There is a lot of talk about climate change, especially in North America and Europe. This makes it easier for the rest of the world to fall into a kind of silence – people in the West believe they have nothing to add and let the so-called “experts” speak. But we all need to talk about climate change and expand the voices of those who suffer the most.
Climate science is crucial, but by relating that science to the stories of people who are actively experiencing climate change, we can begin to think more creatively about technological solutions.
This should be done not only at large international gatherings like COP26, but also on a daily basis. In any powerful room where decisions are made, there should be people who can speak for themselves about the climate crisis. Storytelling is an intervention in climate silence, an invitation to use ancient human techniques to connect through language and narrative to combat inactivity. This is a great way to get the most out of your powerful room.
I tried to do the same by documenting the stories of people experiencing the effects of climate in a crisis.
In 2013, I was living in Boston during the marathon bombings. The city was put on lockdown, and when it was lifted, all I had to do was go outside: walk and breathe and listen to other people’s voices. I need to connect to remind myself that not everyone is a murderer. Inspired, I opened the box of broccoli and wrote “open call for stories” in Sharpie.
I wore a cardboard mark around my neck. People were mostly watching. But some came to me. Once I started listening to strangers, I didn’t want to stop.
That summer, I rode my bicycle on a mission down the Mississippi River to hear any stories people wanted to share. I brought the sign with me. One story was so sticky that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months, and eventually it sent me on a worldwide journey.
“We are fighting for our level of protection. Whenever there is a hurricane we fight for our marsh. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.
I met 57-year-old Franny Connetti, 80 miles south of New Orleans, as I stopped in front of her office to check the air in my tires; She invited me to come out of the midday sun. Franny shared her fried shrimp lunch with me. Between the bites he told me how Hurricane Isaac washed his house and his neighborhood in 2012.
Despite the tragedy, she and her husband returned to their land plot, in a mobile home, a few months after the hurricane.
“We are fighting for our level of protection. We fight for our marsh whenever there is a hurricane, “she told me.” I can’t imagine living anywhere else. ”
Twenty miles ahead, I could see where it was wrapped around the road at high tide. “Water on the road,” read the orange sign. Locals jokingly refer to the end of Louisiana State Highway 23 as “The End of the World.” It was cool to imagine the road I was riding my bike underwater.
Here was a front line of climate change, a story. I wondered, what would it mean to put this into dialogue with stories from other parts of the world – from other front lines with local effects experienced by water? My goal was to hear and expand those stories.
Water is how most people in the world will experience climate change. It is not a human creation like degrees Celsius. It is something we look and feel intensely. When there is not enough water, crops die, fires break out, and people are thirsty. When overflowing, water becomes a destructive force, washing away homes and businesses and lives. It’s almost always easier to talk about water than to talk about climate change. But both are deeply knitted.
I also set out to solve another problem: the language we use to discuss climate change is often abstract and inaccessible. We hear about rising sea levels or fractions of carbon dioxide per million in the atmosphere, but what does this really mean for people’s daily lives? I felt that storytelling could bridge this gap.
One of the first stops on my trip was Tuvalu, a lowland coral atoll nation 585 miles south of the equator. Home to about 10,000 people, Tuvalu is on the verge of becoming desolate in my lifetime.
In 2014, a meteorologist, Toula Kate, opened his computer to show me an image of the recent floods on an island. The sea water rose under the ground near where we were sitting. “This looks like climate change,” he said.
“In 2000, Tuvaluans living on the outlying islands noticed that their star and pulaka crops were being damaged,” he said. “The original crops looked rotten, and the size was getting smaller and smaller.” Taro and Pulaka, two starchy mainstays of Tuvaluan cuisine, are grown in underground pits.
Touala and his team traveled to the outlying islands to take soil samples. The culprit was saltwater infiltration linked to sea level rise. Measurements have been increasing every four millimeters every year since the measurements began in the early 1990’s. While it may seem like a small amount, this change has a dramatic effect on Tuvaluans’ access to drinking water. The highest point is only 13 feet above sea level.
As a result, a lot has changed in Tuvalu. Freshwater lenses, a layer of groundwater that floats on seawater, have become saline and contaminated. Mud roofs and freshwater wells are now a thing of the past. Each house now has a water tank connected to the corrugated-iron roof by gutters. All the water for washing, cooking and drinking now comes from the rain. This rainwater is boiled for drinking and used for washing clothes and utensils as well as for bathing. The wells have been recovered as rubbish heaps.
At times, families have to make tough decisions about how to allocate water. Angelina, a mother of three, told me that her daughter Siulai was only a few months old when there was a famine a few years ago. She, her husband and their eldest daughter were able to swim in the sea to wash themselves and their clothes. “We only saved water for drinking and cooking,” she said. But her newborn skin was too delicate to bathe in the ocean. Salt water will give her horrible spots. This meant that Angelina had to decide between bathing and drinking water for her baby.