What do the Arctic and small tropical islands have in common?

01 Dec 2011

Speech given by John Crump, UNEP/GRID-Arendal's Senior Advisor, Climate Change at the opening of the Portraits of Resilience exhibition at the Durban Natural Science Museum Research Centre.

The main message of this Portraits of Resilience photography exhibition is, a lot.

Portraits of Resilience is part of the Many Strong Voices Programme. MSV brings together people and organizations in the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) and Arctic. These regions are experiencing first-hand the effects of rapid climate change. Coastal erosion, temperature increases and change in regional weather patterns -- climate change affects everything from how people make a living, to the food they eat, to the survival of ancient cultures.

While they may be vulnerable, people in the Arctic and SIDS are taking action -- from developing local and regional adaption strategies to lobbying world governments to cut the greenhouse gas emissions that are altering the climate. They are here in Durban. And they are telling their stories to the world.

Stories connect us in a concrete way. By telling their stories to the world, people in these regions are presenting a powerful argument about why the rest of the world needs to care about what’s happening to them -- and take action.

Portraits of Resilience began in 2008 and held its first exhibition at the climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009. It has been at the Winter Olympics and at museums in Norway, United States and Fiji.

It gives young people in the SIDS and Arctic a voice and puts a youthful, human face on climate change. The students have written essays, learned to take photographs, and worked hard to show their communities to the outside world. The main message in this work is that people in the these regions are not helpless victims of climate change. If anything, this exhibition shows that youth have a profound sense of place and a strong desire to see their cultures and communities survive and thrive.

The problem is simple. If we want to continue on this planet as a viable species in a climate that is conducive to our continued existence, we need to slow down and eventually stop burning fossil fuels. We know this. Science and common sense tells us it is so.

The problem is simple really. If we want to continue on this planet in a climate that will allow us to grow enough food for all, maintain cultures and societies, and where everyone gets a fair and sustainable share of the world’s resources, we have to slow down and eventually stop burning fossil fuels. We need to preserve and strengthen our connection to the world that sustains us. We know this, even if we don’t act like we do.

We will not be able to invent our way out of this problem. And we will not be able to ignore it much longer. The consequences of our blindness are already affecting  vulnerable regions, like the Arctic and the Small Island Developing States. Like parts of Africa. Like the high mountain areas in Nepal and Peru.

We know this but we do not believe. To believe, I think, we need to feel what others are feeling. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, but one of the heart. That’s what the young people whose work makes up this exhibition are telling us.

They are a lot like you. They have families. They go to school. They spend too much time on their phones and on Facebook. They think about the future. And they see. They know the world is in trouble because they see it in front of them.

Through this project we have been working to help them tell their stories – to their own communities and to the world. But how do you connect what they are going through to your own lives here. I can’t answer that question for you but I can tell you a story.

Megan Piscoya is in high school in Shishmaref. It’s a small island off the coast of Alaska and increased storms and big waves are washing the island into the sea. It’s been used by the Inupiat people of the region – you would call them Eskimos – for thousands of years. It’s been a permanent village for about 50.

Climate change means the winter sea ice doesn’t form around the island like it once did. The ice used to protect the island from the fierce winter storms that blow across the Bering Strait. Now the coastline is receding, houses have collapsed and they have had to move the runway. As you’ll see in the exhibition, the old sea wall is swamped. A new one has been built but how long will it last? Just a couple of weeks ago the island and much of the coast was hit by a massive storm with 80 kph winds. People on Shishmaref are running out of room and are looking at relocating to the mainland. It will costs many millions of dollars to rebuild the village elsewhere.

Megan came down to Chicago last year for the opening of the Portraits exhibit at the Field Museum of Natural History. She spoke to a group of students like you about what climate change meant in isolated her village. The Chicago kids listened politely. It was only when she mentioned that changes to the water supply in the community meant that she and her family could only use the communal showers  once or twice a week that the southern kids perked up. They couldn’t believe it. No showers when you want one? Suddenly the conversation came alive and the southern kids connected with what Megan was going through.

That’s the power of storytelling. That’ what Portraits does: it tells stories in words and pictures.

Now I’m not sure what you think about the way they connected. To teenagers in Chicago, not being able to take a shower any time you want, as many times a day as you want, is a radical concept. But it’s the connection that’s important. Once a connection is made, you can have a real conversation.


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