As the effects of climate change intensify, researchers and leaders in the Pacific say they’re increasingly looking to Indigenous knowledge to help face the growing crisis.

A climate-related training for a United Nations delegation this week at Chaminade University will largely focus on such Indigenous-based approaches, said university provost Lance Askildson.

It’s the first time in 20 years or so that this gathering — the U.N.’s annual training for its global hubs on sustainable development — is occurring in the Pacific Islands, Askildson said.

“We have as much to learn from both the Pacific Indigenous people and Indigenous peoples around the world as we have to share with them,” Askildson said Tuesday.

This week’s meeting of the U.N. CIFAL Global Network at Chaminade aims to “amplify those voices” and to share cultural practices from a part of the world that “hasn’t got a lot of attention,” he added.

Weke Road homes damaged Kauai Flooding 2018.
Researchers say that Hawaii is projected to endure an increased number of destructive storms and flooding events in the decades to come, largely due to the impacts of climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Meanwhile, the upcoming Fifth National Climate Assessment — a congressionally mandated update from experts on how climate change is affecting the U.S. — will also include a new focus on Indigenous knowledge to combat the crisis’ growing challenges, its authors say.

The report includes a chapter devoted to Hawaii and U.S.-affiliated Pacific Islands, co-authored by 16 Pacific-region experts who specialize in science, culture and the economy.

“We want to hear from people and make sure we’re accurately representing the science,” said Abby Frazier, a climatologist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and the Pacific chapter’s lead author.

Members of the public can now weigh in on the latest report’s draft version.

Frazier previously was a fellow at the East-West Center in Manoa, and she specializes in drought and how rainfall levels have changed over time.

The first NCA was issued in 2001, and it’s been about four years since the previous version came out.

For this latest version, which has been in the works for more than a year, Frazier and her fellow authors strove to put Indigenous knowledge and practices that might develop more resiliency against climate change at the center of their regional chapter, she said.

The report’s Pacific Island chapter will for the first time focus on the impacts of climate change on human health, including its effects on mental health, Frazier said. That includes the growing instances of heat-related and vector-borne diseases, such as Dengue and Zika, she said.

It will also cover so-called “climate grief” and people’s feelings of powerlessness amid the often overwhelming climate crisis, Frazier said.

The call for public comment on the latest NCA draft comes after Gov. David Ige recently highlighted that his administration responded to 40 emergencies and natural disasters during his eight years in office.

Closeup photograph of ulu or breadfruite at the Hawaii Ulu Cooperative.
Breadfruit is essential to Pacific Island cultures and diets. A chapter that focuses on the region in the updated climate assessment will feature efforts to regrow breadfruit in Yap as a way to boost local food security as climate change worsens. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The majority of those responses were to hurricanes, tropical storms or severe storms and flooding, according to a list provided by Ige’s office. Researchers say those powerful storms and heavy rains will increase across Hawaii as impacts of climate change intensify.

The list also included a response to the Mana Road Fire, which burned more than 40,000 acres on Hawaii island in 2021. Frazier said that wildfires are a growing problem for the Pacific, as they burn as much or more land in Hawaii than any other state as a percentage of total land area.

The report will include the “increasing fire probabilities” as climate change leaves the region hotter and drier, Frazier said.

Clay Traurnicht, a University of Hawaii wildlands fire researcher and contributor on the NCA update, has previously found that the area burned by wildfires in Hawaii has increased fourfold in recent decades, partially due to climate change.

The regional chapter will put stronger emphasis on food security, Frazier said. It will discuss traditional methods of agroforestry, which is the practice of growing trees next to crops and livestock so that they all mutually benefit, and aquaculture as ways to develop resilience against the effects of climate change.

The chapter, according to Frazier, will feature the Melai Mai Breadfruit Project — an effort to replant breadfruit trees in the outer islands of Yap after Super Typhoon Maysak struck in 2016. Those trees are essential to the traditional diet and culture of that island chain, part of the Federated States of Micronesia.

Members of the public have until Jan. 27 to submit their comments on the draft assessment through an online portal managed by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The final report is slated to come out in late 2023.

This week’s conference at Chaminade, meanwhile, is an invaluable opportunity for U.N. officials from around the globe to network and collaborate on sustainable development efforts, said U.N. Assistant Secretary General Nikhil Seth.

That includes how to respond to the growing challenges surrounding freshwater sources, such as Oahu’s ongoing crisis regarding the Red Hill aquifer, Seth said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of climate change is supported by the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Marisla Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

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