In April, AAA’s Global Climate Change Task Force members Shirley Fiske, Ben Orlove, Susie Crate (via Skype), and I had the opportunity to visit with members of the American Ethnological Society at their annual meeting in New York City. The feel of this meeting was very different from that of the Society for Applied Anthropology meeting, where we held a similar roundtable in March. The theme of the entire AES meeting was “Engaging Anthropology”—an everyday occurrence among them members of SfAA—so the general question was how to connect anthropology with communities and the wider public, with an emphasis on communications and media. At AES, there were a few scholars who had already begun work on a topic related to climate change, but most were there out of curiosity or as a first step in gaining the background to see if they might be able develop a climate change project. Some were following up on the interests expressed by students, while several were graduate students themselves. In conversing about the roundtable afterwards, we concluded that such efforts on the part of the Task Force are essential, and that we need to continue reaching out to all different sectors of the anthropological endeavor.
This month, as a way of thinking about public engagement, I have added a different element to the column: a film review. First, we meet Task Force member Heather Lazrus, a research scientist in the Mesoscale and Microscale Meteorology group at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, CO, who has worked on the island nation of Tuvalu; then, we travel to another Pacific island to consider the difficult choices that climate change is bringing.
Of Aquifers and Islands…or, There and Back Again
Heather Lazrus has always been interested in how people make sense of their worlds and how they deal with hazards. She heard a lot about climate variability and change as a child growing up with an atmospheric scientist father, and started collecting newspaper articles about earthquakes and other hazards. Then, when her family moved from Boulder, CO, to New Zealand, she experienced a different version of climate (and culture!) change. She comments that, “in New Zealand, I was exposed to a part of the world – the Pacific Islands – that are deeply susceptible to influences of global climate change like sea level rise. The public salience of global climate change and rising sea levels was growing when I started graduate school at the University of Washington, and I was compelled to examine the lived experience of both the effects and discourse of climate change in a small Pacific Island country, Tuvalu, for my dissertation work. I became interested in the cultural mechanisms through which all weather and climate risks are perceived, experienced, and addressed.” As a research scientist at NCAR, Heather continues to follow these interests in new venues.
A current project Heather is leading utilizes a deeply interdisciplinary approach to enhance the anthropological research and findings. The project examines risk perceptions about drought and water management as they relate to the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer in south-central Oklahoma, situated in the heart of the Chickasaw Nation. This is the state’s only sole-source groundwater basin; it sustains the Blue River, the state’s only free flowing river. The recent comprehensive hydrological studies of the aquifer indicate the need for sustainable management of the amount of water extracted. However, the question of how to deal with that management in the face of increasing drought vulnerability, diverse demands, and climate variability and change, remains.
To address these issues, this project takes an integrated interdisciplinary approach to understanding risks and water decisions for sustainability of the Arbuckle-Simpson Aquifer. In addition to anthropology, the research team members represent the fields of meteorology, hydrology, and climatology. Informed by theories of risk perception and resource management, this research is designed not only to advance the theory but also to engage with real life applications for risk and water management. The project uses ethnographic methods to diagnose how cultural values and beliefs inform risk perceptions, and how this in turn guides water resource decision-making or ignites conflict across different sectors and stakeholder groups. Further, the characterization of drought risk is examined in the context of historic meteorological and hydrological events, as well as climate variability and change. This helps Heather and her team to identify which risks are prioritized, and under what conditions, whether for regional decision-making or water-related conflicts.
Climate change affects people around the world – in rural Oklahoma as well as Pacific Islands. Heather’s dissertation work examined perceptions of climate change impacts and related atmospheric hazards as well as the governance of vulnerability to those impacts in Tuvalu. Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world, with just 26 sq. km. of land area rising just a few meters above sea level. Heather points out that “rising sea levels, increasing sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, and extreme events including storms and droughts are among the challenges that Tuvalu faces as anthropogenic influences transform the nature of our global climate. Already, local observations of environmental change indicate a climate signal that reflects expectations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for small island states. Research in Tuvalu showed just how important it is to recognize the political as well as environmental contributions to climate change impacts and response options.” Heather’s work in Tuvalu underscores the need for adaptation to climate change to be driven by local aspirations and needs. For example, she points out that we should not discount migration as a valid adaptation measure, especially when doing so is consistent with regional culture and history.”
As an anthropologist among the climate scientists at NCAR, one of Heather’s key areas of practice is working with colleagues in other disciplines. She suggests that “anthropologists, with our integrated perspectives and diverse tool kits, are particularly well situated to understand the lived experience of a changing climate and partner with colleagues in other disciplines to examine what that means in terms of climate, ecology, hydrology, and other systems with which humans continually interact.” For Heather, another significant issue is how we work with practitioners – decision makers, community leaders, NGOs, policy makers, etc. – to apply our rigorous and theoretically-informed work to facilitate decisions and improve policy. She asserts that “through these partnerships within and outside of the academy, anthropologists can make a difference by seeking different perspectives to understand everything from how people respond to extreme weather events and warnings—for example tornadoes, flash floods, or drought—to how they plan for an uncertain future driven by climate changes.” In fact, it was her interest in multiple forms of engagement that inspired Heather to propose a task force on anthropology and climate change; with the support of numerous colleagues, the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force was born.
Briar March and Lyn Collie’s Film There Once was an Island: Te Henua e Nnoho (2010, 56 minutes)
Heather Lazrus has joined me in reviewing a film called There Once was an Island (created by On the Level Productions and distributed by New Day Films). It tells a piece of the climate change story of Takuu, a Polynesian atoll community that is part of the nation of Papua New Guinea, but is also similar in many ways to to the island nation of Tuvalu, where Heather conducted the fieldwork described above. The film depicts the lives of several people from Takuu, most of whom are still resident, but one who had already moved to mainland PNG. Using a feature film style narrative framework, the film brings the audience into the homes and experiences of islanders as they go about their subsistence lifestyles, fishing and gardening, in the face of seawater infiltration and storm surges. The stories of three individuals in particular—Satty, Telo, and Endar—allow the viewer to understand the complexity of climate change for individuals and communities as they approach environmental change in general. The film shows that the islanders have been well aware of ongoing environmental changes to their home, and that they have been actively engaged in modifying their environment to help manage those changes. Yet, they have also realized that forces beyond their own control have made it necessary to work with scientists and others off-island to address the problems they are experiencing. There Once was an Island therefore also reminds us of the significance of social agency, asking about the constrictions and opportunities that people face in the islands. Who has the capacity and right to make decisions? Who has a voice? How and why does social change happen?
One of the narratives in this film concerns the ways that climate and other changes may threaten cultural survival. It is important for us to realize that people make decisions informed by their cultural priorities–in this way, culture is like a pair of glasses that helps us see things and decide what to do about them. If people move off-island, are they making a decision that jeopardizes their cultural integrity? But what if mobility is part of the cultural heritage of the group in question? Historically, Pacific Islanders navigated the oceans and discovered new islands. Currently, the networks that extend off island (people who have left for school, jobs, and health reasons) actually make life at home viable; these people send remittances back to relatives on island, and in this way, are fully functioning participants in the social life of their home island. Real life is messy, climate change is messy, and the last thing we outsiders should do is to impose assumptions of linear change – environmental or social – on other people; rather, we need to think differently about migration, including seeing it as a viable adaptation strategy as opposed to a failure to adapt. A secondary tragedy comes when we understand the constraints people have with regard to migration – does migration mean a loss of citizenship or perhaps of cultural identity because of the way it is handled? These are the questions we face as the nature of our global climate and environment is transformed. As Task Force member Tony Oliver-Smith and others have pointed out, climate change is an intensifier of other natural disasters or environmental crises, and not its own unique problem.
There Once was an Island helps us to differentiate the viability of cultural life on Takuu from the physical existence of the island itself. That is, there are many things besides sea level rise that might make living on this remote island less viable than it was one hundred years ago, including relations with the PNG government (communications, supply and transport boats, other emergencies). These relationships are very complicated, and reflect not merely another victim narrative about climate change, but rather an interactive story of human agency, history, decision-making, and the impacts of different forms of knowledge. For example, one strength of this film is its depiction of islander interaction with mainland scientists; it shows clearly the tension between respect of science/expertise and local community-based knowledge. When students at the University of Wyoming viewed this film, they immediately called attention to the ways that islanders weighed all of their concerns and considered a range of choices, demonstrating the importance of taking action in local setting first, then calling on outside help if needed.
While There Once was an Island is an excellent resource for use in high school, university, and community settings to show the kinds of impacts that climate change has had and will continue to have on local communities, it is also very important to help these audiences recognize that, despite the film’s setting on a small Pacific island that is clearly highly vulnerable to sea level rise and other climate related changes, they are not the only ones to be impacted: we who support and maintain dedicated fossil-fueled lifestyles in the West are also severely affected.