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The Marriage of Traditional Knowledge and Climate Science: Ethical Considerations

As an increasing number of institutions recognize Traditional Knowledge (TK) as a valid source of information relating to climate change, climate researchers are turning to Indigenous nations and communities to support and corroborate “climate science.” This interaction between research scientists and Indigenous nations or communities has the potential to raise ethical issues where the relationship between Indigenous peoples and scientific researchers is not conducted on a free or fair basis. At issue is control over information related to TK and misuse or misappropriation of TK itself.


There are a substantial number of climate change-linked research projects whose conclusions are based in whole or in part on Indigenous TK. For example, The Arctic Council’s Arctic Climate Impact Assessment Report incorporates TK into its framework; its “Indigenous Perspectives” chapter on climate change in the Arctic includes 134 published sources referencing TK. In 2016, researchers from Simon Fraser University published findings from a study which collected 10,660 local observations from individuals in 137 countries. The study found that approximately 70% of witnesses described changes in seasonality and rainfall patterns, in addition to increased temperatures. A subsequent report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation suggests these local observations closely align with data and models developed to predict changes in the climate, and that local observations (TK) can make an important contribution to understanding the pervasive effects of climate change on ecosystems and societies.


We must exercise caution when using TK to “corroborate” other forms of climate science, however. The Western, scientific method comes from a very different worldview than that held by the Indigenous nations or communities who are often the holders of TK. An article published by United Nations University, the global think tank and postgraduate research arm of the United Nations, explains how TK is often utilised in a climate science model:

Community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data with chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is critical for verifying climate models and evaluating climate change scenarios developed by scientists at a much broader spatial and temporal scale.

Another report by UNU explains that the difference between the nature of TK and scientific knowledge is akin to comparisons between apples and oranges:

Indigenous observers base their conclusions on multiple environmental and social factors that they consider in an integrated manner (e.g. wind speed, direction and variability, combined with temperature and precipitation, as well as the need for shelter and safety while travelling with or without family). In contrast, scientists may isolate a single environmental variable (e.g. temperature or wind speed) and reach broader conclusions based upon an extrapolation from this narrow data set.

TK therefore provides us with both unique insights into the nature and scope of climate change, but also adds important nuance to existing scientific knowledge, improving its accuracy and our understanding of its broader meaning.

While the benefits of incorporating TK into Western climate science are clear, researchers must remain vigilant and mindful of issues relating to ownership, control, and disclosure. For example, Natural Resources Canada is currently awarding contracts to the North Slave Metis Alliance and Tlicho First Nation to study TK as it relates to climate change as part of a larger project of environmental risk assessments for metal mining in Canada’s Arctic. Here, the Indigenous communities that have been engaged will have to balance disclosing their TK as a means of promoting economic opportunity or sharing important lessons in environmental stewardship with negative consequences of environmental mining in the Arctic. Given the large resource imbalance between the two parties, there is always the possibility that the Indigenous community feels it has no choice but to share its TK, even if it is worried it will lose control over how that TK is then used in the future.

Finally, the use of TK raises important ethical responsibilities for researchers given the spiritual or cultural significance of TK to Indigenous nations and communities. Misuse of sacred TK is offensive and harmful; great care should be taken by all types of researchers to discuss with knowledge keepers how TK should be appropriately used following disclosure. Access and Benefit Sharing agreements, or a TK licensing scheme are two possible mechanisms to ensure researchers adequately discharge this important obligation.

In 2014, the Climate and Traditional Knowledge Workgroup (CTKW), funded by Indigenous communities, the North Pacific Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), released Version 1 of their “Guidelines for Considering Traditional Knowledge in Climate Change Initiatives.”  To encourage ethical interactions, the guidelines place emphasis on free, prior and informed consent from Indigenous communities for disclosure of TK and use of TK-related information. Before conducting any sort of research relating to Indigenous nations, communities or people, one should reference and consider Marlene Brant Castellano’s article, Ethics of Aboriginal Research. This article proposes a set of principles to assist in developing ethical codes for the conduct of research within Indigenous communities.

One way to ensure continued control over TK is for Indigenous nations and communities to manage their own TK in relation to climate change and actively decide how it should be used. Snowchange Cooperative is one Indigenous organization working to document and research climate change through traditional knowledge. It is a network of local and Indigenous cultures from around the world which work with the Arctic Council, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Indigenous Peoples Climate Change Assessment, the National Science Foundation in the United States, and several universities on policy and research directives dealing with biodiversity, climate change and local communities. Additionally, the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium developed the Local Environmental Observer Network (LEO), an interactive map on which Indigenous or local community members may post climate related observations. Technical experts and researchers may utilize this tool to gain access to and review TK and engage with community members about the implications of these observations or work towards responses. In addition, the Alaska Native Science Commission was established in 1994 to connect Indigenous communities with research scientists. This could be used as a forum for connecting TK holders with climate scientists.

Andrea Lesperance is a Research Assistant with ABS Canada. Andrea is currently completing her Juris Doctor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. In 2014, Andrea graduated from the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Earth and Environmental Science with Honours. She has focused her academic scholarship on contemporary Indigenous issues and resource management. Andrea previously worked in community development within South African townships.