PastForward Preview: Victoria Herrmann, President and Managing Director of the Arctic Institute

By Forum Online posted 10-31-2018 13:17


Victoria Herrmann, Ph.D., is the president and managing director of The Arctic Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to Arctic security research. She is also a National Geographic Explorer and recently led America's Eroding Edges, a research and storytelling project on coastal climate change adaptation and cultural heritage in the United States and U.S. territories. With the support of a J.M.K. Innovation Prize, she is now creating a skills-based volunteering platform to connect under-resourced communities with pro bono adaptation work. She was named a 40 Under 40 People Saving Places in 2018 by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. You can follow her on Twitter @VSHerrmann.

We asked Herrmann a few questions in preparation for her upcoming TrustLive: Resilience at PastForward. Register for the conference today!


In your Forum Blog post, you provided some examples of “climate change in context.” How do you use storytelling to engage people from different cultures and disciplines around climate change issues?

Telling and sharing stories, from the scientific to the personal, is one the most important tools we have for surviving climate change. Stories help us share facts, knowledge, and experiences about the causes and effects of a warming world.

But stories are more than just educational tools—they are how we make sense of our world. The story we read in the newspaper or the documentary we watch on Netflix holds the immense ability to shape what we see and don’t see. Those visibilities and invisibilities shift our perspectives, and we base our actions on those perceptions. The narratives we read, hear, and see inform how we understand climate change, and that understanding dictates whether we do or do not act. 

All too often climate change stories feel far away, and as much as we care about them in the abstract, we can feel detached from their realities. One of my jobs as a National Geographic Explorer is to share compelling stories and bring attention to how climate change is affecting Americans in every corner of this country, from Alaska to Alabama. When I rely solely on examples from my research in the Arctic, audiences are often engaged, but not connected. They listen to stories of changing traditions and try to imagine how devastating an iceless Arctic would be to the people who call the region home, but chances are that they had never heard of the native Alaskan villages of Shishmaref, Shaktoolik, or Teller—or their rich indigenous histories—before walking into my talk.

But we all have a climate change story to tell, myself included. I often connect my own experience of growing up on the Jersey Shore—living through storms, both big and small—to the climate impacts I see on the Gulf Coast, in the Arctic, and on Pacific Islands. Stories that help us connect our own personal climate narratives to those of distant communities hold immense potential as vectors for empathy; education; and ultimately, climate action that transcends disciplines, borders, and cultures.

What is Rise Up to Rising Tides? What has been the most challenging thing (so far) about putting together the platform? When it launches next year, what do you hope to accomplish?

 Ninety-six percent of Americans live in counties that have been hit by major weather disasters in the last five years, causing billions of dollars in damages and irreplaceable cultural loss. Importantly, low-income communities and communities of color are most vulnerable to these disasters because they often do not have the resources to prepare for and recover from disastrous events. The resources that are available must be allocated to adapting vital infrastructure like clean water, schools, and fuel—leaving cultural heritage adaptation under-resourced.

And the disasters and risks American communities face today are just the beginning. No matter how much we reduce our carbon emissions, at least 414 villages, towns, and cities across the country will be partially underwater from sea level rise and accelerating extreme storms by 2100. Each of these communities has a unique local history and culturally important sites that stand to be lost.

When Rise Up to Rising Tides launches next year, it will offer the first-ever online matchmaking platform to connect skills-based volunteers with local communities in need of historic and cultural heritage preservation work in the face of sea level rise, climate change, and rapidly changing landscapes. Our platform will connect communities with an expansive preservation network of passionate pro bono professionals looking to donate their skills through one-hour advice phone calls and/or full-fledged projects.

Though Rising Tides will be dynamic, the ever-changing nature of climate impacts, community needs, and volunteerism can prove challenging. Identifying shared needs through a collaborative information-gathering process helps to combat this challenge: while there is no one-size-fits-all adaptation, approaches across regions and sectors do have certain similarities. Viewing our platform as a living and evolving tool rather than a static site will allow it to be responsive to the needs of both communities and volunteers.

Once we’ve completed our pilot projects and the platform is launched next year, we will reach out and promote Rising Tides to both at-risk communities and skills-based volunteers. Rising Tides will need to reach communities across the United States, including those with weaker internet connections. To that end, we are identifying and training 13 regional coordinators to serve as hubs for projects and information. We’re using already established and successful channels of communication and visiting each region to do in-person case studies, building further momentum for the platform.

To broaden our reach, we will partner with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to access its strong national network as well as the entire preservation movement—as many as 15 million people. Other partners, such as the Union of Concerned Scientist’s Science Network of more than 20,000 people, will help us reach as many potential volunteers as possible.

Communities need additional assistance for the heritage adaptation that a rapidly changing climate demands. Coastal communities across America already have the vision and multi-generational knowledge to adapt to the impacts of climate. What they do not have is time to waste on an inactive government, beginning with a federal administration that denies the science of climate change. They need the financial support, preservation expertise, and technical tools to implement their visions. Rise Up to Rising Tides will offer this before it’s too late.

What should PastForward attendees consider prior to hearing your TrustLive presentation?

In early October the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a special report. Summarizing the research of more than 6,000 scientists from across the world, the report estimates that we have just 12 years left to limit climate change catastrophe.

I’ll admit, when 6,000 scientists tell you that we are racing against time to avert mass extinctions and the current administration does not believe in manmade climate change, it’s hard not to feel hopeless and helpless.

But then I remember that everyone—every single person on this planet—has a skill set that intersects with climate change solutions. In my work with Rising Tides, I’ve seen preservationists, oral historians, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and countless others make a difference in reducing the effects of climate impacts on cultures, histories, and the safety of communities across this country.

Before coming together in San Francisco, attendees should reflect on their own work and see where it connects to climate change. Can you help lower greenhouse gas emissions in your historic district through building reuse? What adaptation approaches can you explore to make your coastal property resilient? Do your community’s traditional knowledge holders or its vernacular architecture hold lessons that you can use not just to survive the next storm, but to thrive for decades to come?

To be hopeful, we must find our own climate heroism and support each other as visible, empowered leaders in our hometowns, our nonprofits, or our firms. If we come to PastForward with a critical eye toward including climate action in our work and a feeling of helpfulness instead of helplessness, we can make a difference and avert catastrophe.


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