The edges of our country are eroding. From Alaska to Louisiana, centuries of culture, tangible history, and dynamic communities are being battered by stronger storms and sea level rise—raising difficult questions about adaptation, relocation, and what it means to be an American experiencing climate change today.
Over the next year, Victoria Herrmann, a National Geographic Explorer will chronicle America’s Eroding Edges (AEE), helping you explore the challenges of all those facing the impacts of climate change on their homes, livelihoods, and cultures. Join us on this journey as we discover the breadth and depth of what stands to be lost in America—and what we as a nation can do about it. More from AEE on Preservation Leadership Forum.
My previous Forum Blog post argued that local ownership in cultural heritage adaptation, resilience, and relocation projects is essential for success. But empowerment can’t stop at community engagement. Local leaders like mayors, governors, and community champions must also be empowered to share their experiences and advocate for external support.
Community leaders play a key role in local climate projects. They are often the agents of change and advocates for external support, enabling their towns, villages, and cities to innovatively adapt to the impacts of sea level rise, severe storms, and warmer weather. They hold the power to bring communities together around a shared vision for their future, to establish goals, and to understand the most effective strategies. Local leaders are often crucial promoters of identifying, including, and preserving those cultural assets and historic sites that are most important to their communities.
Local leaders also communicate the needs and stories of communities to national politicians, international organizations, and the general public. They are able to influence, mobilize, and advocate for policies and financial resources that can provide communities with the support they need. Perhaps the most publicized effort to empower local leaders to influence international climate change action was the Climate Summit for Local Leaders at the 21st meeting of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris (COP21) in December 2015. The event, hosted by Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was the largest global convening of mayors, governors, and local leaders focused on climate change. The meeting was meant to "ensure that the voices of local leaders are heard during the international negotiation process and reflected in the treaty negotiations," and it allowed local leaders to share their climate change initiatives and innovations while simultaneously highlighting the challenges and on-the-ground dangers they face.
Sharing community experiences globally is critical, and Togiola Tulafono, the former governor of American Samoa, is a prime example. He developed programs within American Samoa to teach its residents, particularly youth, about both the science of climate change and adaptation strategies. But his efforts to lead on climate change did not stop there. Governor Tulafono worked to influence national policy by advocating for more support to safeguard his community against rising seas, natural disasters, and other impacts from climate change.
Amplifying the Voice of American Samoa
Before climate change was part of the public discourse, American Samoa was experiencing its effects: Its coral reef ecosystems—an important traditional food source, cultural marine landscape, and natural barrier to tropical storms—were dying. So, 10 years ago, American Samoa got ahead of the national climate change conversation. At the 16th meeting of the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, then Governor Tulafono demanded action on climate change. Standing before local leaders, federal agencies, and scientists, he suggested four steps the United States could take to address climate change:
“(1) Develop science-based policies to reduce local stressors to coral reefs, and provide protections at the regional level, (2) curtail global greenhouse gas emissions, (3) increase public and leadership awareness and build the support needed to respond to the climate threat, and (4) amend the Task Force’s National Action Plan, Objective 5 of Goal 11, by adding: 'and support efforts at the local, state, national and global levels to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.'”
Governor Tulafono knew that he needed to share the story and needs of American Samoa in order to garner the national and international support to save the reefs from warmer water temperatures, ocean acidification, and extreme storms. “Even though we’re not, for the most part, responsible, let us demonstrate we do care,” he told me earlier this year. He is acutely aware of the unequal geographies that cause and impact climate change. Despite this issue of climate inequity—or perhaps because of it—Governor Tulafono knew that he had to bring the experience of American Samoa to a national and international audience. “We have to demonstrate how much we care about this. We can’t sit around and wait, we got to demonstrate how we are affected and how we feel that we can help foster potential solutions, but we need to make that appeal.”
Despite a trying start during the Bush administration, Governor Tulafono continuously advocated for more autonomy in sharing American Samoa’s climate change experiences with the Pacific Region, both nationally and internationally. He was particularly interested in obtaining observer status in the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), a political grouping of 16 independent and self-governing states that helps to create collaborative responses to the effects of climate change with Pacific island states, international organizations, and research institutes. After many years of advocacy from the governor, the U.S. State Department finally empowered American Samoa to become an observer state in the PIF in 2011, in time for his final year in office. But access to the PIF amplified not only Governor Tulafono’s voice but also that of American Samoa more broadly. Local leaders continue to attend the regional forum today, sharing experience and exchanging best practices.
Environmental Justice and Local Leaders
As my research partner Eli Keene argues in “Adapting Without a Voice in American Samoa,” a 2016 article in the Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the territory is heard on the international stage. Working to amplify the voices of leaders from subnational geographies is especially important because climate change disproportionally disrupts the lives, livelihoods, and cultures of people who already face political disenfranchisement, poverty, discrimination, and marginalization.
While American Samoa emits little greenhouse gas, the effects of climate change brought about by larger polluters disproportionately affect its villages and historic sites. More extreme hurricanes and cyclones, sea level rise, the spread of vector-borne diseases, and changing weather patterns that adversely affect food and water security on the island all result from the actions of larger, wealthier states and societies. And yet, despite American Samoa receiving the brunt of climate change impacts, its villages are not endowed with the financial or political resources to adequately adapt to such intense environmental transformations. In 2010, the last Census year for American Samoa, the unemployment rate was 23.8 percent, 14.5 percent higher than the national rate. Per capita income hovered just below $8,000.00, by far the lowest in the United States. American Samoans do not have the right to vote in presidential elections and the territory’s delegate in Congress, Amata Coleman Radewagen, cannot vote.
American Samoa may be an extreme example of climate change injustice, but it is not alone. Communities across the United States and its territories are already dealing with localized, recurrent disasters resulting from environmental degradation, social marginalization, political disenfranchisement, and poverty that are now exacerbated by a changing climate.
In order to ensure that climate change policies and financing work for communities on the ground, local leaders like Governor Tulafono must be empowered to influence the national and international conversations about climate change adaptation and mitigation. They must be able to share their experiences, advocate for the protection and preservation of local culture and historic sites, and provide best practices for adaptive and resilience building projects.
Victoria Herrmann is the president and managing director of the Arctic Institute and the lead researcher for America's Eroding Edges, which she works on with the help of research associate Eli Keene.
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