Keeping the Fire Alive: Celebrating First Nations Climate Perspectives and Contributions

By Sarah Leary

After last year’s referendum, it has never been more important to back the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the contributions they make to strengthening Australia’s diplomatic relationships in the Indo-Pacific.  

This year’s 2024 NAIDOC Week theme, Keep the Fire Burning, is a great platform for celebrating First Nations excellence in all its forms – but the real challenge is in embedding the practice and principles of NAIDOC into our every day. At the Perth USAsia Centre, we are walking the path as the only foreign policy think tank with a funded First Nations foreign policy position in Australia. 

It’s satisfying and rewarding work to help officials, business leaders, diplomats and academics think differently about making First Nations foreign policy design, delivery and research part of their routine practice.  

First Nations-informed policymaking can look different depending on the issue of inquiry – but one area that is attracting significant interest and momentum is the contributions they are making to Australia’s climate change engagement globally, and to the clean energy transformation here at home.  

Too often, Indigenous communities are presented as obstacles to overcome by domestic and international investors, including in the clean energy sector.  But meaningful partnerships with First Nations Australians will be central to Australia’s renewables rollout, and new groups like the First Nations Clean Energy Network are playing an impressive role in bringing the perspectives of Indigenous communities into renewable energy discussions and debates in Australia.  

Advocacy is also underway to lift the profile of underrepresented groups at international climate meetings and events.  Time will tell if this plays out at COP29 in Baku Azerbaijan in November, but there is now a growing acknowledgement by the Australian Government that it needs to enhance the inclusion and diversity of First Nations Australians in Australia’s participation at COP.  

International climate policy is led by the Australian Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) but it is still vital for officials and diplomats at Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to see Indigenous knowledge, science, and practice as a key aspect of climate action, rather than a subcategory.  Power and agency in foreign policy is not shaped by Ministers alone, but by the officials that hold the ‘pen’ in designing meeting agendas, visit programs, delegation compositions and negotiation positions. It is these routine areas where First Nations climate voices and perspectives can be better woven into Australia’s foreign policy activities.  

Here are three other internationally significant reasons why First Nations climate excellence matters to Australia’s foreign policy agenda this NAIDOC Week.  

A shared regional challenge

Indigenous perspectives are important for strengthening action on climate change in the Indo-Pacific. It is easy to see Australia’s climate change agenda reflected in investment showcases in Sydney or Perth, or the work of cross-agency meetings in Canberra, but the practical impacts of climate change are being felt in our region, and especially here at home. Let us not forget that in 2019, eight climate claimants from the Torres Strait made history in winning their case against the Australian Government in a landmark decision delivered by the UN’s Human Rights Committee. While Australia as a whole is being impacted by climate change through higher temperatures, more extreme droughts, fire seasons, floods and more extreme weather, the Torres Strait Islands are clearly bearing the brunt of these effects. 

Communities in Australia’s immediate neighbourhood of the Indo-Pacific are grappling with similar climate implications. One of Australia’s most consequential partners, Indonesia, is facing immediate impacts, with about 40 percent of the country’s capital of Jakarta below sea level. Efforts are now underway to relocate the Indonesian capital to Nusantara, on the island of Borneo and 92 of the country’s outermost islands are also at risk of inundation. Not only does climate change present a risk to Indonesian territory, but also risks the loss of culture, livelihoods, and access to marine resources

To Australia’s east, the case for climate adaptation in the Pacific is becoming increasingly urgent. Similar to the Torres Strait, climate-vulnerable communities in low-lying Pacific islands face an uncertain future of sea level rises and coastal erosion, impacting the land and sea on which their livelihoods depend, as well as their connection to country.  

Rather than treating the situation in Indonesia and the Pacific as an issue to manage, Australia could do more to bring our people together around this shared regional challenge. Perhaps new international partnerships could be explored to foster deeper collaborations between Australia and its closest neighbours on climate change as an issue where we share significant common interests? Are there climate partnerships or financing mechanisms Australia is delivering in the Indo-Pacific that could be more First Nations-led, drawing on our shared experience of vulnerability to climate change? Supporting more collaborative efforts in this space feels like a win-win and might be worth investigating by Canberra policymakers.  

First Nations excellence in international climate change

Australian First Nations scientists are making a global contribution to international climate change research and are eager to ensure their views and perspectives are front and centre of Australia’s climate diplomacy agenda. These scientists are leaders in their field and want to ensure Australia’s engagement in global fora – from climate talks in Bonn or COP29 in Azerbaijan, reflect cutting-edge developments in Indigenous research.  

In Western Australia, Professor Stephen van Leeuwen is internationally regarded for his research on threatened species, arid zone botanical ecology and pollination biology. He has worked for over 39 years in the global biodiversity hotspot of south-west Western Australia.  Also from Western Australia, Ngadju elder Leslie Schultz has made his mark representing Australia at international fora such as the United Nations Forum on Indigenous Issues and works on the climate change frontline as the founder of the Dundas Rural Bush Fire Brigade, one Australia’s only Indigenous Rural Bush Fire Brigades. Women scientists are also at the forefront of climate action, and Mibu Fischer, a Noonuccal, Ngugi and Goenpul woman from Queensland’s Quandamooka country, is responsible for the study of marine management and ecology at CSIRO. She is a strong advocate for the meaningful inclusion of Indigenous voices in development of Australian climate change agenda and another exciting name to watch.   

The number of First Nations scientists are also growing in government. Organisations like CSIRO are driving progress under Priority Reform Three (Transforming Government Institutions) of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap by prioritising First Nations talent within CSIRO’s ranks. Over the past three years, CSIRO has rapidly scaled its Indigenous science capabilities and now has a division of 20 staff working across the country. This is funded within CSIRO’s existing operational budget, showing that internal structural change is possible when leaders commit to prioritise the inclusion of First Nations expertise.  

While domestic funding for First Nations-led scientific research exists, the international side of this story is less rosy. There is currently no dedicated research fund for sponsoring collaborative research projects between First Nations climate scientists and their international counterparts. Given the centrality of Indigenous knowledge and expertise to the international climate agenda, perhaps Australia could lead the way in proposing the development of a global climate research fund for Indigenous scientists? Australia would do well by underwriting the global contributions First Nations scientists, and inspiring future First Nations scientists to think globally as well. It’s a useful conversation starter with likeminded partners from New Zealand, the Pacific, Canada, US and Europe, at least. 

New clean energy investment partnerships in the Indo-Pacific

The Government’s Future Made in Australia package commits $22.7 billion to help Australia become a renewable energy superpower on its journey to net zero. Newly published research mapping critical minerals projects and their intersection with Indigenous peoples’ land rights in Australia shows that more than half of Australia’s mines producing the minerals needed for clean energy are on Indigenous land. Developing equitable clean energy projects based on the universal principles of free, prior and informed consent with Indigenous communities will therefore be critical to Australia’s clean energy transition. For the Made in Australia package to be viable, new partnerships between government, industry and investors will need to be forged to ensure large scale renewable projects allow First Nations community leaders to have a seat at the decision-making table and a share in the economic benefits. This is not just the right thing to do, it makes foreign investment more sustainable.  

Western Australia is emerging as an interesting hub in this space, with the state leading the nation by having five First Nations-led energy projects in the development pipeline. Adding an interesting new chapter to Australia’s investment story with Southeast Asia, Pilbara’s Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation has formed a major partnership with the Philippine’s renewable energy company, ACEN Renewables Corporation to develop one of the largest Indigenous-led renewable energy projects in in Australia valued at $1 billion.  In June, the Western Australian government fast-tracked approval for this project, the first under the state government’s new Green Energy Approvals Initiative. Watch this space.  

We often hear diplomats and officials say they are unsure how to translate Australia’s First Nations Foreign Policy agenda with audiences in South and Southeast Asia, particularly as Australia seeks to deliver on the promise of Australia’s Southeast Asia Economic Strategy and Australia’s India Economic Strategy update. Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation’s partnership with ACEN Renewables is a terrific example of rebuilding of regional trade connectivity between Australia and the Indo-Pacific. Indigenous communities clearly have a significant relationship role to play in forging new investment partnerships in the region as part of Australia’s clean energy transition, and far beyond social licence issues.  

Australia has some way to go in getting the enabling environment right for First Nations-led clean energy projects, particularly in comparison to other markets.  In Canada, Government entities underwrite loans to Indigenous communities, which in turn allows them to buy stakes in major projects. This has enabled Canada to move forward with at least 135 major energy and related projects on Indigenous land, as found in a recent report on trends in Indigenous equity investments in Canada. As in Canada, the path to net zero in Australia runs through Indigenous land. It makes sense then, to look at proactive schemes such as Canada’s recently announced loan guarantee program that guarantees loans for Indigenous to become partners with industry in resource development and energy projects taking place in their territories. As above, this is not just the right thing to do, it makes foreign investment more sustainable and will add diversity to Australia’s foreign investment pipeline. 


First Nations Australians make rich contributions to Australia’s diplomatic climate change engagement and domestic clean energy transition. Through international dialogue, joint development projects, scientific research or inwards investment, First Nations experts and communities have a significant role to play in ensuring Australia’s climate transition happens equitably, and inclusively. This year’s NAIDOC Week is a great time to learn more about this field of climate change research, policy and action.  With the current low numbers of First Nations Australians working in scientific research and clean energy, NAIDOC Week is an opportunity to invigorate the next generation of leaders to consider STEM professions – careers that offer incredible pathways for preserving and sharing Australia’s rich cultural heritage.  

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