Adaptation and Indigenous peoples in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change


Indigenous peoples are uniquely sensitive to climate change impacts yet have been overlooked in climate policy, including within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We identify and characterize the discourse around adaptation in the UNFCCC, examining implications for Indigenous peoples based on a critical discourse analysis of the original Convention and decision texts from subsequent Conference of the Parties (CP). CP16 in Cancun (2010) was a critical juncture after which adaptation emerged as a central component of climate policy in the Convention, with a shift from a purely scientific approach to adaptation to one where local, Indigenous, and traditional knowledge are also valued. Since CP16, the discursive space for incorporating the voices, needs, and priorities of Indigenous peoples around adaptation has expanded, reflected in decision texts and engagement with Indigenous issues in the work streams of relevant bodies. We outline opportunities for greater engagement of Indigenous issues in the UNFCCC post-Paris Agreement, noting the underlying State-centric nature of the Convention limits what can ultimately be achieved.

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This work was carried out with support from the International Development Research Centre, the Canadian Institute of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

The authors thank Kirstie Booth for her help with figure design, colleagues on the Indigenous Health Adaptation to Climate Change project ( for their continued support, and the three anonymous reviewers for their contributions to improve this paper.

IHACC Research Team

Lea Berrang-Ford, McGill University

Sherilee Harper, University of Guelph

Shuaib Lwasa, Makerere University

Didacus Namanya, Ugandan Ministry of Health

Alejandro Llanos, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH)

Cesar Carcamo, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH)

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Correspondence to James Ford.

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1McGill University (Montreal, Canada), Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda), Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (Lima, Peru), and University of Guelph (Guelph, Canada)

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Ford, J., Maillet, M., Pouliot, V. et al. Adaptation and Indigenous peoples in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Climatic Change 139, 429–443 (2016).

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  • Indigenous People
  • Climate Policy
  • Indigenous Knowledge
  • Critical Discourse Analysis
  • Discursive Space