When considering climate change, indigenous peoples and marginalized populations warrant particular attention. Impacts on their territories and communities are anticipated to be both early and severe due to their location in vulnerable environments, including small islands, high-altitude zones, desert margins and the circumpolar Arctic. Indeed, climate change poses a direct threat to many indigenous societies due to their continuing reliance upon resource-based livelihoods. Heightened exposure to negative impacts, however, is not the only reason for specific attention and concern. As many indigenous societies are socially and culturally distinct from mainstream society, decisions, policies and actions undertaken by the majority, even if well-intended, may prove inadequate, ill-adapted, and even inappropriate. There is therefore a need understand the specific vulnerabilities, concerns, adaptation capacities and longer-term aspirations of indigenous peoples and marginalized communities throughout the world. Indigenous and traditional knowledge contribute to this broader understanding.
Indigenous and rural peoples, however, are not only potential victims of global climate change. Attentiveness to environmental variability, shifts and trends is an integral part of their ways of life. Community-based and local knowledge may offer valuable insights into environmental change due to climate change, and complement broader-scale scientific research with local precision and nuance. Indigenous societies have elaborated coping strategies to deal with unstable environments, and in some cases, are already actively adapting to early climate change impacts. While the transformations due to climate change are expected to be unprecedented, indigenous knowledge and coping strategies provide a crucial foundation for community-based adaptation measures.
Indigenous knowledge was acknowledged in the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change’ (IPCC, 2007). This recognition was reaffirmed at IPCC’s 32nd Session (IPCC, 2010a) and consideration of traditional and indigenous knowledge was included as a guiding principle for the Cancun Adaptation Framework (CAF) that was adopted by Parties at the 2010 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference in Cancun (UNFCCC, 2010). The outline of the IPCC’s Working Group II contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) includes local and traditional knowledge as a distinct topic within Chapter 12 on human security.