SFU study surveys indigenous peoples on how climate change affects them

Indigenous peoples from North America protested the Paris conference on climate change last year. - Photo courtesy of The Guardian

Researchers at Simon Fraser University’s Hakai Institute recently published a study entitled “Observations of Climate Change Among Subsistence-Oriented Communities Around the World.” The researchers attempted to quantify observations about climate change from 92,000 indigenous and non-indigenous peoples from over 2,200 places scattered across 137 countries. The researchers endeavoured to fill in “knowledge gaps” about climate change in areas where weather stations are either sparsely located or non-existent.

Lead author of the study, Dr. Valentina Savo, explained that this type of study is important for two reasons: observations can reinforce the data, or they can “give a different perspective in case there is not enough data. And if the data and the observations of people don’t match, it’s where you should probably look more into what’s happening.” Observations were focused on the weather, plants and animals, and the physical environment itself.

For the most part, the study’s qualitative data seems to match up well with Western quantitative data on climate change: around 70 percent of participating communities around the world confirmed changes in weather patterns that were already assumed or recorded by weather stations.

However, there has been pushback from other scientists in the field. Many climate scientists described the local observations as irrelevant, disregarding them as biased by media coverage. These scientists clash with scientists like those from SFU who prioritize the contributions of native peoples. Dr. Dana Lepofsky of SFU’s archaeology department, and a co-author on the study, noted that “this sort of information not only validates weather station data, it taps into long-term specific knowledge of subtle changes to ecosystems that you can’t get from a climate station.”

Dr. Savo stressed the importance of such qualitative data, saying in her interview with The Vancouver Sun, “It’s not theoretical [. . .] it’s very disruptive.” Changes to the climate affect these communities’ ability to fish, hunt, gather food, and plant and harvest crops.

Dr. Savo noted in an interview with The Peak that studying the social consequences for those who immediately depend on the Earth is essential. She said, “Living in cities, we don’t have a clear conception of what would be the social consequences. For us, it’s just ‘Oh, it’s nicer. It’s sunny, or it’s warmer, and so it’s more pleasant.’

“We can always go to the grocery store for food [. . .] But for other people, changes mean less food, travelling farther to find fresh water, and risks related to that. [. . .] Usually it’s women and children who are going to find water, so you can imagine the risks they face having to walk longer distances to find fresh water everyday.”

Sometimes, when the distances are especially unfeasible, the only option is to migrate. Dr. Savo described not only the devastation of leaving one’s home behind, but also how this can lead to more conflict when entire groups of people have to cross into other communities’ thresholds.

Despite the pushback, the researchers hope that the study will be noticed by not only other scientists, but also policy-makers. While she stressed that all elements of climate change research are important, Dr. Savo believes that “the more people who include social science in climate change, the better.”



  1. Trump;

    “Are these climate change science gods too stupid to know when to say their CO2 end of days is as real as they say smoking causes cancer before it’s too late to say it? Are they also only 99% sure the planet isn’t flat?

    You climate cowards are Y2K jokes in history.!