Peter Rudiak-Gould is an American student studying for an anthropology doctorate at Oxford University in climate change and its effect on the Marshall Islands. He recently published his first book titled Surviving Paradise describing his year on a remote atoll in the Marshall Island teaching English.
This interview discusses Peter’s attitude to global warming, especially focussed on how the Marshall Islands are handling this global issue.
Travel Wonders: The population of Marshall Islands appear to have little fear of global warming yet their islands are clearly slowly “drowning”. Is this consistent with the way they lead their lives or their faith or what?
Peter Rudiak-Gould: Thankfully, there is more Marshallese interest in the threat now than two years ago. Still, when I was recently in the Marshall Islands and asked general questions about life or about the future, people didn’t usually spontaneously bring up climate change, even though they were familiar with it. It’s probably #10 on people’s list of worries. There are probably several reasons for this. One is that, while people can see some signs of local environmental change (erosion, for instance), these changes are not yet extremely obvious, and they are not affecting people in a big way – by and large, life goes on as it did before. Another is that, when people hear about the problem, there seems to be nothing they can do about it, so there is no point in thinking about it. Another is that some people are skeptical of the threat because they don’t trust scientists – some people say that the country won’t be flooded because God promised Noah that he wouldn’t flood the earth again. So many of the reasons that Marshallese people don’t think about climate change as much as we might hope are the same reasons that Westerners don’t think about it as much as we would hope. There might also be a certain amount of fatalism in the country, due to millenia of living in a precarious environment and more recent experiences like nuclear testing. Luckily, there’s a new awareness raising strategy in the Marshall Islands which puts attention on more manageable, present impacts of climate change rather than the possibility of future inundation, and this strategy seems to be succeeding in getting people more engaged with the problem.
TW: With their limited resources, did you speak with Marshall Islanders that you felt were taking positive steps towards reducing the threat of global warming?
Peter: I was just in the country again, from May to September, and there is much more engagement and action than there was in 2003-2004 or 2007 when I was there before. Like in the First World, the man on the street isn’t doing very much to prepare for climate change (which is completely understandable!), but there is a sizeable and growing community of activists. First and foremost are the leaders of Women United Together Marshall Islands, which is a women’s advocacy organization. They have been organizing workshops to educate women around the country about the threat of climate change. This has made a huge difference. The Ministry of Education, an environmental NGO, and a Catholic church have also helped to raise people’s awareness. Interestingly enough, one of the responses that is being advocated is to reduce one’s own carbon emissions, even though the Marshall Islands has such a small carbon footprint, both as a nation and per capita. It is a kind of self-blame – these organizations are taking attention away from the culpability of the big polluting nations, and putting attention on the small contribution that Marshall Islanders add to the threat. In some ways this is blaming the victim, and exaggerating Marshall Islanders’ power to solve the problem, but it may be succeeding in helping people engage with the problem – and every little bit of emissions reduction helps. The Marshallese government hasn’t been as proactive as other low-lying island nations, such as the Maldives which has pledged to go carbon neutral in ten years, held a government meeting underwater to get media attention, and looked into the possibility of buying land overseas in case the islands are flooded. But the grassroots efforts in the Marshall Islands are taking off in a serious way.
TW: How big an issue do you personally believe the threat of global warming is?
Peter: I think the seriousness of the threat is about halfway between the two extremes that we often hear. The two extremes I’m talking about are the idea that global warming is a hoax (what the denialists like to say) and that global warming is an apocalypse that will destroy humanity and much of life on earth (what the alarmists like to say). Halfway between those two viewpoints equals: a big problem. Although low-lying island countries like the Marshall Islands seem to be the worst off, I think that other, poorer countries are in a more dire situation. The worst case scenario in the Marshall Islands–total uninhabitability and mass exodus–is very bad indeed, but not as bad as what some other countries might face. If worst comes to worst in the Marshall Islands, some country would surely allow the 60,000 inhabitants to immigrate. But in various African countries with much larger populations, many of the people would have to stay despite massive crop failures and starvation. So, in summary, climate change won’t destroy the world, but it will make it harder for people to live on it, and it could kill millions of people in the Third World. We don’t need sensationalistic proclamations of ecological Armageddon in order to care about the problem or appreciate its seriousness.
TW: What personal changes (if any) have you made since the experience of seeing parts of Ujae Island lying underwater in the way you lead your life in Oxford?
Peter: I can’t hold myself up as an example of what to do right. I conserve energy in small ways, I don’t eat very much meat, and I carbon offset my research-related flights. That’s not much, though. But I hope that by studying how people in vulnerable countries react to the idea and reality of global warming, I will be able to help people design more effective awareness and adaptation programs. I do believe that we can make a difference in global warming, but the best thing we can do is not to repent for our carbon sins but to pressure government to sign a climate change treaty that will actually tackle the problem. The ozone hole wasn’t solved by guilt-tripping people about using air conditioners and hairsprays, but by governments passing laws against CFCs and industry finding suitable alternatives to them. The same could be true of climate change, although it’s a much harder problem to solve. I do admire people who voluntarily stop flying, for instance, but I worry that the emphasis on guilt and fear has turned many people off to the climate change movement. If people associate environmentalism with feeling bad about themselves, that’s going to hurt the movement.
TW: How big do you see the threat and do you think the world’s leaders are setting us on an appropriate course for recovery?
Peter: The threat is big, and so far the response has not been terribly impressive. But that’s not a reason for despair. We have to realize what a huge endeavor it is to get every country in the world to sign a climate change treaty. And it does need to be every country in the world, because both the causes and the consequences of climate change are global, not respecting any national border. An environmental issue like smog is much easier to solve because the pollution doesn’t travel very far, so it’s mostly the same people who create the problem who also suffer from it. That means that there is more incentive for people to solve the problem, and it can be tackled on a local or national level, rather than a global one. You don’t need everyone in the world to agree to stop the problem, only a certain subset of people. But with climate change, every country in the world needs to sign on. That’s an incredibly ambitious goal to set, and it’s not surprising that it’s taken a few decades. Fingers crossed for Copenhagen. If an agreement is made, it will be a wonderful precedent for international cooperation, and a good sign that we’re starting to realize that we’re all living on the same planet. Taking the long view, the fact that we’re even anywhere close to such an agreement is amazing.
TW: What role do you believe that well-off western nations (Europe, USA, Canada, Australia,…) should be playing in protecting low lying islands such as the Marshall Islands with the threat of global warming?
Peter: First and foremost, they should be trying to prevent the threat. But this might fail, and even if it succeeds there is a certain amount of warming locked into the system from the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere, so the Marshall Islands will have to deal with certain impacts no matter what. So First World nations are obligated to help low-lying islands adapt. This can involve both traditional and non-traditional methods. Traditional methods of securing shorelines are great, but at a certain point they might not be enough. At that point, seawalls might be the only option, and these low-lying countries couldn’t afford these themselves. A richer country would have to help, and would be obligated to do so. In a worst case scenario, if people in low-lying countries have to evacuate, the rich countries should allow them to immigrate. Someone argued that rich countries should allow “climate change refugees” to immigrate in proportion to the amount of greenhouse gases they emit (and therefore their share of causing the problem), which seems reasonable to me.
TW: As individual travellers, what do you believe are important steps that we can take to reduce the effect of climate change?
Peter: Do you think the travel industry doing its fair share facing this global issue? The most significant link between traveling and climate change is, of course, the carbon emissions caused by flying. My feeling on this one is that there are two things that you can do that make sense. One is to cut back on flying, or stop flying altogether. The other is to fly and carbon offset those flights with a reputable carbon offsetting organization. I’ve heard a lot of people say that only the first of these options is ethical. They say that carbon offsetting is unethical because you are paying to eliminate the sin of flying, and you shouldn’t be able to pay money to earn moral credit. Or they say that carbon offsetting makes climate change seem like an easy problem to solve, so people will just carbon offset and not get involved with actually solving the problem. I appreciate these arguments but don’t really agree with them. If you are carbon offsetting with a reputable company (like Climate Care – www.jpmorganclimatecare.com), then you really are eliminating an equivalent amount of greenhouse gas emission. Your net effect is zero because it doesn’t matter where the emissions are coming from – they all go into one big system. And at the same time, you are creating an incentive for people in various industries to devise ways of reducing carbon emissions and get paid for it. This is a good thing. Carbon offsetting won’t solve climate change by itself, but it’s better than nothing. What really baffles me is when people decide to fly AND to feel guilty about it, without carbon offsetting. This seems like the worst of all worlds to me: all of the feeling of guilt with none of the action to reduce your impact.
TW: Thank you Peter for your time.