Climate Change is Fueling the Loss of Indigenous Languages That Could Be Crucial to Combating It

Climate-related migration and seasonal changes are forcing Indigenous peoples to leave their native regions—and leave behind the languages tied to them.

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Members of the indigenous Saami community march during a Friday for Future protest in Jokkmokk, northern Sweden on Feb. 7, 2020. Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the indigenous Sámi community march during a Friday for Future protest in Jokkmokk, northern Sweden on Feb. 7, 2020. Credit: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP via Getty Images

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There are roughly 7,000 languages spoken around the world. Indigenous groups speak more than 4,000 of them, despite making up less than 6 percent of the global population. 

These languages often hold secrets to the inner workings of the planet, from the best times to plant certain crops to the healing properties of critical medicinal plants. However, a growing body of research shows that climate change is driving the loss of native languages worldwide—in big ways and small. 

Extreme weather events such as hurricanes and drought are pushing Indigenous peoples and local communities away from their historical lands and languages, while changes in the timing of seasons or the distribution of different species are rendering many native words obsolete. 

Language is Power: Each language spoken around the world carries bits of history within it. Indigenous languages in particular hold many insights into the environment.  

For example, on a research expedition in 2022, Indigenous communities from Papua New Guinea helped scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology find the elusive black-naped pheasant pigeon, which was thought by Western science to be extinct for 140 years. The bird is known as “Auwo” to the local people of this region. 

“I think what our finding really tells us,” Jordan Boersma, a Cornell ornithologist on the expedition, told Atmos. “is that local people are [typically] going to know the birds in these areas better than we do.”

Similar clues about wildlife and plants can be found within the 274 Indigenous languages spoken in Brazil, which has the highest concentration of biodiversity of any country in the world. Languages common in island nations such as Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands offer unique insight into the ocean and where fish have historically been abundant. 

This type of ecological expertise is part of the reason why Indigenous lands and seas are overall better conserved than their western counterparts, which my colleague Katie Surma wrote about in February

The Climate Connection: As climate change rapidly alters ecosystems, centuries-old vocabularies are increasingly disappearing from dialects, experts say. Extreme weather and rising seas are driving mass migrations around the world, similar to the forced migration and colonialism that has long threatened Indigenous cultures in the past and continues today. 

“If the story of climate and language has long been one of harmony, the climate crisis is the plot twist,” Anastasia Riehl, a linguist from Queen’s University in the United Kingdom, wrote for the Guardian in a piece about how sea-level rise is killing languages. “In a tragic reversal, it is precisely those areas of the Earth that were the most hospitable to people and languages, to species of all kinds, that are now becoming the least hospitable.” 

The connection between climate change and language loss is perhaps the easiest to understand for Sámi people who speak North Sámi, an Arctic language that has more than 300 words for snow, in a region that is warming more than twice as fast as the rest of the world. Changing ice conditions have affected how the Sami people talk about snow and its impact on reindeer herding or salmon fishing, practices that are crucial to their culture and lives, reports the BBC. However, at least one new word has been added to their language. 

“Climate change is a new word in North Sámi: it’s dálkkádatrievdan. It has become commonly used nowadays,” Klemetti Näkkäläjärvi, president of Sámi Climate Council and researcher at the University of Helsinki and the University of Oulu, told the BBC. “Sámi people speak about climate change quite a lot, especially reindeer herders.”

A recent report found that more than 90 percent of languages could disappear over the next century. Climate change is not the only issue contributing to this decline; research shows that colonialism has played a large role in regionally dominant languages overshadowing native tongues in school systems. As a result of these compounding factors, the United Nations declared 2022-2032 the “Decade of Indigenous Languages” to draw attention to the issue and urge countries to revive local dialects. 

Indigenous Language to Combat Climate Change: Some Indigenous groups are scrambling to record as much oral history as they can before it is lost. Working with linguists and researchers, the Gwich’in people of northeastern Alaska are currently compiling a glossary of Indigenous environmental terms to help future generations understand how climate change has affected ecosystems. 

“The terms our ancestors used are sometimes no longer applicable to what we’re seeing, and that is – wow,” researcher Annauk Olin, who is from Shishmaref, an Inupiat community just north of the Bering Strait on the Chukchi Sea coast, told the Alaska Beacon. “How are young people going to understand the environment of yesterday and tomorrow and today?” 

Meanwhile, Tuvalu—which could be submerged within a century, scientists say—is working on creating a digital replica of itself in the metaverse to avoid history being lost forever under rising seas. Some communities have started working with Western scientists to catalog their knowledge and language, and integrate it into climate approaches. 

Research shows that these types of partnerships between Indigenous peoples and Western scientists have effective conservation outcomes. However, Indigenous knowledge has often been exploited for profit without credit or payment, so many groups are wary of sharing their insights—and equity will be crucial to long-term success, experts say. 

“Indigenous languages contain inventories of species, classification systems, etiological narratives and, above all, ways of managing diversity, a fundamental technology for the preservation and biorestoration of the environment,” wrote Altaci Corrêa Rubim/Tataiya Kokama, a researcher at the department of linguistics, Portuguese and classical languages of the Institute of Letters of the University of Brasília, in a piece for the G20 website. “Language loss implies the loss of knowledge that is crucial to dealing with the climate and environmental crisis of our time.” 

More Top Climate News

On Thursday, Vermont became the first state to require oil companies to pay for the role they’ve played in climate change-fueled disasters and the damages they caused. The state’s Republican Gov. Phil Scott allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

This “Climate Superfund Act” will assess emissions released by fossil fuel companies from 1995 through the end of 2024, and determine how much these businesses owe. Journalist Olivia Gieger wrote about this novel bill for Inside Climate News in April if you want to dive in deeper. 

Meanwhile, temperatures in Pakistan reached as high as 127 degrees Fahrenheit in parts last Sunday—around 30 degrees shy of the heat required to fry an egg. Despite this sweltering heat, many poor individuals are continuing to work in the rice fields so they can afford food and water for their families, reports The New York Times

“If we take a day or half-day break, there’s no daily wage, which means my children go hungry that night,” Sahiba, a 25-year-old farmworker in Pakistan, told the Times. 

In Germany, a climate activist is now on the 88th day of a hunger strike, in an effort to demand that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz formally recognize a climate disaster. Doctors say the protester Wolfgang Metzeler-Kick’s life is in “acute danger” and the drop in his blood sugar could result in epileptic seizures or a coma, according to a statement from Scientist Rebellion. My colleague Keerti Gopal interviewed Metzeler-Kick and his doctors to learn more about the activist’s current state and the motivations behind his protect if you want to learn more. 

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