change.
Relevant Sustainable Development Goals
On the frontlines
Australia has a long history of removing First Nations peoples from their land, severing their connection to Country. Fossil fuel extraction continues this tradition, which has detrimental consequences for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ health, wellbeing, culture and livelihoods.
The Northern Territory has the highest proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people among its population in Australia, but more than half the territory is covered in exploration licences for oil and gas. In 2019, the Queensland Government extinguished more than 1,385 hectares of Wangan and Jagalingou Country to enable a coal mine site to proceed. First Nations justice cannot be separated from the fossil fuel industry — the dominant contributor to climate change.
Loss of Country, loss of culture
Planet Earth and its myriad of human and non-human life forms are inseparable in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture. This deep, ancestral connection to Country means First Nations Australians experience unique grief and trauma surrounding climate change. Disasters such as the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires forced Aboriginal people to not only lose places and possessions, but also their cultural identity and ancestral ties. As billions of plants and animals burned, Aboriginal communities mourned the loss of totems and kinships that have been passed down for thousands of generations.
As The Guardian’s Indigenous affairs editor Lorena Allam wrote in an Op Ed at the time: “Like you, I’ve watched in anguish and horror as fire lays waste to precious Yuin land, taking everything with it — lives, homes, animals, trees — but for First Nations people it is also burning up our memories, our sacred places, all the things which make us who we are.”
This grief is compounded by the fact that colonisation is an underlying cause of climate change, which was acknowledged in the sixth International Panel on Climate Change Report for the first time in 2021. Removing First Nations Australians from the lands and seas they successfully managed for 60,000 years has led to the destruction of many of Australia’s unique ecosystems. This in turn, has left the environment more vulnerable to fires, floods and other climate change impacts.
If our Country is suffering… we also suffer.
Amba-Rose Atkinson, PhD Candidate,
The University of Queensland
Widening the gap
Climate change deepens inequality between First Nations and non-Indigenous Australians. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ connection and cultural obligations to care for Country means they often live in areas where droughts, floods, bushfires, heatwaves and rising sea levels are most severe. Research from the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (Australian National University) found First Nations Australians living in NSW, Victoria, the ACT and Jervis Bay Territory were twice as likely to be directly impacted by the 2019–20 Black Summer bushfires than their non-Indigenous neighbours.
Existing health and economic disparities play out further with climate change. Healthcare is less accessible and more expensive for First Nations Australians living remotely where the health impacts of climate change are felt. Existing economic inequality means Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are likely to have fewer resources to relocate or adapt when extreme weather events destroy homes and rising sea levels displace communities.
Furthermore, changing weather patterns and rising temperatures threaten food sources for First Nations Australians who rely on the land and ocean for their livelihoods and nutrition. As Tishiko King, a proud Kulkalaig woman from the Island of Masig, Kulkalgal Nation of Zenadth Kes, explains: “We are seeing our ecosystems shift as our oceans are warming … this is the future of our food security that’s at risk. It’s impacting the way we hunt and practice our culture and traditional ways. Weather events are becoming more frequent and more aggressive. My people are finding it harder to identify those seasonal cues.”
What funders can do
- Fund or provide zero-interest loans for renewable energy projects in urban, regional and remote First Nations communities to boost energy access and reduce electricity bills and carbon emissions.
- Support Indigenous ranger and bushfire programs on land and sea to care for Country and deliver co-benefits by storing carbon in the environment and providing sustainable employment for First Nations people.
- Fund First Nations communities and organisations that are protecting Country from coal and gas projects, and/or support communities to be prepared for climate impacts like storms, flooding and fire.
- Support Aboriginal housing organisations to retrofit housing to meet sustainability and energy efficiency standards to reduce energy costs and emissions.
- Support First Nations-led businesses and social enterprise, particularly in regenerative agriculture, to provide sustainable employment on Country, store carbon in the soil and bolster a sustainable, localised food supply.
- Fund First Nations people to participate in philanthropic decisionmaking, for example in staff and Board positions, scholarships, placements, internships and establishing wisdom groups.
- Ensure First Nations skills, training and employment programs include preparing participants for employment in the burgeoning clean economy.
- Ask First Nations communities and organisations you already fund how climate change is affecting (or will affect) them, and if they need support to adapt or to take part in a clean, net-zero emissions economy.