The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and forest-based communities: Five reasons why we need to connect the dots

Regan Suzuki Pairojmahakij, RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests

The urgent tone of the Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report (AR5) released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in November continues to reverberate around COP20 in Lima. Although the report’s directness brings hope in the lead up to Paris, the report leaves out an essential stakeholder group: local communities, particularly those in rural, forested areas.

These communities will not only be some of the most adversely affected by climate change, but are fundamental to the success (or failure) of climate change mitigation efforts. Here are five reasons why local communities must be taken off the sidelines of climate change discussions and placed front and centre:

Local communities have clout by virtue of their numbers. 

Mitigation action must be taken now. Governments, however, have been hesitant to do so due to fears that this will antagonise powerful interests and erode their political base. However, at least in theory, governments are accountable to their constituencies, and popular pressure (even in non-democratic countries) can be a powerful factor in shaping policy decisions. Grassroots communities are beginning to be seriously concerned about climate change; few things are as compelling as firsthand experience with climate related adversity, whether it be crop failure, natural disasters or an increasingly untenable living environment. Mobilising local communities may create the necessary political pressure, and may serve as a compelling counterbalance to powerful economic interests.

Local communities are on the front lines in suffering adverse climate change impacts.

While urban populations and policymakers tend to be removed from the day-to-day realities of climate change impacts, local people have the most at stake in decisions policymakers make, or fail to make, in reducing emissions. From both a practical and an ethical perspective, it is imperative that local communities be involved in the decisions that will affect their future livelihoods.

Land use change is a major source of emissions. 

Taken together, forestry and agriculture (the leading driver of deforestation) currently make up around 30 per cent of global emissions, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Local communities, and the policies and regulations that dictate their land use and most critically, land-based livelihoods, are key to reducing these emissions. Sustainable forest management and use of forest products within an integrated landscape level approach, is necessary to reduce deforestation for conversion to agriculture and commercial purposes.

Reducing deforestation is one of the most promising options for mitigation. 

There are concerns about the potential erosion of local community and indigenous rights as market-based approaches to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) take shape. In order to optimise and safeguard the important role of organised local communities as valid stakeholders in rural landscapes, they must be recognised and empowered as architects in REDD+ design, implementation and monitoring.

Mitigation is only half the battle in responding to climate change.

Even if we succeed in absolutely halting emissions, there will continue to be global warming for years to come, which will intensify the need for adaptation. Local communities are the canaries in the coal mines; providing insights into the impacts that the rest of the world can anticipate, and drawing upon traditional knowledge in pioneering innovative ways of adapting. Thus, local level experiences and strategies in adapting to climate change will, and should, necessarily re-orient the climate change discourse from international levels to a focus on local levels.

In relation to the AR5 Synthesis Report, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned, “The science has spoken. There is no ambiguity in the message. Leaders must act now. Time is not on our side.” Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists made the point even more strongly: “either put policies in place to achieve this essential shift, or… spend the rest of [your] careers dealing with climate disaster after climate disaster.” An essential part of this policy shift requires an urgent and genuine engagement with local communities as key partners, and support for this critical stakeholder group to play its much needed role in climate change decision-making.