The Narratives of the Climate Crisis project explores the impact of climate change on members of the Harvard community.
Harvard, Stop Destroying my Home
by Gabrielle Langkilde
Pictured: Gabrielle at home in the American Samoa.
September 20th, 2019
Gabby Langkilde is a junior in Eliot House studying WGS and Sociology from the South Pacific, and is here today to share her experience with the effects of climate change on her home.
First of all, I want to extend a big fa’afetai, or thank you, to everyone involved in organizing this event and to all of you for showing up today — seeing you all here really warms my heart.
Talofa, my name is Gabby and, as was said, I’m from the South Pacific — specifically from American Samoa. And being born and raised there, the consequences of climate change have always been very real and visible for me and my people back home. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the South Pacific islands are amongst the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change — even though collectively we contribute far below 1% of the total greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. And I could stand here today and throw out statistics about how much temperatures and sea levels have risen. But we all know this — we hear it in the news, on social media, or have probably heard the stats in class at some point. But I feel like, on this campus, the issue isn’t that we don’t know that climate change is bad. The issue is that, a lot of the time, climate change is talked about here like it’s some abstract idea or like something that’s happening, but is so far in the distance that it’s not currently relevant.
But for me, my people back home, and so many others, we don’t have that same luxury. Because climate change is not a distant idea for us — it’s our reality. A lot of people here don’t understand what it’s like to go home to rising temperatures destroying out crops and bleaching our reefs. They don’t understand what it’s like to go home to rising sea levels destroying our homes. And they don’t understand what it’s like to go home to increasing tropical storms claiming the lives of our parents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, and cousins.
But we do. The Marshall Islands are expected to be completely submerged by 2030 forcing their 55,000 citizens to either elevate or relocate — making them climate refugees. The government of the Kiribati Islands have been trying to purchase land in Fiji, because soon their homes too will be non-existent. And just recently, in Aunu’u, one of the beautiful islands of my home American Samoa, has been experiencing high sea levels, which have threatened their homes, schools, and livelihoods.
And Harvard is profiting off of this destruction. Just think about that for a second. By choosing to invest heavily in the fossil fuel industry, not only does Harvard show us that it does not care about its students whose families and homes are being directly impacted by climate change, but it is also actively participating in the destruction and displacement of our communities.
At this point, I’m beyond angry. I’m just tired. I’m tired of having to hear Harvard’s BS about creating a safe inclusive, space for its students. Because how can I feel welcome or safe when it’s investments threaten the very survival of my home? I’m tired of hearing Harvard talk about embracing diversity. Because how can it brag about embracing diversity when it actively threatens the lives of my beautiful Pacific family and our vibrant cultures? But most of all, I’m tired of only being able to see home once a year. Because every year when I make the 2-day-long journey home, I am hit with the sad realization that one day I may never be able to make that journey home again.
So, Harvard, you are not an inclusive space. You are not a place that welcomes diversity. And you most certainly are not my “home away from home”. In fact, you never were home, and you will never be home. Not until you divest from fossil fuels and stop threatening the existence of my community and my true home.
The Second Best Time
by Lucas Chu
“There is a Chinese proverb that says ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.’”– “The Meaning of 50 Million Trees” by Scott Steen
There is a silence both inside and outside as I walk through the “Great War” memorial. A myriad of ordered, homogenous graves stretch as far as the eye could see. The stillness of the wind and pond water perfectly reflect the sense of lifelessness outside and nothingness I feel– now so silent and serene, the final resting place of these soldiers contradicted the horrific deaths they suffered at the hands of fate, but also man. The bleakest part was not that this memorial did nothing to stop a WWII, but rather that the sheer sea of names overwhelming me, that I knew I could never acknowledge the victims as existing beyond a statistic or single stories–it would be like trying to count every tree in a forest.
In the centre of it all stands a plinth, with an eagle proudly mounted on the top. Ironically, rather than being a monument to the fallen of the past, its true purpose seems to be more that of a scarecrow, testifying silently how fruitless of an endeavor war is. Humanity has witnessed many other wars, with only one greater in scale, and hopefully none more to come, each with their own individual memorials. If adults weren’t the omnipotent, omniscient beings I was led to believe as a child, and couldn’t control their past, then what did that say about my future?
A glimpse of this future and a sign of the times visited upon the world on Christmas Eve, when I listened helplessly as I heard about infernos of hellish proportions incinerating Australia. Those fires, of course, left behind a lack of sound and trees, transforming outback into decaying corpses and paper-white, wide-open eyes of kangaroos and koalas littering the roadside, all staring helplessly at the camera as if they know who’s to blame. We suspect who’s to blame: so many people that it’s almost meaningless to punish. When there’s a war, we blame governments and those that head them. During the Kenyan drought and famine, we jumped a level of abstraction and (economists at Harvard) blamed market failure too. But when there’s an ecological disaster? We first blame climate change, as if we don’t know that the debate is long over. This catastrophe could’ve been mitigated, and perhaps completely prevented by government pre-planning, such as building fire breaks, and even the same force that ultimately caused climate change: economics.
Had experts and politicians risen above their stations, they would’ve studied past data, made predictions, and taken preventative actions. Firefighters could’ve fight fire with fire, the federal government could’ve placed pigovian taxes on climate-degrading actions, lawmakers could’ve compromised on carbon tax or cap and trade systems, and even philosophers could’ve led the charge for a paradigm shift where Ayn Rand-type neoliberalism was challenged on the grounds of the ultimate negative externality (global warming). We could’ve shared and cared for the common ground we collectively stand on. We must hold ourselves accountable for those we are not responsible for because of the stakes. Of course, it’s all so much harder done than said. But we must try. We must plant now. So I will hold on to that silence, my inaction, and our collective guilt, and make the best of this second best time.
The Brightest Light
by James Walkingstick
Osiyo. James Udolanvsdi dawadoa. Tsi Tsalagi. I am James Walkingstick. I am Giduwa (Cherokee). I am a water protector. My ancestors have been stewards of this land since time immemorial, and I continue to push for its protection. Extractive industries have gutted Native land and poisoned my people. Alternative energy has flooded and contaminated our water. Fossil fuels have desecrated our land. Climate change has destroyed our communities. Here’s what’s at stake.
In the early 20th century large deposits of lead and zinc were discovered in the Quapaw Nation. Mining companies flooded the area and ripped the minerals from the ground. This single mine produced the lead for over half of the bullets used in World War I. After the war, the mines were abandoned. Giant piles of chat (the waste created by lead mining) were left towering above Picher, Oklahoma, subjecting countless locals (a majority of which were Native) to lead contamination. The chat was spread by wind and runoff across Ottawa County. The Bureau of Indian Affairs sought to save a few dollars and even used the chat to pave driveways and playgrounds for Native families. An Indian Health Services study later found over 1/3 of local Native youth had contracted lead poisoning. 1 out of every 3 Native youth.
In the 1970s water seeped into the open shafts of the mines, creating a highly potent solution of lead contaminated water. This water flowed into Tar Creek, where the lead oxidized, turning the water a rusty red. Tar Creek, in its entirety, runs through tribal land. As time wore on the town began caving into the mines. Natives were forced from their homes.
A September 2019 report by the EPA has shown two traditional medicines used by the local tribes, Arrow Root and Duck Weed, held 7,618 times the amount of lead in baseline plants. These plants are only harvested by Native Americans. What we use to nourish our bodies is now poisoning us because of extractive industries.
Tar Creek flows into Grand Lake O’ the Cherokees, where I live. The O’ does not mean “of”; it means “over”. In the 1930’s the world’s largest multi-arched dam was constructed on Grand River in the Cherokee Nation to provide hydroelectric power. This dam subsequently flooded large portions of Native land. Heavy metals from Tar Creek eventually crept into the lake. Senator Jim Inhofe (the one who threw the snowball in the Senate in 2015, denying climate change), has used The Army Corps of Engineers and the Grand River Dam Authority to keep lake levels and property values high. This has resulted in the flooding and destruction of Native communities up stream.
A recent increase in storms and torrential downpours has produced stress on our communities. Rainwater easily floods Tar Creek, forcing the water to overtake large sections of Miami, Oklahoma, the center for nine Native American tribes (Quapaw, Shawnee, Eastern Shawnee, Peoria, Wyandotte, Miami, Seneca-Cayuga, Ottawa, & Modoc). In April of 2019, half of the town was under water for nearly a month. Over 30 Eastern Shawnee families were forced from their homes. The Ottawa Tribe lost ability to feed its elders. The Eastern Shawnee ceremonial grounds were over 3 feet underwater. My friends lost their homes, their businesses, and their ways of life. It is projected that flooding in our area will only worsen as climate change continues to produce more sporadic storms across the plains. This is the genocidal force we are up against.
These are only a handful of examples of how climate change and mining are affecting my community. Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee, summed it up the best at this year’s Tar Creek Conference.
During ceremony, the Shawnee gather on ceremonial grounds. At night a small fire is ignited. The fire is then nurtured to be the brightest light on the grounds. This light is necessary to honor the Creator. When Chief Barnes recently visited his ceremonial grounds, he found a giant oil fracking tower had been erected on the grounds without consultation or consent. The sacred land had been desecrated. At night the ceremonial grounds were illuminated, not by the sacred fire, but rather from the abusive lights of the fracking rig. The brightest light was no longer the fire.
Oklahoma is a Choctaw word meaning “Red People”. As I look at the red water flowing through Tar Creek and the red clay unearthed in nearby mines, I see that our land and water, like us, is red. We are our relations, and our relations to the land, water, sky, and animals are sacred. When we are in bad relation to the land, when we are destroying what gave us life, we are our own folly.
Apathy is not acceptable. We have community members dying at the hands of extractive industries and climate change. Indigenous people, more than any other group, have suffered the colonial plundering of this planet. I urge Harvard to fully divest from fossil fuels and unethical land investments in Brazil. By supporting extractive industries, Harvard supports the intentional genocide of Indigenous people. We will not tolerate it. We must look to Indigenous people, the people who have cultivated and protected this land for tens of thousands of years, to lead us into the future. I urge Harvard and all of its members, students and faculty alike, to denounce Harvard’s investments and acknowledge the ongoing genocide against Indigenous people.
We must defend what is truly sacred.
The Climate Museum
by Ilana Cohen
Placards will read: Maldives. Miami. Downtown Manhattan. Giant Panda. Asian Elephant. The Amazon Rainforest. The list goes on. Eventually, it will include humans, too. Glass classes will contain 3D models and holographs of all the communities, species, and ecosystems erased by the accelerating climate crisis. They will memorialize everything we have lost and are going to lose. Our children—for those of us who choose to have them, given the growing #birthstrike movement with which I identify—will visit to examine the destruction wreaked on their world by the generation that failed to reverse course, the generation that left them with a far less livable and diverse planet. Here, they will read about the climate emergency and—as they realize the magnitude of the species, ecosystems, and homes they will never know beyond recreation and simulation—question why we did not act in time.
This dystopia is what my mind immediately conjured up when I first heard the words “Climate Museum.” In my most cynical moments as a climate organizer, I worry over how future generations will perceive us and our parents and grandparents, the generations who sowed the course toward planetary destruction and those who failed to take responsibility for changing the way forward—if we do not heed the latest IPCC report about having a decade left to limit global temperature incrase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels or the UN’s warning of a future “climate apartheid” scenario and instead, remain locked onto our current trajectory of an unsustainable and morally unjustifiable business as usual. My mind turns to red lists of endangered species and the sixth mass extinction, the swallowing of low-lying islands like the Maldives by incremental sea level rise, and the deforestation of our most precious nature reserves like the Amazon and the displacement of its indigenous communities. What could a Climate Museum be if not a testament to the tragedies already unfolding before our eyes?
Yet this nightmarish conceit bears no resemblance to the Climate Museum founded in 2015, which now stands on the historic green fields of Governors Island in my home city of New York. Through events and exhibitions like “Taking Action,” the museum aims to “to employ the sciences, art, and design to inspire dialogue and innovation that address the challenges of climate change, moving solutions to the center of our shared public life and catalyzing broad community engagement. ” It’s about more than optimism, more than hope, more than perseverance in the face of a climate emergency: it’s about action, inspiration, and transformation. The museum’s location—a green paradise amidst the city’s jungle of skyscrapers and pavement streets—only reinforces its promise of possibility. We need to reconceptualize how we treat and talk about land—especially in urban spaces—viewing ourselves within pre-existing habitats as opposed to employing greenery where it feels aesthetically pleasing within an anthropocentric space.
Even as the Climate Museum works to educate and mobilize, however, the idea that we need such an institution to begin with is deeply troubling. We shouldn’t need a museum to tell us that we’re witnessing the destruction of our planet and our young people’s futures, and that we need to do something about it before it’s too late. We shouldn’t worry that one day, the museum might become a representation of the emergency ignored and display a dark legacy of inaction.
The dual potential of this institution to embody the best and worst potential of humanity—our ability to transform and our ability to destroy—reveals our immense power in this moment. Our power lies in our freedom to choose how we respond to this tipping point. When we ask how future generations will remember us, how our children’s children will remember us, what do we want them to remember? I think that no matter what happens—no matter to what extent we succeed in calming this crisis, knowing that certain levels of change are already irreversible and inevitable—we want them to remember us as the generation that tried. As the generation that fought to preserve the earth they inhabited. As the generation who actualized our power to reverse course and steer society toward a more just and stable future.
One day, these years will be no more than tick marks on a timeline in the narrative of the climate crisis. The question we must all ask is what markers we’ll want attached to them: sixth mass extinction, natural disasters, and displacement or mass mobilization, policy change, and environmental justice? Our choice will make a world of difference.