Interweaving knowledge systems to navigate the health impacts of climate change

Priestley PhD researcher Bianca van Bavel writes about the findings from her recent study.

Our health is inextricably linked with our environment.  As we experience changes to both, we’re confronted by this reality more and more each day.

There are, however, critical gaps in our knowledge and understanding of the many ways that climate change can, and does, interact with health.  For example, how rising global temperatures may expand the geographical range of certain disease vectors, as with ticks and Lyme disease.  Rising sea surface temperatures increase the prevalence of Vibrio pathogens and exposure to pollutants in marine ecosystems, affecting the health, food security, and food safety for subsistence coastal communities (The Lancet Countdown 2019 Report, IPCC SROCC 2019).  Even combining what we think we know already, in terms of health and climate information, requires an uncomfortable merging of public health and climate science universes.

Our new study published in Environmental Research Letters co-authored with Lea Berrang Ford, and James Ford, also of the Priestley Centre, as well as Leeds Institute of Health Sciences’ Rebecca King, demonstrates the value that local communities and Indigenous people have in understanding and responding to connected changes in local environments and health.

Credit: Simon Berger 

The paper analyses evidence from 24 studies that contain information about climate and health monitoring and response systems, as well as engaging across scientific, local, and Indigenous knowledge systems.

Monitoring and response systems comprise systematic and repeated cycles of observation over time, collecting and interpreting information to drive action. These can be systems operating at local, national, and international scales, like the ones informing our COVID-19 response, as well as systems operating over generations of time scale, like the continued exchange of oral history and knowledge to inform subsistence harvesting and hunting practices today.

Fossil-fueled wildfires, like those we’re currently experiencing all over the world, impact health through air quality, property and vegetation loss, as well as the direct hazards causing injury or death. One example from the paper looked at how community observation networks contribute to reducing the vulnerability of forests and people to climate change.  In the Himalayas, local community forest councils are formed to fill the void left by scarce government resources and navigate remote mountainous terrain.  Local citizens create an early warning system that monitors, as well as manages, fire potential using local weather data and leaf fall data.  The result is an initiative that weaves social values into the protection of forests’ and peoples’ health.

Yosemite Valley, United States. Credit: John Towner

Sea ice decline, as observed in the Arctic right now, impacts health and wellbeing by changing subsistence livelihoods activities, access and availability of food, as well as direct hazards that cause injury or death due to unsafe sea ice travel.  One example reviewed in the paper was how Inuit elders and hunters’ observations of sea-ice conditions can provide measurements of ice thickness needed to determine if ice is safe enough to travel on.  As the unpredictability of sea ice formation changes each season, so must their assessment of travel safety.  Hunters hold knowledge about the biophysical and local processes of sea ice that has been passed down from generation to generation, which helps them decipher when and where it is safe to travel. Their knowledge, in combination with remote sensing satellite observations of regional scale ice conditions, are enabling communities to make informed decisions and adapt practices to uncertain times.

While these examples certainly hold local significance, they also demonstrate contributions that can be scaled to other regions experiencing similar changes through engaged and embedded knowledge holders working together to fill the gaps in our understanding of climate change and its impacts on health globally.  The recently established Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform of the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) demonstrates the pertinence of Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge in addressing and responding to climate change, globally.

There is growing recognition that knowledge from different systems can produce new ways of understanding and responding to climate change and its impacts on health.  However, the paper’s findings also reveal gaps in practice when engaging across scientific, local, and Indigenous knowledge systems.  Starting to fill the gaps in our current understanding means working with the best available climate knowledge and evidence base, which includes Indigenous peoples and local communities.  How we go about ensuring equity and justice in this process is fundamental.  

Watch this space: In an upcoming paper, we explore different methodological approaches with communities in Southwestern Uganda to try and improve the practice-gaps encountered when initiating a place-based climate-food-health monitoring and response system.

Main image: Qaanaaq, North Greenland. Credit: Steffen Olsen from the Danish Meteorological Institute