© 2024 New Hampshire Public Radio

Persons with disabilities who need assistance accessing NHPR's FCC public files, please contact us at publicfile@nhpr.org.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Purchase your tickets today and be entered to win ALL prizes including $35k toward a new car or $25k in cash during NHPR's Summer Raffle!

Who Is Most To Blame For Climate Change?

Flooding in a cemetery on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands in December 2008.
Giff Johnson
AFP/Getty Images
Flooding in a cemetery on Majuro Atoll in the Marshall Islands in December 2008.

Here in southeastern Virginia, our biggest city, Norfolk, is saddled with an unwanted claim to fame. As The Washington Post has reported, Norfolk is the place "where normal tides have risen 1.5 feet over the past century and the sea is rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast."

NPR notes that the Norfolk area "is particularly vulnerable because the land is sinking as sea levels are rising."

Scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science here at the College of William and Mary predict, according to the Post article, that "if current trends hold, by the end of this century, the sea in Norfolk would rise by 5.5 feet or more."

That's a daunting vision of the future for us locally. Will parts of Norfolk need to be abandoned? Will raising buildings and building floodgates make an appreciable difference? Where would the money come from for such work? How will people's lives be impacted?

As we frequently discuss here at 13.7, human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is a global problem. And this week, after reading an article by the anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould in the August issue of Current Anthropology, "Climate Change and Accusation: Global Warming and Local Blame in a Small Island State," I have new appreciation for the scale of the problem faced by people living far from Norfolk.

Rudiak-Gould focuses on the Marshall Islands, a chain of low-lying coral atolls and islands located in the northern Pacific Ocean and part of Micronesia. (The Marshall Islands are best known to most Americans for the Bikini Atoll disaster brought about by U.S. nuclear testing in 1954).

Over 60,000 people live in the Marshall Islands now and the forecast for their future is not good. The threat of rising sea levels presents, in Rudiak-Gould's words, "severe, quite possibly insurmountable, threats to the continued habitation of the Marshallese homeland."

Wanting to understand how climate change has already affected these islands, I contacted Rudiak-Gould by email earlier this week. He told me that drought and flooding are the two worst impacts so far:

"Crops of breadfruit, pandanus, and other staples have withered. Waterborne illnesses like hepatitis have risen. Flooding has hit the country's capital city, Majuro, several times recently. The capital city is densely populated and houses reach right up to the edge of the ocean, making people more vulnerable. One of the more distressing damages caused by flooding is the erosion of coastal graveyards, which have great cultural and spiritual significance. Of course, the cause of these events is more complicated than climate change, but the evidence points to climate change being a major contributing factor."

Rudiak-Gould's research isn't primarily focused on climate change itself, though. He seeks to understand how the Marshallese Islanders — among whom he has done fieldwork at intervals since 2003 — respond to these threats, of which they are very well aware.

How do the islanders think about the issue of blame? Do they engage in industrial blame, in which Western, developed and industrialized countries are held to be at fault? Or do they adopt a perspective of universal blame that, in a "radically different moral framing," puts blame on all of us collectively — even Marshall Islanders themselves?

Surprisingly, at least to me, the evidence points to a narrative of universal blame, instead of one in which the "big countries" (as islanders call the industrialized nations) are called out.

The average Marshall Islands resident has a carbon footprint less than 1/10th that of the average American. Yet the grassroots (that is to say, nongovernmental) viewpoint manifests itself as a subtype of universal blame that is heavy on self-blame. Based on his own surveys and interviews, as well as information publicly available in the media, Rudiak-Gould offers example after example of self-blame discourse. Repeatedly, the Marshallese lamented their own bad behavior that contributes to climate change, including driving cars and running air conditioners.

Given the heavily colonialist history of these islands (involving not only the U.S. but also Japan and Germany), why should Marshall Islanders be so ready to take responsibility when, objectively speaking, the bulk of the blame falls on countries like ours?

After considering and dismissing a number of other explanations, Rudiak-Gould concludes that the answer can be found in the Marshallese perspective on cultural decline, the idea that the local culture is deteriorating as people increasingly leave traditional practices behind in favor of foreign ways. Rudiak-Gould writes in Current Anthropology:

"The fact that foreigners, too, contribute to climate change is not denied, it is simply ignored, for it is irrelevant to what Marshallese discourse cares so dearly about, which is locals' own loyalty or disloyalty toward tradition."

One passage of Rudiak-Gould's in the article really brought things together for me:

"Where an industrial blamer might see only needless self-flagellation, the sad spectacle of a victimized society turning accusation inward, Marshallese activists see an opportunity to turn climate change into the final proof of modernity's folly, a powerful inspiration to revitalize older ways."

Here we see the very heart of an anthropological approach, in that the ethnographer (Rudiak-Gould) listens to and works to frame the points of view of his informants (the Marshallese), especially where they diverge from the narrative of his own culture: Industrial blame is more readily embraced in the U.S. than is universal blame.

In our email exchange, I asked Rudiak-Gould about the impact of his work: How does anthropological research like his help all of us us think about anthropogenic climate change?

"I would say the big message is that climate change is not just a scientific, technical, or environmental issue. It is a human issue — it is caused by humans and it harms humans. It is important to remember the impact that climate change is having on non-human species too, but if we think about the issue only in terms of polar bears, for instance, we won't understand the full extent of the issue. It is a human issue, and therefore a social and cultural issue. It is happening to us, now, here (not them, in the future, somewhere far away)."

"The Marshall Islands illustrates that, but even more so it is important to think about how the weather has changed in *your* place, and how your own lives will be affected in years to come. If we're trying to get people engaged with the issue of climate change, it's important to talk about things that they already value. For instance, in Canada, strange winters recently have people worried about the ice hockey season. Is the hockey season as important, say, the drought in the northern Marshall Islands? No. But it's something people care about and it's a way in. You have to start where people are."

You have to start where people are. I'm starting near Norfolk, where things look bad, but not as bad as they do in some other parts of the world.

When we look hard at what's happening for each of us locally in terms of altered weather patterns or coastlines or patterns of flora and fauna, and share that information, the global picture starts to come together. The idea is not to play the blame game, but rather to focus on how various cultures and individuals process the frightening realities of a climate-change-suffused future, and to determine what can be done to alter the course we are on.

Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.