In Alaska last week, a cloud of butterflies flapped their wings. The world didn't notice. But in time, we will all feel their effect.
The fluttering took place at a gathering of 300 Indigenous People in Anchorage. Representing millions, they came from the scorching plains of Africa, the abundant forests of the Amazon, from small islands glittering in the South Pacific, lush hilltops in India and the icy wilds of the Arctic. They came to discuss climate change.
It was the first such gathering - and I was privileged to be there for the whole week. It was clear from the outset that global warming is now the single greatest threat to the survival of Indigenous Peoples, whose already precarious existence is intimately entwined with the fate of the planet they call Mother Earth. Although their communities are scattered widely, they had much more in common with each other than with the newcomers now running the show in their respective countries. Living in a symbiotic relationship with nature, they are being hit first and hardest by the rapid changes to global weather systems that the rest of the world has only recently woken up to.
They came to the summit with story after miserable story - of coastlines being inundated and sinking beneath the waves; food sources being decimated as plants fail to grow and animals die out or shift their migratory patterns; floods, droughts and hurricanes destroying villages and infrastructure. Politically isolated and alienated, their struggles are being ignored by governments or, worse, exacerbated by the rapacious drive for fossil-fuelled 'development' that is smashing headlong into the earth's natural limits from Australia to Zambia. From their perspective, climate change is just the latest chapter in a long saga of colonialism that has trampled over indigenous rights and traditions without a second thought.
And yet, these vibrant and determined leaders hadn't come together to wallow in a sense of shared victimhood, or to rail hopelessly against the injustices being done to them. Far from it: their focus was on action.
The summit was timed to coincide with the run-up to the UN climate talks in Copenhagen this December. And while the UN recently signed a groundbreaking Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, old habits die hard. In these complex, technical, high-stake negotiations, governments, industry, scientists and NGOs have all been fighting their corners. But Indigenous Peoples have had no seat at the table, and their voices are not being heard. The summit was a powerful statement that this is going to have to change.
Their message was not only that they are at the sharp end of climate chaos and need financial support to deal with its effects, but that they are already putting in place many strategies that we would do well to learn from. Throughout the week, I was overwhelmed by the collective wisdom in the room. These were people who have successfully adapted to whatever Mother Nature has thrown at them for thousands of years. They know what we need to do now. And, while living in some of the remotest places, they have been combining their traditional knowledge, passed down over generations, with new technologies to adapt to the reality of our warming world. I heard stories of biodiverse agriculture and wind farms, solar panels and coral reef rehabilitation, water conservation and disaster early-warning systems, and many other ingenious local sustainable solutions that put the rest of us to shame.
Of course, none of these efforts will be enough if the rest of us shirk our responsibilities, ignore what they can teach us and continue on our climate kamikaze mission. So the conference had two strong messages for the world.
The first is the need for industrialized countries to sign up to deep emissions cuts at Copenhagen. They put a figure on it: 45 per cent by 2020 and 95 per cent by 2050, with the aim of keeping global temperature rises below 1.5 degrees. In order to do this, the majority of delegates called for a complete moratorium on new oil and gas extraction: leave the fossil fuels in the ground and embark upon a swift and just transition to renewable energy - it's the only course of action that makes sense.
The second, perhaps more controversial message is that many of the climate 'solutions' being peddled through the UN process will actually do more harm than good. Stories abounded of how biofuel crops, hydropower projects, massive monoculture plantations and 'clean coal' are replacing more traditional mega-industries as the major threats to indigenous health and land rights in many parts of the world, whilst not significantly reducing emissions.
Most worryingly, carbon emissions trading is the central mechanism being proposed for Copenhagen. But it perpetuates rather than transforms our malfunctioning economic system and will, in the words of Tom Goldtooth, Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, 'benefit only those who are making money on these outrageous schemes. For example, there's an initiative by the World Bank to protect forests in developing countries, through a carbon market regime called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). Don’t be fooled, REDD does nothing to address the underlying drivers of deforestation.'
What permeated the proceedings in Anchorage was a profound concern that climate solutions are being hijacked by corporate interests and perverted into just another way to turn a profit, distracting attention from the urgent need to get on with making the effective changes we need. We should be turning away from the old way of doing things that got us into this mess. As Winona LaDuke, a prominent Native American rights activist put it: 'There are two paths ahead of us. One is well-worn, but scorched. The other is not well-worn, but it is green. It is up to us to choose on which to embark.' Listening to what Indigenous Peoples have to teach us about the new path we must take would be a clever first step.