There is a lot shouting about climate changes, especially in North America. 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 should let the so-called “experts” speak. We all need to be talking about climate change, and amplifying those who are most in need.
While climate science is essential, it can be used to inspire new ideas by combining the stories of people who are experiencing climate change with that science.
This must happen not only at large international gatherings such as COP26 but also every day. There should be people who are able and willing to share their personal experiences with the climate crisis in any of the powerful rooms where decisions will be made. Storytelling is a way to intervene in climate silence. It’s an invitation to use the ancient human technology to connect through language and narrative to counteract inaction. It is a way for often powerless voices to be heard in powerful rooms.
That’s what I attempted to do by documenting stories of people already experiencing the effects of a climate in crisis.
I was in Boston during the 2013 marathon bombing. I was forced to leave the city and was unable to breathe or walk outside when it lifted. I needed to be connected to remind me that not everyone is a murderer. In a fit of inspiration, I cut open a broccoli box and wrote “Open call for stories” in Sharpie.
I wore the cardboard sign around mine neck. People stared mostly at me. But others approached me. Once I started listening to strangers, I didn’t want to stop.
I rode my bike down the Mississippi River that summer on a mission: to hear any stories people had to tell. I had the sign with me. One story was so sticky that I couldn’t stop thinking about it for months, and it ultimately set me off on a trip around the world.
“We fight for the protection of our levees. Every time a hurricane hits, we fight for our marsh. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Franny Connetti, aged 57, was a kind and welcoming woman who met me 80 miles south from New Orleans. Franny shared her lunch of fried shrimp and chicken with me. She shared her lunch of fried shrimp with me, and she also told me about Hurricane Isaac that had swept away her home in 2012.
Despite the tragedy, she and her husband returned to their plot of land in a mobile home just a few months after it was damaged by the storm.
“We fight for the protection of our levees. We fight for our marsh every time we have a hurricane,” she told me. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
I could see twenty miles ahead where the ocean lapped at high tide. “Water on Road,” an orange sign read. Locals jokingly refer to the endpoint of Louisiana State Highway 23 as “The End of the World.” Imagining the road I had been biking underwater was chilling.
One story, one front line in climate change. 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 water? My goal was to listen to these stories and amplify them.
Water is the most likely way that climate change will affect the majority of the planet. It’s not a human construct, like a degree Celsius. It’s something we acutely see and feel. When there’s not enough water, crops die, fires rage, and people thirst. When there’s too much, 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. Both are interrelated.
Another problem I wanted to address was the inaccessibility of the language we use when discussing climate change. 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 help bridge this gap.
Tuvalu, a lowlying coral atoll country in the South Pacific 585 miles south-east of the Equator, was my first stop on my journey. Tuvalu, home to approximately 10,000 people, is on track for becoming uninhabitable within my lifetime.
Tauala Katea, an meteorologist, opened his laptop to show me a picture of a recent flood that had occurred on one island in 2014. Near where we were sitting, seawater had risen from the ground. “This is what climate change looks like,” he said.
“In 2000, Tuvaluans living in the outer islands noticed that their taro and pulaka crops were suffering,” he said. “The root crops seemed rotten, and the size was getting smaller and smaller.” Taro and pulaka, two starchy staples of Tuvaluan cuisine, are grown in pits dug underground.
Tauala and his team went to the outer islands to collect soil samples. Saltwater intrusion due to sea-level rise was the culprit. Since the beginning of measurements in the early 1990s, the seas have been rising 4 millimeters per annum. While that might sound like a small amount, this change has a dramatic impact on Tuvaluans’ access to drinking water. The highest point is just 13 feet above the sea level.
As a result, Tuvalu has seen a lot of change. The freshwater lens is a layer of groundwater floating above denser seawater and has become salty. Contaminated. The days of freshwater wells and thatched roofs are gone. Each home now has a water tank attached to a corrugated-iron roof by a gutter. All water used for cooking, washing and drinking comes from the rain. The rainwater is boiled to make drinking water and can be used to wash dishes and clothes, as well as for bathing. The wells are now used to make trash heaps.
Sometimes families must make difficult decisions about how much water to allocate. 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 oldest daughter were able to swim in the ocean to wash their clothes and themselves. “We only saved water to drink and cook,” she said. But her newborn’s skin was too delicate to bathe in the ocean. Her skin would get a terrible rash from the salt water. Angelina had to choose between bathing her child or drinking water.