There is a lot of shouting 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 should let the so-called “experts” speak. But we allneed to be talking about climate change and amplifying the voices of those suffering 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 needs to happen not only at major international gatherings like COP26, but also in an everyday way. In any powerful rooms where decisions are made, there should be people who can speak firsthand about the climate crisis. Storytelling is an intervention into climate silence, an invitation to use the ancient human technology of connecting through language and narrative to counteract inaction. It is a way to get often powerless voices into powerful rooms.
That’s what I attempted to do by documenting stories of people already experiencing the effects of a climate in crisis.
In 2013, I was living in Boston during the marathon bombing. The city was put on lockdown, and when it lifted, all I wanted was to go outside: to walk and breathe and hear the sounds of other people. I needed to connect, to remind myself that not everyone is murderous. 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 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 bicycle down the Mississippi River on a mission to listen to any stories that people had to share. I brought 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. We fight for our marsh every time we have a hurricane. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
I met 57-year-old Franny Connetti 80 miles south of New Orleans, when I stopped in front of her office to check the air in my tires; she invited me in to get out of the afternoon sun. Franny shared her lunch of fried shrimp with me. Between bites she told me how Hurricane Isaac had washed away her home and her neighborhood in 2012.
Despite that tragedy, she and her husband moved back 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 marsh every time we have a hurricane,” she told me. “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Twenty miles ahead, I could see where the ocean lapped over the road 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.
Here was one front line of climate change, one 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 water? My goal became to listen to and amplify those stories.
Water is how most of the world will experience climate change. 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. But the two are deeply intertwined.
I also set out to address 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 might bridge this divide.
One of the first stops on my journey was Tuvalu, a low-lying coral atoll nation in the South Pacific, 585 miles south of the equator. Home to around 10,000 people, Tuvalu is on track to become uninhabitable in my lifetime.
In 2014 Tauala Katea, a meteorologist, opened his computer to show me an image of a recent flood on one island. Seawater had bubbled up under the ground near where we were sitting. “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 traveled to the outer islands to take soil samples. The culprit was saltwater intrusion linked to sea-level rise. The seas have been rising four millimeters per year since measurements began in the early 1990s. While that might sound like a small amount, this change has a dramatic impact on Tuvaluans’ access to drinking water. The highest point is only 13 feet above sea level.
A lot has changed in Tuvalu as a result. The freshwater lens, a layer of groundwater that floats above denser seawater, has become salty and contaminated. Thatched roofs and freshwater wells are now a thing of the past. Each home 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 to wash clothes and dishes, as well as for bathing. The wells have been repurposed as trash heaps.
At times, families have to make tough decisions about how to allocate 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 oldest daughter could swim in the sea to wash themselves and their clothes. “We only saved water to drink and cook,” she said. But her newborn’s skin was too delicate to bathe in the ocean. The salt water would give her a horrible rash. That meant Angelina had to decide between having water to drink and to bathe her child.