There are many screams about climate change, especially in North America and Europe. This makes it easy for the rest of the world to fall into a kind of silence, for Westerners to assume that they have nothing to add and must let the so-called “experts” speak. But we all need to speak out about climate change and amplify the voices of those who suffer the most.
Climate science is crucial, but by contextualizing that science with the stories of people actively experiencing climate change, we can begin to think more creatively about technological solutions.
This should happen not only at major international meetings like COP26, but also on a daily basis. In any powerful room where decisions are made, there should be people who can speak first-hand about the climate crisis. Storytelling is an intervention in climatic silence, an invitation to use the ancient human technology of connecting through language and narrative to counter inaction. It’s a way of bringing often powerless voices into powerful rooms.
That is what I tried to do by documenting the stories of people who were already experiencing the effects of a climate in crisis.
In 2013, he was living in Boston during the marathon bombing. The city was blocked off, and when he got up, all he wanted was to get out: walk, breathe, and listen to the sounds of other people. I needed to connect, to remind myself that not everyone is a murderer. In a flash of inspiration, I opened a box of broccoli and wrote “Open Call for Stories” in Sharpie.
I wore the cardboard sign around my neck. People mostly stared. But some approached me. Once I started listening to strangers, I didn’t want to stop.
That summer, I rode my bike down the Mississippi River on a mission to hear the stories people had to share. I brought the poster with me. One story was so sticky that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months, and it finally made me go on a trip around the world.
“We fight for the protection of our levees. We fight for our swamp every time we have a hurricane. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. ”
I met Franny Connetti, 57, 80 miles south of New Orleans, when I stopped in front of her office to check the air in my tires; He invited me to come in to get out of the afternoon sun. Franny shared her fried shrimp lunch with me. Between bites he told me how Hurricane Isaac swept through his home and neighborhood in 2012.
Despite that tragedy, she and her husband returned to their plot of land, in a mobile home, just a few months after the storm.
“We fight for the protection of our levees. We fight for our swamp every time we have a hurricane, ”he told me. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Twenty miles later, I could see where the ocean lapped the road at high tide. “Water on the road,” read an orange sign. Locals jokingly refer to the endpoint of Louisiana State Highway 23 as “The End of the World.” Imagining the road he had cycled underwater was chilling.
Here was a first line of climate change, a story. What would it mean, I wondered, to put this in dialogue with stories from other parts of the world, from other front lines with localized impacts that were experienced through the water? My goal became to listen and amplify those stories.
Water is the way most of the world will experience climate change. It is not a human construction, like one degree Celsius. It is something that we see and feel acutely. When there is not enough water, crops die, fires burn, and people are thirsty. When there is too much water, the water becomes a destructive force that devastates homes, businesses and lives. It is almost always easier to talk about water than it is about climate change. But the two are deeply intertwined.
I also set out to tackle another problem: the language we use to discuss climate change is often abstract and inaccessible. We hear about feet of sea level rise or parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but what does this really mean for people’s everyday lives? I thought storytelling could bridge this gap.
One of the first stops on my trip was Tuvalu, a nation of low-lying coral atolls in the South Pacific, 585 miles south of the equator. Home to about 10,000 people, Tuvalu is on its way to becoming uninhabitable in my lifetime.
In 2014, Tauala Katea, a meteorologist, opened his computer to show me a picture of a recent flood on an island. The seawater had bubbled under the ground near where we were sitting. “This is what climate change looks like,” he said.
“In 2000, the people of Tuvalu living on the outer islands noticed that their taro and pulaka crops were suffering,” he said. “The tubers looked rotten and the size kept getting smaller.” Taro and pulaka, two starchy staples of Tuvalu cuisine, are grown in wells dug underground.
Tauala and his team traveled to the outer islands to take soil samples. The culprit was saltwater intrusion related to rising sea levels. The seas have risen by four millimeters per year since measurements began in the early 1990s. While that may seem like a small amount, this change has a dramatic impact on Tuvalu’s access to drinking water. The highest point is only 13 feet above sea level.
As a result, many things have changed in Tuvalu. The freshwater lens, a layer of groundwater that floats on top of denser seawater, has become salty and contaminated. Thatched roofs and freshwater wells are now a thing of the past. Each house now has a water tank attached to a corrugated iron roof by a gutter. 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 dishes, as well as for bathing. The wells have been repurposed as garbage heaps.
Sometimes families have to make difficult decisions about how to distribute water. Angelina, a mother of three, told me that during a drought a few years ago, her middle daughter, Siulai, was only a few months old. She, her husband, and their eldest daughter could swim in the sea to wash themselves and their clothes. “We only save water for drinking and cooking,” he said. But her newborn’s skin was too delicate to bathe in the ocean. Salt water would give him a horrible rash. That meant Angelina had to decide between drinking water and bathing her son.