Climate Justice Reflections with Aletia Dundas

Visiting scholar Aletia Dundas explains what is needed to address the inequalities of climate change in Australia.

Aletia Dundas has just completed the Sydney Social Justice Network‘s Fellowship program with the Sydney Environment Institute. Aletia’s been exploring why climate change is impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people disproportionately to other Australians. We chat to Aletia about what conclusions she has come to.


Aletia, your research was on climate justice. Tell us how you came to this research topic.

The organisation I work for, UnitingJustice, has been talking for a while about the devastating effects of climate change and how our Pacific neighbours will be particularly affected. I was aware that climate change is also impacting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people differently and disproportionately to other Australians but I wanted to explore why, and what is needed to shift that.

Why is climate change a justice issue?

It is generally accepted that the most developed countries and the richest people are most responsible for the environmental devastation caused by climate change. Meanwhile, the least developed nations, Indigenous people, and those communities most reliant upon the land for their livelihoods who have contributed very little to the problem are finding themselves disproportionately affected.

A climate justice perspective explores how racial discrimination is inherent in policies and processes that disproportionately impact certain groups, and then exclude those same groups from decision making processes. It also recognises the work done by Indigenous people globally to identify principles for environmental justice; procedural justice, mutual respect, self-determination and participation in the decision making process for those most affected.

What have you learnt about health, wellbeing, and connection to country?

Indigenous concepts of health and wellbeing tend to be much more “quality of life’ focussed than western medicine models, with an emphasis on wellbeing of the whole person and whole community.

Climate change will act is a multiple stressor for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities whose health and wellbeing is already impacted by colonisation, dispossession and discrimination. The gap in health and wellbeing is only likely to increase.

Some of the work done by Elders and community leaders in the ‘return to homelands’ movement seeks to integrate an understanding of healthy people with an understanding of healthy country. “Caring for country” projects that connect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with their ancestral lands and apply traditional ecological knowledge to build sustainable livelihoods and engage in sea and land management have revealed that when people are reconnected to country and culture, there are improvements to health and wellbeing as well.

And your work has touched on food sovereignty. How is that related to climate justice?

Food sovereignty considers the ways that the world’s food is grown, processed and traded and recognises the injustice inherent in structures that enable large corporations or Governments to control food gathering, production and trade.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate the inequalities around availability of food in Australia, change crop yields and make previously productive land infertile. Already Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are noticing changes to the availability of food and impacts of rising temperatures on plant and animal life.

Many communities are seeing value in tapping into traditional knowledge about food production and about caring for the land. Food cooperatives and initiatives for food system planning within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are placing power over food production, access, and trade back with those most impacted.

How are indigenous knowledges likely to be relevant to climate justice?

Traditional ecological knowledge is a subset of Indigenous Knowledges that have evolved by adaptive processes and are handed down the generations. Traditional knowledge is being increasingly valued as an important part of responding collectively to the challenges that rapid climate change poses for us as Australians.

For example, the Yorta Yorta have involved young people in mapping climate change and increasing knowledge and capacity to engage in effective natural resource management. The Miriwoong Seasonal Calendar uses traditional ecological knowledge to map seasonal changes to weather patterns as well as building capacity to adapt to future impacts and the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement project has reduced greenhouse gas emissions from bushfires while also applying traditional land management practises.

What have you concluded from this research?

The key take-home message for me is that policy makers must not only include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in discussions about climate change adaptation and mitigation, but they should be starting from a position of learning and humility and take the time to recognise the traditional ecological knowledge that exists in this country. Projects that will be most successful in climate change mitigation and adaptation will be those that are community led.

I would like to see a greater awareness amongst politicians, policy makers and the general public about the ways that climate change inequitably impacts different communities, and a greater understanding of what could be done to address these inequities.

Aletia Dundas has a Masters degree in Peace and Conflict studies, as well as other qualifications in International and Community Development and Community Based Adaptation to Climate Change. She currently works as a Policy Officer at UnitingJustice Australia, the justice advocacy and policy unit of the Uniting Church. This role has coverage of social justice issues related to refugees and asylum seekers, the environment, peace, First Australians and human rights. In her fellowship at the Sydney Environment Institute, Aletia plans to explore how climate change disproportionately impacts already marginalised and vulnerable communities in Australia, looking specifically at the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples, and also explore the capacities that exist in those communities that enable people to adapt and build resilience.

Previously Aletia worked in international community development, primarily with communities in the Pacific using sustainable livelihoods and strengths based approaches to addressing the challenges faced by rural communities. Prior to that she has worked with Indigenous communities in Australia, and spent a year in Geneva focusing on disarmament and peace advocacy and policy. She enjoys exploring the National Parks near to Sydney and discussing politics over a mug of chai at the local markets.

Follow her on twitter: @aletiadundas