Orrin Luc posted an articleGonzalez has been appointed assistant director for climate and biodiversity. see more
Patrick Gonzalez takes on responsibilities tackling climate and biodiversity with the White House.
Photography by Al Golub
By Steven Boyd Saum
“Contributing science for solutions to global problems is one of the most important contributions that we can make as scientists,” Patrick Gonzalez (Senegal 1988–90) declared earlier this year at the Ecological Society of America’s annual conference. Now he has the opportunity to walk the talk in a new way: He has been appointed assistant director for climate and biodiversity by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
A forest ecologist and climate change scientist, he has brought his expertise for years to the U.S. National Park Service as principal climate change scientist, and to research at U.C. Berkeley. But as High Country News noted several years ago, “The first unmistakable sign of climate change Patrick Gonzalez ever saw in the field was in Senegal.”
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal, Gonzalez heard village elders lament that the yir trees were dying. He set out to find out why — and do something about it. He returned as a researcher and, walking 1,200 miles as he collected data, he documented that “since 1945, one out of three tree species in Senegal had disappeared, and one out of every five big trees had died.”
Measure, learn, act: Patrick Gonzalez at work in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Al Golub
The research and insight on climate change, ecosystems, wildfire, and carbon solutions he has done over the decades has informed new actions and policies. Credit him as lead author on four reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the science panel awarded a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He has also served on three U.S. delegations to the United Nations and on the roster of experts of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.
Steven Saum posted an articleAnnouncing the Winner of the 2021 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Sherry Manning, Founder of Global Seed SaversFounder and U.S. executive director of Global Seed Savers see more
Global Seed Savers has trained more than 5,000 Filipino farmers in seed saving, established three seed libraries, and is building a movement across the country to restore the traditional practice of saving seed and building seed sovereignty.
By NPCA Staff
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is pleased to announce the winner of the 2021 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Sherry Manning.
The Shriver Award is presented annually by NPCA to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who continue to make a sustained and distinguished contribution to humanitarian causes at home or abroad, or who are innovative social entrepreneurs who bring about significant long-term change. The award is named in honor of the first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver, whose energy and commitment were instrumental in the launch of the Peace Corps.
Sherry Manning is the founder and U.S. executive director of Global Seed Savers, an international nongovernmental organization committed to building hunger free and healthy communities with access to farmer produced seeds and food. Global Seed Savers has trained more than 5,000 Filipino farmers in seed saving, established three seed libraries, and is building a movement across the country to restore the traditional practice of saving seed and building seed sovereignty.
Sherry Manning’s work in the Philippines began 15 years ago, in 2006, when she served as Peace Corps Volunteer in the town of Tublay in Benguet Province. Global Seed Savers’ work has grown exponentially since this time; however the foundation of her story in the Philippines and continued work will always be about deep relationships to the land, people, and places of her second home, the Philippines.
Photo courtesy Global Seed Savers
The award was presented on September 24 at Peace Corps Connect, a 60th anniversary conference for the Peace Corps community. Announcing the award was Teddy Shriver, who served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Peru 2011–13 and is deputy director of Best Buddies International — and grandson of Sargent Shriver.
Connections and relationships: people, the land, seeds
“So much has happened, evolved, and grown since my days as a PCV 15 years ago in Tublay, Benguet,” Sherry Manning says. “But one thing has remained the center point of our on-going work at Global Seed Savers: authentic, deep, and meaningful connections and relationships to people, the land, seed, and our collective sustenance!”
In her acceptance speech, Manning noted: “It takes many hands and hearts for our work to flourish and it is an honor to be building this organization with our dedicated and growing team of local Filipino leadership, our boards, our community partners, and most importantly the resilient and passionate FARMERS we learn from and work side by side with to build a more food and seed sovereign world! This Award is for them and their tireless work to feed their families and communities despite tremendous struggles!”
Photo courtesy Global Seed Savers
Sherry Manning holds a master’s in environmental and natural resource law from the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and a B.A. in government from the University of Redlands in Southern California. Sherry is also a daughter, sister, and very proud auntie or Anta (as her nearly 6-year-old nephew calls her)! She has always been passionate about ending injustices, spending quality time in the natural places she advocates for, and building deep and meaningful relationships within her community. When not working for Global Seed Savers and serving on various nonprofit boards, Sherry can be found playing in the beautiful Colorado Mountains hiking, fly fishing, camping, and more.
Nominations for the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service are accepted year-round. To nominate an individual, please download the Shriver Award nomination packet, and submit all nomination materials to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Steven Saum posted an articleAudrey Zibelman and her new role at X, the Moonshot Factory see more
Audrey Zibelman takes on responsibilities as vice president at X, the Moonshot Factory, leading work to decarbonize the electrical grid.
By NPCA Staff
This year Audrey Zibelman (Chad 1977–79) took up a new post as vice president at X, the Moonshot Factory, where she works to develop tools and capabilities to decarbonize the electrical system. In April, as the Biden administration convened the Leaders Summit on Climate, Zibelman was invited to present steps that can be taken to counter the detrimental impacts of the climate crisis.
During the summit, Zibelman announced that the U.S. and the U.K. would be joining the Global Power System Transformation Consortium, which she helped create during her time as CEO of the Australian Energy Market Operator.
X is part of Alphabet, parent company of Google, and serves as an innovation lab for projects with far-reaching impact.
Orrin Luc posted an articleRPCV volunteers on the Birkie 40 campaign raised over $35,000 for green initiatives and more see more
One Volunteer skis his 40th marathon. And a team raises $35,000 to draw attention to and provide support for organizations tackling critical issues in society.
Earth Month is here, and in the northern hemisphere winter has mostly departed. And if Birkie 40 volunteers have their way, winters will remain cold and snowy for years to come — at least where they’re supposed to.
The leader of the Birkie 40 crew is Paul Thompson, a Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Malaysian Borneo 1971–73. In 2021, Thompson skied his 40th Birkebeiner Ski Marathon. And this year it was a “Virtual Birkie” on the Gunflint Trail in northwestern Minnesota, with his wife and three other skiers.
The team included 12 intrepid skiers altogether. And, thanks to support from the Peace Corps community and volunteers from the nonpartisan, grassroots Citizens’ Climate Lobby, volunteers on the Birkie 40 campaign raised over $35,000. Funds go to support Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for Environmental Action (RPCV4EA), Citizens’ Climate Education (the educational arm of CCL), Braver Angels, and Cool Planet.
After a full day of skiing his 44 km, Thompson said: “I love being able to ski all day, and working with our Birkie 40 team and these four great groups gives me energy to continue our climate work.”
Birkie 40 Team at the 40 year Zoom celebration. Photo courtesy Paul Thompson
Contributions ranged from $5 to $2,500. All contributors of $40 or more qualified to receive the Green House Game. This cooperative card and token game gets players to tackle the tough decisions we need to make to solve our climate dilemma. It’s great for family game night, the Birkie 40 team notes — so if you donated and did not request your game contact Birkie 40 to choose your game option. Or you can order it online at the Green House Game website.
The Birkie 40 team also sends thanks to National Peace Corps Association for supporting the effort and promoting climate action with affiliate group RPCV4EA. Raising these funds is great, they note, but the real measure of success is to grow group numbers and support for environmental projects with affiliate groups around the country.
To that, Paul Thompson adds, “You don’t need snow to work for climate solutions, but it sure helps for appreciating winter.”
At least in Minnesota.
Paul Thompson with 40th Birkie Ski Marathon trophy. Photo courtesy Paul Thompson
Brian Sekelsky posted an articlePaul Thompson continues his 40-year streak of cross-country ski marathons to help promote awareness see more
Paul Thompson continues his 40-year streak of cross-country ski marathons to help promote awareness and raise funds for combating climate change.
Some Peace Corps Volunteers’ ideas of changing the world end after service, but Minnesotan Paul Thompson left Malaysian Borneo in 1973 with a lifelong mission to save the planet.
In late February, Thompson, 72, will join the Birkebeiner cross-country ski race for the 40th time, in hopes of raising $40,000 to combat climate change and help unify the country. He has already raised $11,000 towards his total goal. The funds will be split between four nonprofit groups: three fighting climate change, and one reducing political polarization.
“Climate change is now beginning to overwhelm the lives of the people most at risk from poverty,” Thompson said. “This is the time for all of us to step up and try to address the challenges we face. We need to work together to solve these problems.”
After joining Peace Corps in 1971 in Malaysian Borneo, Thompson taught biology and health science. When he returned to the United States, he became a licensed teacher, then taught elementary math and reading in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He retired from teaching in 2008. Throughout those years, he has worked to protect the environment, and beat hunger and poverty.
Beginning with borrowed skis
This year’s 55-kilometer Birkebeiner race won’t mark Thompson’s first foray into pairing the effort with fundraising for a cause. On races in previous decades, he has raised thousands of dollars for many nonprofits aiming to combat poverty, hunger, and various refugee crises. The long list includes The Hunger Project, American Refugee Committee, and others.
Thompson is also no stranger to charitable work. In 1981, he worked on youth recreation programs in Somalian refugee camps, then returned to Minnesota and worked for Save the Children on educational outreach and fundraising until 1987. In 1989, he was recognized with the Sargent Shriver Humanitarian Service Award, an annual honor for returned Peace Corps Volunteers with distinguished humanitarian service.
In 1979, Thompson’s first Birkebeiner began as an impromptu adventure on borrowed skis with his brother. The following year, he began asking for pledges to beat hunger. Since then, he has only missed the race in 1990, following the birth of his son. The race was canceled in 2000 and 2017 because of lack of snow.
“My sport is now on life support due to global warming, but even worse, so is the planet.”
“Every skier has seen firsthand the impact of climate change,” Thompson said. “My sport is now on life support due to global warming, but even worse, so is the planet.”
This year, he has a theme of fours in his fundraising efforts. Forty years of Birkebeiner races means $40,000 for four nonprofits. There are also bonuses for select donations with a four amongst the digits. For instance, a $40 contribution wins you the online Green House game. The four non-profits include:
Citizens Climate Lobby, which focuses on national policies to address climate change;
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for Environmental Action (RPCVs4EA), which advocates for action and sustainable practices to protect the planet;
Cool Planet Skiers, founded by Thompson to encourage outdoor athletes to care for the environment;
Braver Angels, which aims to restore civic trust and dialogue between the left and right.
Announcing the Winner of the 2020 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Matthew PaneitzThe founder of Long Way Home, helping the people of Comalapa, Guatemala see more
For nearly two decades he has partnered with Guatemalans to address injustices against indigenous peoples.
By NPCA Staff
Photo of Matthew Paneitz courtesy Long Way Home
National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) is pleased to announce the winner of the 2020 Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service: Matthew Paneitz.
The Shriver Award is presented annually by NPCA to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who continue to make a sustained and distinguished contribution to humanitarian causes at home or abroad, or who are innovative social entrepreneurs who bring about significant long-term change. The award is named in honor of the first Peace Corps Director, Sargent Shriver, who founded and developed Peace Corps.
For 18 years, Matthew “Mateo” Paneitz has devoted his life to the redress of ethnic violence and systemic oppression perpetrated against the indigenous peoples of Guatemala. He has been doing this while living and working in San Juan Comalapa, a town of 40,000 primarily indigenous Kaqchikel Maya, located in Guatemala’s Western highlands.
In Comalapa, Paneitz was exposed first-hand to the brutal aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War, a colonialism-driven conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives — primarily indigenous people.
The Peace Corps brought Paneitz to Guatemala in 2002 and shifted his trajectory away from a middle-income career in the U.S. life to a life of unwavering dedication to equitable development in Comalapa and Guatemala. In Comalapa, Paneitz was exposed first-hand to the brutal aftermath of the Guatemalan Civil War, a colonialism-driven conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives — primarily indigenous people.
Throughout Guatemala, extreme environmental challenges and inequality, as well as high rates of unemployment and illiteracy, currently stymie equitable and sustainable development. To address these issues and to provide better living conditions for Comalapans, Mateo founded Long Way Home, a 501(c)3 non-profit, in 2005. Led by Mateo, Long Way Home utilizes green building, employment, and education to mobilize people to actively participate in democracy and create innovative pathways to economic and environmental justice.
Green building as a pathway to learning
In 2009, LWH began the construction of Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot (CETC), a grade school and vocational school that uses green building as a pathway for teaching principles of environmental stewardship and active democratic participation. The school itself serves as a model for the effectiveness of green building and is constructed using 500 tons of repurposed waste and over 15,000 used tires. School walls are built from eco-bricks (plastic bottles stuffed with unrecyclable soft plastics) and car tires rammed with trash and earth. Skylights are made from recycled glass bottles. And roof shingles are made from aluminum cans and liter-sized soda bottles.
In the CETC classrooms, students are taught to assess and address local opportunities and challenges through a nationally accredited, project-based curriculum. As part of their learning, students conduct surveys to identify key development issues in surrounding communities: poor smoke ventilation, access to clean water and sanitation, and earthquake-resilient infrastructure. Using these results as a guide, students work with teachers to build stoves, water tanks, latrines, and retaining walls for families identified in the survey. To reflect the work of their students, Paneitz gave this curriculum the apt name “Hero School.” Since the implementation of the curriculum in Grades 7 through 11 in 2017, students have constructed 39 smoke-efficient stoves, 25 water tanks, four compost latrines, and two tire retaining walls. Students at CETC are forming a new generation of entrepreneurs uniquely equipped to lead their communities with innovative solutions to complex local and global challenges.
Since the implementation of the curriculum in Grades 7 through 11 in 2017, students have constructed 39 smoke-efficient stoves, 25 water tanks, four compost latrines, and two tire retaining walls.
In 2021, CETC will refine and expand this curriculum to all grade levels, K–11, and begin to build the infrastructure to deliver the Hero School model at partner schools in Livingston, Guatemala and Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. Through Long Way Home’s international volunteer program, volunteers also receive an immersive education focused on cultivating real democratic participation skills — assessing local challenges and opportunities, partnering across disciplines and context, assembling resources, and implementing a plan for development that uplifts all.
On a global scale, Long Way Home has engaged more than 2,000 volunteers through its constantly evolving volunteer program. Collaborations with established volunteer organizations such as Engineers Without Borders have secured access to clean water for more than 1,000 families across Guatemala.
To ensure the global impact of the principles at work in Comalapa, Paneitz collaborated with green building experts to publish A Guide to Green Building. He also developed a hands-on, month-long companion course, The Green Building Academy, to teach students from around the world how to directly apply green building principles in the real world. Deepening his contributions to the green building sector, Paneitz has contributed to humanitarian green construction projects in Colombia, Venezuela, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and the United States.
Nominations for the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service are accepted year-round. To nominate an individual, please download the Shriver Award nomination packet, and submit all nomination materials to email@example.com.
Join us on Monday, June 15 for an hour-long conversation on climate change. see more
We are living in unprecedented times, facing crises of immense scale. Join us June 15 for an important conversation.
As a Peace Corps community, we saw all Volunteers evacuated from around the world in March.
We’re living amidst a global pandemic — with more than 100,000 Americans dead, tens of millions unemployed.
And we’ve seen — once again — the death of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of police, a brutal reminder of a legacy of racial injustice, that has led to protests in towns and cities across the nation and around the world.
Amid all of this, here at home and across the planet, we witness the escalating effects of climate change — hitting poor and marginalized communities particularly hard.
As members of the Peace Corps community, we embrace each of these crises with a sense of purpose, empathy, and understanding — putting skills and experience to work.
As part of our efforts to confront these crises, join us on Monday, June 15 for an hour-long conversation on climate change. Learn how RPCVs are working to address climate change within their communities as well as nationwide and around the world. Learn what our recent research shows about RPCV attitudes and goals in tackling this critical issue. Help us stake out top priorities and bring together RPCV advocates in a way that empowers us to work together as changemakers. When it comes to motivating others in your community to address climate change, your Peace Corps experience can make a difference.
In January 2020 National Peace Corps Association conducted a national survey asking you about the global issues that you care about most — and what actions you might take to address these issues in your community.
More than 3,000 members of the Peace Corps community responded. Nearly two thirds of you said climate change was by far the global issue you cared about most. You also showed strong support for global health, access to clean water, and women’s empowerment and girls education. See the results below.
NPCA conducted four focus groups in May 2020 among 37 Returned Peace Corps Volunteers as another step in its efforts to lay the groundwork for a community-based social action campaign for members of the Peace Corps community.
A MacArthur Fellow takes stock of climate change loss and damage — and immediate solutions see more
FIJI & BEYOND: A MacArthur Fellow takes stock of climate change loss and damage — and immediate solutions
By Stacy Jupiter
Under threat: Low-lying islands and coral cays, like barrier islands Wallis and Futuna, are extremely vulnerable to impacts of sea level rise. Photo by Stacy Jupiter.
In August 2019, as Pacific Island leaders arrived to their annual forum leaders meeting in Tuvalu, an atoll nation of less than 12,000 people with its highest elevation at 15 feet above sea level, they were greeted by children submerged in water in a moat around a model of their sinking island holding a simple message: “Save Tuvalu, save the world.”
The children’s plea was heard. Pacific Island leaders and negotiators went in to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Madrid in early December 2019 feeling empowered, armed with the Kainaki II Declaration in which they called for “all parties to the Paris Agreement … to pursue global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this is critical to the security of our Blue Pacific.”
However, the outcome of the climate negotiations, a watered down text, left many Pacific Islanders distraught. Key decisions, including on funding for “loss and damage” to help countries impacted by climate disasters rebuild and repair, were punted to this year’s climate talks in Glasgow in November.
This matters deeply for Pacific Island nations. Small island developing states in the Pacific and the rest of the world collectively account for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are on the front lines of climate impacts.
Small island developing states in the Pacific and the rest of the world collectively account for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, but they are on the front lines of climate impacts.
An Australian government report from the Pacific Climate Change Science Program released in 2011 notes that sea level has been rising across the western Pacific at rates exceeding 6 millimeters per year, and nearly double that around parts of Solomon Islands and Federated States of Micronesia. And while there is high year-to-year variability, on average sea surface temperatures have warmed by 0.75 C in this region over the past 50 years. Model projections indicate a widespread increase in the number of heavy rain days, with extreme 1-in-20-year events likely to occur four times per year by 2055 under high emissions scenarios. All of these consequences of climate change have big impacts on islands in the South Pacific.
The impacts of sea-level rise are some of the most visible and alarming. A recent study from Solomon Islands documented the disappearance of five reef islands since the 1940s, with further shoreline erosion on others causing entire community relocations. Low-lying atoll nations like Tuvalu and Kiribati are grappling with existential crises as rising seas destroy infrastructure and cause salinization of groundwater, which affects people’s ability to access drinking water and grow crops. Pacific Island nations have been developing national relocation policies to deal with displacement of people from climate impacts. In 2014, the government of Kiribati purchased land in Fiji to hedge bets against future change.
There are also pressing and yet unanswered questions as to what will happen to a nation’s exclusive economic zone if its land is swallowed by the sea. An exclusive economic zone is the area extending 200 nautical miles from the coast over which a nation has sovereign rights regarding use and exploitation of its marine resources. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which provides the legal framework for establishing these maritime boundaries, was written in 1982, long before there was global concern about a warming planet and expanding oceans. How the disappearance of islands that set the baseline for maritime boundaries will affect the ability of Pacific states to control access to marine resources that drive their economy is still unknown.
Moreover, many of these marine resources, such as tuna stocks, are highly migratory and are sensitive to changes in ocean temperature and dissolved oxygen. Scientific models under various future climate simulations indicate that many of the main tuna stocks will move eastward, resulting in decreases of total fisheries catch across the western Pacific by up to 25 percent by 2050. This is of great concern to small island nations, yet big ocean states, such as Kiribati, a country with only 811 square kilometers of land and an exclusive economic zone of well over 3 million square kilometers of sea, where revenue from fisheries makes up about 16 percent of GDP. Regional cooperation will be crucial to ensure that Pacific nations are able to collectively retain livelihood and food security benefits. This should build on the model of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement, under which eight Pacific nations have come together to regulate catch of approximately 25 to 30 percent of the world’s tuna supply.
When it rains: Extreme weather will impact coastal villages with flooding, damage to infrastructure, and water-related disease.
Photo by Stacy Jupiter
Changing ocean temperatures are also wreaking havoc on Pacific coral reefs. The corals that build the fantastical and colorful structures that house thousands of fish and invertebrate species upon which Pacific people depend for food are colonial animals, related to jellyfish. The coral animals are particularly sensitive to abrupt changes in ocean temperature, which cause them to expel algae that live in their tissues, making the corals appear white or “bleached.” The world’s coral reefs, including across the Pacific, experienced unprecedented levels of coral bleaching between 2014 and 2017 during a particularly prolonged warming event, which led to high rates of coral mortality. Fortunately, new findings suggest that there are many reefs in the Pacific that have characteristics that make them predisposed to surviving heat waves. These areas are urgent priorities for protection and management. Thousands of communities across the Pacific have already taken action, many with the assistance of local Peace Corps volunteers, through setting up marine protected areas, reducing local fishing effort, and controlling activities on land to minimize added stress from pollution.
Loss of coral reefs means more than just loss of beautiful places to snorkel or fisheries habitat. When reef structures degrade, they lose the ability to reduce wave energy from storm surges. A report released in 2019 by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal Hazards Program indicates that healthy coral reefs in U.S. waters and territories provide more than $1.8 billion in flood protection benefits every year. In the Pacific, storm surges associated with tropical cyclones and heavy rainfall have contributed to huge losses in infrastructure, casualties and, later, outbreaks of water-related disease associated with the flooding events. Tropical Cyclone Pam, which struck Vanuatu in March 2015, caused damage equivalent to 64.1 percent of national GDP, while Tropical Cyclone Winston, which battered Fiji in February 2016, killed 44 people and completely destroyed villages along its path.
Pacific Island countries recognize that building resilience to these climate impacts requires collaboration, coordination, and communication. In 2016, Pacific Island Forum Leaders endorsed the Framework for Resilient Development in the Pacific, a regional policy platform that integrates the disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, and ecosystem management sectors. The framework outlines Pacific commitments to low carbon development, improving disaster response, and strengthened systems for adaptation through approaches that encourage people to get out of the silos of their own organizations and cooperate together. Working together also improves how resources are allocated in small island states by focusing on solutions that can simultaneously yield multiple benefits for society.
There are outstanding examples of initiatives across the Pacific that are embracing this transdisciplinary approach to address emerging climate impacts. Through the Watershed Interventions for Systems Health in Fiji (WISH Fiji) project, my organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, is working with colleagues from the Ministry of Health and Medical Services, Fiji National University, and multiple Australian research institutions. We are co-designing watershed management with local communities situated along five river basins on Fiji’s two largest islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, as well as on Ovalau Island. These river basins have been hotspots for outbreaks of water-related diseases such as typhoid, leptospirosis, and dengue. We believe that targeted actions to improve watershed condition and sanitation infrastructure will both reduce disease risk in people and also increase the availability and quality of freshwater and marine resources.
For example, one of the project villages has a septic tank sitting on the edge of an eroding riverbank, leaching untreated wastewater into areas used for washing that then drains onto nearshore coral reefs. Relocating and sealing this structure and revegetating the riverbank could reduce the spread of bacterial disease in people, reduce downstream coral disease, and improve habitat for important freshwater and marine fisheries. Such win-win solutions will achieve outcomes for health, food security, and the environment that all improve local capacity to adapt to global change at a fraction of the cost compared with uncoordinated, single sector approaches.
There is urgent need to inspire people to take local action on the ground to protect themselves. One way to do this is by strengthening Pacific Islanders’ connections to people and place.
It’s hard to overstate the enormity of the climate challenges facing Pacific Islanders — almost entirely a consequence of others’ actions. While words spoken by politicians and policy-makers in Paris, Madrid, or Glasgow might eventually help turn the tide of global public opinion to influence meaningful commitments to mitigate climate impacts, right now there is urgent need to inspire people to take local action on the ground to protect themselves. One way to do this is by strengthening Pacific Islanders’ connections to people and place.
Across the Pacific, there are specific terms in many island languages (e.g., vanua in Fijian, ahupuaʻa in Hawaiian, tabinau in Yapese) for geographically linked land and sea spaces over which local people control access and use of resources that are essential for their survival and cultural practices. A key element for any climate adaptation strategy is to raise awareness that people need to have a healthy environment from forest to sea and strong connections to their ancestral place to enable cultural practice. By emphasizing these links, we are able to galvanize people to look after their environment in ways that will ultimately better prepare them for what the future holds.
Stacy Jupiter directs the Melanesia Program for the Wildlife Conservation Society, for which she previously directed the Fiji Country Program. She studied at Harvard and served with the Peace Corps in Gabon 1997–99 before completing a doctorate at University of California at Santa Cruz. Her scientific articles have been published in Nature, PLoS One, the Journal of Marine Biology, and the Journal of Applied Ecology, among other journals. For her work as a marine scientist in the Pacific, she is a 2019 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition.
Excerpt from Tilting with Windmills see more
Connect turbines from wind alley to where people need the juice, and you could transform the American energy grid. Even get us to 50 percent renewables. That was Michael Skelly’s grand vision.
By Russell Gold
This is not a story with a happy ending — yet. It’s a tale of former Peace Corps Volunteer Michael Skelly (Costa Rica 85-87), who set out to build an interstate energy transmission superhighway system. Over a decade, the roadblocks proved immense. Here are excerpts from Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Russell Gold.
When he was 25 years old, Michael Skelly felt directionless.
He wrote a letter to his parents from Costa Rica, where he was wrapping up two years in the Peace Corps. “Time to start clipping fun articles about fun things to do with your life and sending them down my way.”
He had been sent to the small town of Golfito on the Pacific coast. United Fruit Co. built the city, once called Banana City, in the early twentieth century as headquarters of its country operations. An extensive labor strike led the company to leave Golfito in 1985. A couple of months later, Skelly arrived in town.
The region had “very serious economic and social difficulties,” noted the Peace Corps country head in a 1987 letter. There were few jobs and little bank credit. Skelly worked with an electricians cooperative to set up an inventory control system and a radio advertisement campaign. But he spent most of his time working with the town’s fishermen.
In letters home, he complained about not having enough to read and the challenge of developing a workable business model. “Gotta figure out a new way for these fishermen to sell their fish,” he wrote. There was only one buyer in the capital and “he’s got these guys over a barrel, always, as they say here, playing games with the prices.” He worked on a microcredit programs to help the fishermen start businesses to get their catch to nearby markets. “I didn’t know much about fish or like running microcredit programs, but you sort of figure it out,” he said years later.
One lesson that Skelly took from his time in Costa Rica was the importance and influence of money. In 1989, he decided that if businesses were central to the operations of the world, he should understand how they worked. He enrolled at Harvard Business School. As he neared finishing his degree, Skelly decided he wanted to have a more interesting job than any of classmates. His wife, Anne Whitlock, has a slightly different memory. She said his objective was to find a job where he didn’t have to wear a suit and tie to the interview.
• • • • •
Twenty-two years later, in early 2009, he felt directionless again. He was in good health and energetic. He and Anne had three children who were all in middle and high school. He had spent the previous few years as the chief developer of a pioneering wind farm development company. Then he had made a quixotic, and nearly successful, run for Congress as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district in west Houston.
He angled for a job in Barack Obama’s incoming administration, hoping to be the assistant secretary in charge of renewable energy. He imagined himself as an idealistic bureaucrat with a $1 billion budget. Why not? He had built about twenty wind farms that produced more than five million megawatt hours of power a year. To put that into perspective, it was more power than that generated by a handful of smaller nuclear power plants. Washington did not welcome Skelly with open arms. It was, he later said, a “truly humbling experience.”
Back in Houston, he took some meetings about developing more wind. People were willing to back him, but the prospect left him unenthusiastic. He wanted to move forward. He was starting to think and talk about climate change. He was plagued by the thought that all his work building wind farms wouldn’t make a difference for the climate. “How are we ever going to move the needle on renewable energy?” Skelly wondered. At the time, solar was expensive and a niche product, an accessory for the wealthy and environmentally minded. It provided one-fiftieth of one percent of the electricity in the United States in 2009. Wind, a bit more mainstream, generated a bit less than 2 percent of the electricity in the United States. Skelly knew increasing that figure would be difficult.
The U.S. Energy Department issued a report titled 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030. The agency concluded this was doable, but would require $20 billion for several thousand miles of new wires.
A few months earlier, the U.S. Energy Department issued a report on renewable energy. It was titled 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030. The agency concluded this was doable, but would require $20 billion for several thousand miles of new wires to move the electrons from where it was windy to where people used a lot of electricity.
The government report produced a map of where new transmission lines would be needed. In bright red, the largest cluster of new lines was centered in the thin sliver of the Oklahoma panhandle, heading eastward into Mississippi and Arkansas. The report stated: “If the considerable wind resources of the United States are to be utilized, a significant amount of new transmission will be required.” Who would pay for it? The report was silent on this question.
The Power Lines We Need
All new electricity generation — including wind energy — would require massive expansion by 2030.
From 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030
Every generation or so, the country goes on an infrastructure-building spree to accommodate new forms of energy. Maybe it was wind’s turn. Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, thought so. “We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” she told a reporter a month after the Energy Department report. The quote was in an article that described a wind farm called Maple Ridge in upstate New York that sometimes had to shut down even when there was a brisk wind blowing because of congestion on the grid. Skelly knew all about that wind farm. He had built it.
The idea of a transmission superhighway system was the kind of grand vision that appealed to Skelly. It was the kind of thing that America once excelled at. The U.S. government and American companies had built the interstate highway system, the Hoover Dam, and the Panama Canal. Skelly loved these projects. He read books about them. The more he thought about it, the more he came to believe that the modern equivalent was a new and improved grid. It was certainly a needle mover, Skelly thought.
As the year wore on, Skelly felt himself sinking into a funk. He was thinking a lot about climate, but found it depressing. “People think that inspiration comes from, like, you’re sitting around and you’re happy about something and this great idea pops into your head. I think the opposite is true.” Wallowing and worry were his sources of inspiration. “From despondency comes inspiration, not from giddy happiness,” he said.
From Skelly’s despondency came his desire to build transmission lines. They would begin in the Great Plains, that large airshaft in the middle of the country where the wind blew consistently and the wind speeds were strong. The lines would carry the renewable energy to where people lived. There was one large problem: He wasn’t sure that a private start-up could build an interstate transmission line. Giant utility companies typically built them. They had authority to condemn property, if needed, to route these lines. And the companies didn’t risk their money. The state utility commissions guaranteed them a return on the billions of dollars they invested. Could a private company accomplish such an undertaking?
Maybe. It was hard to say. No one had really ever tried. Skelly figured someone had to test the idea to see if a private company could build a big interstate transmission line. Why shouldn’t it be him? He figured someone would give him money to try because of his earlier wind success. And he would be building something challenging again. Skelly thought it sounded like fun.
If he could build a large transmission line to connect the windy and sunny parts of the country to the cities, renewable energy would take off. And if he could make money doing it, this would beget more investments and more renewable energy. If he could figure out how to do it, others would follow.
• • • • •
Work on the new company began in what Skelly called the “Casita,” the little house. It was a romantic description of the garage apartment behind his home in the West University neighborhood. Skelly wanted to build something enormous — a power line that stretched across three states, held aloft by 150-foot-tall towers. But the small apartment was large enough to work on pitch decks and financial models. Skelly’s first recruit, Jimmy Glotfelty, required little convincing. At a family-run restaurant, Skelly explained his idea over a Tex-Mex breakfast.
“Wow,” Glotfelty responded. “I’ve always wanted to start a transmission company.” He had tried something similar, but less ambitious, a few years earlier. He lacked Skelly’s entrepreneurial chops. “I was a government guy and I had a really hard time figuring out the business side of things,” he admitted.
A native of San Antonio, Glotfelty joined the administration of Governor George W. Bush in the mid-1990s when he was a few years out of college. He was assigned to work on deregulating the state’s electrical market. When Bush went to Washington as the forty-third president, Glotfelty followed and took an appointment at the Department of Energy.
Over the years, Glotfelty had developed a good idea of how the power grid worked and didn’t work. He was on vacation in the Santa Fe National Forest in 2003 when a blackout rippled across the Northeast United States, leaving 50 million people in the dark. He worked for days from a phone booth, the only working phone for miles, to coordinate the government response and investigate what went wrong.
In 2003 a blackout rippled across the Northeast United States, leaving 50 million people in the dark. But there was ample power to the South and West.
This experience had opened his eyes. The Northeast United States had been dark, but there was ample power to the South and West. It didn’t take an electrical engineer to see how a better-networked grid could have helped. After the blackout, he had participated in a brainstorming session at the Energy Department about a “National Electricity Backbone”: building large transmission lines that would move power around from region to region. The idea sparked his imagination.
At the breakfast, Glotfelty explained to Skelly that at the DOE he had championed a way to attract private sector money to invest in this backbone. After he left Washington, the idea had made it into law as Section 1222 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005.
The federal government could partner with a private company to build interstate transmission. It was a way to modernize the grid without spending too much taxpayer money. The government would identify areas in need of transmission investment. The private company brought the money, and the federal government brought the power of eminent domain.
By the time breakfast was over, Glotfelty was ready to leave his job as a consultant and sign up with the new company. It could be a business that would make the U.S. power grid better, cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable. Glotflety started driving over to the Casita on Sunday afternoons to figure out how it would work.
Skelly was going to be the chief executive and visionary-in-chief. Glotfelty would figure out how to negotiate the byzantine state and federal regulatory pathways. What was needed was an actual developer, someone to focus on project minutiae. A month after his breakfast with Jimmy Glotfelty, Skelly had lunch with Mario Hurtado, an Ivy League–educated energy developer who had built hydropower dams in Latin America and consulted on liquefied natural gas terminals.
As they ate at a Thai restaurant a little north of Skelly’s house, Hurtado asked Skelly what he was doing. Skelly started talking about the project. Hurtado said he was interested. He had spent nearly two decades inside corporations and wanted to work somewhere smaller and more entrepreneurial.
He liked Skelly’s ideas. “Michael really had the vision of where wind was going to go and why transmission was the bridge to get there,” he said. Before Hurtado and Glotfelty left their regular paychecks, Skelly convened a meeting of the three men and their wives.
Anne Whitlock says it was important for everyone to know what they were getting into before they got too swept up in the excitement. Skelly was pitching and, she says, when he starts pitching he has a way of getting people to sign on to his vision. “Even if you have doubts, you think, maybe we can pull it off,” she said. But she wanted everyone to have open eyes.
“It is a start-up and it is very risky. Our funding stream could disappear,” she said. Anne had watched Skelly help build up the wind company. There was luck and hard work involved. Nothing was guaranteed, and it would take several years before the project had any hope of being built. And the forces arrayed against the project could be considerable. No one had second thoughts. Glotfelty and Hurtado both decided to give it a shot and together with Skelly, they built the new enterprise.
After a few weeks at the garage apartment, Skelly moved into a borrowed conference room in a downtown office that belonged to Michael Zilkha. Michael and Selim Zilkha had funded the wind company, and Skelly’s success building wind farms had made them a considerable sum. Moving into a real office was important, Skelly said, because it was a much better place to raise money. “The best way to raise money is to look like you don’t need it,” he said.
Eventually, Skelly pitched the Zilkhas — father and son — on becoming the first investors in what the three cofounders called Clean Line Energy Partners. Skelly talked for twenty minutes about his vision for the company before Selim Zilkha interrupted him. He said he appreciated all that Skelly had done at Zilkha Renewable to make the company successful. But he was not interested. “This is folly. It’s not the money, it’s just I don’t want to encourage you,” he said. Skelly wasn’t daunted by the warning. He was in thrall to a big idea that had gotten him out of his funk. There would be other investors.
Even after passing on backing the company, the Zilkhas told Skelly he was welcome to continue using the office space. To keep things going, Skelly began to bankroll the project. He sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort, paying for studies and interconnection requests. He eventually funded payroll. To save money, the company reused leftover campaign stationery. Early Clean Line documents often had a purple “Skelly for Congress” logo on the back.
He talked about the transmission lines they planned to build as “renewable energy pipelines.”
Skelly pitched more investors in the summer of 2009. Skelly shared his idea with Goldman Sachs as well as other investment banks and private equity companies. He talked about the transmission lines they planned to build as “renewable energy pipelines” — using the language of oil and gas that would be familiar to investors — that would connect “quality renewable resources and energy demand centers.” Developing and permitting the line would take $50 million, but they only sought half of that to get moving. Once approved, it would cost $3.5 billion to build.
Most of the early pitches didn’t end well. Investors were afraid because no one had built anything like this before. Some meetings went very poorly. In San Francisco, Skelly met with representatives from the Texas Pacific Group, a large private equity firm. As Skelly walked them through the pitch, the prospective investors ate catered sandwiches. Over thirty minutes, Skelly explained how the price difference between the cost of generating wind and the price in eastern markets was high enough to more than cover the cost of long-haul transmission. As he finished the pitch, he sat down at the long conference table. The investors thanked him and excused themselves. “They left me to finish my lunch by myself,” Skelly said.
At one meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Houston with representatives of the Ziff family, a young company intern named Charlie Ary handed Skelly a printout of the pitch deck. As Skelly passed it to Ziff representatives Bryan Begley and Neil Wallack, Ary saw a flash of purple. “My heart sank,” he remembered. Each page of the investor slides had “Skelly for Congress” printed on the back. Ary was mortified and it showed.
Begley leaned over to Ary. “This is your first business meeting, isn’t it,” he asked. It was, Ary admitted. Then Skelly jumped in. We’re a lean start-up. We got a free intern and we recycle old paper. We’re not going to waste the investors’ money, he told them.
It was an awkward start, but the Four Seasons meeting brought Skelly together with Clean Line’s first financial backers. In November 2009, Ziff’s investment vehicles put $25 million into Clean Line. By this time, Skelly estimated he had put in $1 million of his own money.
There was a lot that Skelly couldn’t put in the pitch deck. Like how he believed life was at its richest when you did things that were big and bold and challenging. “If you are motivated by that stuff, it doesn’t have to work for it to be worth it,” he said. “If you’re an investor, that’s probably not a great answer… But what else are you going to do other than the stuff you believe in that is arguably important?”
By the end of the year, Clean Line was a real company. It had money and a plan. It even had an office, in the same building but a few floors below the Zilkhas’. Appropriately enough, given the mission, a clutch of electrical wires hung from the unfinished drop ceiling in their conference room when the company moved in.
From Superpower written by Russell Gold. Copyright© 2019 by Russell Gold. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved. Russell Gold is senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal.
This excerpt was published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition.
Tonga: Lessons and memories, hopes and fears see more
Tonga: Lessons and memories, hopes and fears
By Siotame Drew Havea
Forty years ago I started working with Peace Corps Tonga. When I came on board in the mid-1980s as training director and then associate director, our two main projects focused on education and health. We had also launched an agricultural project, focused on research and agribusiness, in the 1970s. Some of our volunteers complained of not enough happening in their structured jobs. So we made sure volunteers’ time and energy went to secondary projects focused on the environment.
Volunteers worked directly with farmers and community members to plant trees—to provide wind shelters, fruit trees for food, and even mangroves to foster a rich and flood-resilient ecosystem. Retiring from Peace Corps Tonga after 25 years of service, I found myself volunteering with a youth program devoted to making Tonga green, promoting organic farming. But increasingly the work we’ve done with the environment on Tonga has been to grapple with climate change as it affects our kingdom of 169 islands spread across 270,000 square miles. And increasingly we have to frame this work as adaptation.
Growing up Cyclone
My first year in primary school I joined my maternal grandmother in Vava‘u. My grandmother was taking care of her parents, who were in their nineties. The year was 1961, which coincided with a wind that clocked 200 kilometers per hour. This is before they started naming cyclones. Our place was three kilometers inland, and after the cyclone I could see the water around us. My great grandfather explained to me that these big cyclones come every 20 years to regenerate the environment. None of the fruit trees in the compound were left standing. I learned that we should leave trees that were half uprooted lying on the ground. We put leaves and decomposed rubbish around the half-uprooted trees. Then we harvested the fruits from the half-uprooted trees, before the new plants bore fruit.
Twenty years later, Cyclone Isaac hit the islands hard—especially in the northwest. Severe Cyclone Juliet hit the next year, and after that Cyclone Waka. In 1990 Cyclone Ofa cleaned out 95 percent of the houses in the Northern Islands. There’s no question that housing has to evolve to be hurricane proof—but that is beyond the means of most families. The severe cyclones are now hitting every two to three years, with greater intensity cyclones hitting every year.
In 2014 and 2017 we experienced two category 5 cyclones. We still haven’t fully recovered. Since 1961 we have had over 20 cyclones with wind speeds of more than 110 to 185 kph hitting our shores. In the last five years, flooding has become a regular part of the cyclone as well—which means we have to move families from flood areas to evacuation centers every year.
I returned to Nuku‘alofa, my home in the capital on the main island of Tongatapu, to attend junior high school. I spent time with my grandfather, a retired Methodist minister who had spent the majority of his service as a missionary in the Solomon Islands, near Papua New Guinea. My grandfather’s younger brother frequented the house. So did their cousin from the outer island of ‘Eua. I learned that my great uncle was the government official tasked with moving almost a thousand people from Niuafo‘ou island, the northernmost of the islands in Tonga, to resettle them in the island of ‘Eua, just southeast of the main island. The people had to be evacuated because Niuafo‘ou is home to an active volcano, and in 1946 and 1947 it was in a constant state of eruption.
But when my great uncle’s cousin from ‘Eua visited, he made sure to tell my great uncle he should understand what he did. The Niuafo‘ou people are very disruptive, the cousin said. They have different lifestyles and little respect for the original people of ‘Eua. They took root crops and picked fruit trees without permission. It has been 80 years of resettling in ‘Eua, and we still hear of biases and difficulties with acceptance and assimilation.
In 2009, an 8.3 magnitude earthquake that was centered in Samoa destroyed three communities on the island of Niuatoputapu and killed nine people. We built three new communities for people to resettle. Will the difficulties with acculturation and acceptance be repeated?
It is interesting to note that earthquakes are also becoming stronger and more frequent. The usual 4 to 6 magnitude earthquake is a normal weekly occurrence. But in the past decade we have experienced three earthquakes with a magnitude of 7 or more—and three were 8 in magnitude.
Seabed mining companies have announced intentions to drill around the core of the Pacific Ring of Fire. So we expect to see more earthquakes—and more powerful earthquakes—in the future.
Sea level rise
As I started high school in 1970, my maternal grandparents moved to Nuku‘alofa and lived with us. We all helped out in the small, eight-acre farm, growing a variety of root crops. My grandfather was a fisherman and had a 14-foot open boat that we used for line fishing or trawling, heading out three times a week for a few hours. On weekends we left for most of the day, and we usually hopped off on one of the uninhabited sandy islands to swim and cook fish before continuing.
At the end of last year I went fishing in the waters I fished as a boy. I could no longer see the sandy islands we often enjoyed. The western side of Tongatapu is struggling to keep communities from being divided by the water. With sea level rise, the land on both Tongatapu and the central Ha‘apai Group is sinking under the water, at the same time erosion wears away chunks of the islands. Sea walls can hold for two or three years before the sea takes them away. If sea level rise continues, Tonga will disappear in the next century.
Tonga has been part of the international processes in the Pacific calling to restrict carbon emissions, with the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The health of our Pacific Ocean is our leaders’ priority in setting a 2050 ocean strategy. The Pacific has tirelessly participated in shaping the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, forged at the United Nations in 2015. We went in enthusiastically to sign the Paris Agreement on Climate Action. We know that the future of our homes is at stake.
Now in 2020, it has not been comforting to face the fact that small voices are not heard and we will be leaving a lot of people behind. Standing at the shore in front of my house, looking at the beautiful water—oceans that have provided livelihood to my family and my ancestors for ages—I am burdened by the knowledge that this land will likely disappear within 80 years. I think of my 12 grandchildren. And I grapple with the fact that the very source of livelihood that has supported us for generations will turn around and destroy that livelihood as it swallows the island.
Small Island States
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers have founded groups to support these nations: Friends of Fiji, Friends of Tonga, Friends of Micronesia—which includes Volunteers who served in the Marshall Islands—and the newly-formed Friends of Vanuatu. RPCVs for Environmental Action keep their connections with the region, too. Check out digital WorldView for more.
Siotame Drew Havea was associate director of Peace Corps Tonga 1985–2005. He continues to work to support civil society in his home country, leading the national committee for all NGOs in Tonga. He holds degrees from Willamette University and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. He is the 2017 recipient of the Harris Wofford Global Citizen Award from National Peace Corps Association.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition..
The Marshall Islands: Climate change and healthcare see more
The Marshall Islands: Climate change and healthcare
By Jack Niedenthal
I work with a group of health care workers whom I will forever consider to be heroic. And this is why this is so:
In the Marshall Islands climate change to us is not a “threat,” it already weighs heavily upon our island lives each and every day. Climate change not only means battling periodic inundations from rising sea levels that began to become routine in 2011, but now it also means fighting numerous and unpredictable disease outbreaks. And it will undoubtedly continue in this manner well into the future. This has become our new normal.
I am the Secretary of Health and Human Services for the Marshall Islands, a country with 53,000 people located in the north central Pacific Ocean. I moved into this position after first serving a two-year term as the Marshall Islands Red Cross Society’s first Secretary General, a role in which I led work on building up our community climate change resilience by having our team train over 1,000 local citizens in first aid in order to create an army of natural disaster first responders. Now, as the secretary of health, I have the responsibility of overseeing the day-to-day operations for two major hospitals and 50 outer island dispensaries that employ a total of more than 600 people.
Our country has been under siege from disease since the beginning of 2019. Indeed, since August 2019 and into March 2020, we were in a constant government-declared state of health emergency because of a horrific outbreak of dengue fever that has infected over 2,000 people and has caused the death of two children.
Our hospital in the capital city of Majuro, now often crowded with patients to the point where the ER has become like a temporary medical ward, is decades old and is constantly falling apart. Repair requests are a daily routine: Leaky roofs, broken air conditioners, faulty and clogged ancient plumbing, medical and diagnostic equipment breakages due to fluctuating power issues, and rodent infestation are normal in our workplace. When I took on the role of secretary of health just over a year ago, I felt as if I had stepped into a giant foxhole to fight a war against an unseen enemy. But watching hundreds of healthcare workers around me attack their jobs with such tireless dedication—doctors, nurses, service and administration people alike—immediately filled me with overwhelming respect for what they do, and for what I was getting into as a leader.
Majuro Hospital: Dengue fever victims in a hastily-constructed ward. They need to be monitored every hour on the hour, 24/7.
Photo courtesy of Jack Niedenthal
Litany and Legacy
Along with the dengue outbreak, we have had five other disease outbreaks in 2019–20, along with a measles alert in late 2019 (though no confirmed cases yet): a large rotavirus outbreak (February 2019); a large Influenza B outbreak (May 2019); a small typhoid fever alert (May 2019); a small pertussis/whooping cough outbreak (June 2019); a large Dengue 3 outbreak—since July 2019 on Ebeye Island, the most populous of the Kwajalein Atoll, and since August 2019 in Majuro (both ongoing); and a large Influenza A outbreak (November 2019 to present). When the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus an emergency of international concern in January, we consulted with WHO lawyers and quickly instituted a travel ban.
The Marshall Islands is no stranger to health issues. To the outside world, these islands are perhaps best known for the 67 nuclear and thermonuclear weapons tests conducted by the U.S. government from 1946 to 1958 on Bikini and Enewetak atolls. This series of devastating weapons tests has caused the Marshall Islands to have one of the highest per capita rates of cancer in the world. Landscapes on Bikini and Enewetak atolls are littered with the permanent scars left behind by hydrogen bombs that were as much as 1,000 times greater in strength than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear weapons used against Japan in World War II.
Without question, those weapons tests changed the lives of the people of the Marshall Islands forever. The Runit Dome on Enewetak Atoll is the largest structure that still remains from the nuclear testing period. It is a massive concrete-covered tomb filled with plutonium waste that will be radioactive for tens of thousands of years. Its deadly contents are now leaking into the environment. In late 2019, the U.S. Congress committed to funding an environmental study of the Runit Dome. We hope this will lead to a course of action to remove the dome and its contents.
I arrived on the islands in 1981 to work as a Peace Corps volunteer, just two years after the Republic of the Marshall Islands was established as an independent nation. I then went on to work for the people of Bikini for 33 years as their advocate and their liaison to the outside world. My wife of 31 years, our five children, and our four grandchildren are all Bikini islanders.
The Cold War was in many ways fought and won on the shores of Bikini and Enewetak atolls. The contribution and sacrifice—of both limb and land—by the people of the Marshall Islands to the security and well-being of the citizens of the United States has been huge, though it has gone largely unrecognized: You won’t find mention of these weapons tests and their devastation wrought upon our people in most U.S. high school history books.
As for our serious health issues, they do not end with high cancer rates. Indeed, our type II diabetes and our tuberculosis per capita rates are also some of the highest in the world; obesity and high blood pressure issues are common. Nearly our entire population is burdened with direly weakened immune systems, which is why we are currently waging an urgent, comprehensive measles immunization campaign. As of December of 2019, all travelers entering the Marshall Islands must show evidence of two doses of MMR vaccinations. In Samoa, to the southwest of us, in recent months more than 80 people died due to a measles outbreak that caused more than 5,000 citizens fall ill to the highly contagious disease. Samoa had not been prepared for the outbreak due to horrifically low immunization rates, especially among young children.
In fact, measles has been spreading rapidly throughout the Pacific region: Fiji, Tonga, American Samoa, New Zealand, Kiribati, Niue, and Australia have all reported measles cases. Even in the United States, 31 states reported a total of 1,276 measles cases in 2019, the highest annual number of measles cases since 1992. Eleven of those 31 states declared measles “outbreaks.”
Unfortunately, compounding the disease war that we now find ourselves in is this fact: Like many small island nations, we just don’t have enough funding to meet our extreme health care needs. Though we have a universal healthcare system, and though we are constantly and thankfully being supported by a dozen international health organizations and world banking institutions, we still find ourselves battling between the need for purchasing equipment, medicines, and supplies while at the same time dealing with a payroll that has had the same salary levels, when factoring in inflation, since the 1980s.
The Common Good
As a Peace Corps volunteer from 1981 to 1984, I spent three years on a very isolated outer island atoll called Namo. At the time Namo had no airport, and we were lucky if a supply ship arrived every five or six months. In 1982 Namo was hit by a massive typhoon that raged for three long days. The storm arrived without any warning to us. It ripped trees from the ground and destroyed almost every house on the island. In its wake, as if that wasn’t enough, we suffered from a year-long drought.
One of the main reasons I decided to stay in the Marshall Islands after my Peace Corps experience was because of what I had witnessed during those times of great strife while living on Namo. The outer islands in the Marshall Islands are usually only populated by a couple hundred people. There everyone is family, so that is the only way they know how to treat you—even as an outsider from a distant country. For a young American, it was an extraordinary, eye-opening experience. It was refreshing and it was beautiful. They shared. They cared for one another, they always made sure everyone was OK and was taken care of. We went hungry but no one starved. The island was devastated by the typhoon, but everyone worked together to quickly fix all of their houses and repair damage to community buildings. There was no government relief help or the equivalent of FEMA, just fellow islanders working together for the common good. This was the Marshallese culture working as it was shaped by their elders centuries ago, a valuable series of lessons that most of the world has yet to learn—or has forgotten. And this is what drew me in and changed the way I thought and behaved toward others.
I firmly believe that given what the people of the Marshall Islands have done for the rest of humanity, we all have a moral obligation to ensure they have the best healthcare the world has to offer. The United States has given us funding for a desperately needed new hospital. The first phase of construction, a surgical ward, has already been completed and is in use, but we are still five or six years away from the rest of the hospital being finished.
In the meantime, one of the solutions to creating a better healthcare system for the people of the Marshall Islands is the building and establishment of resilient, institutional practices within our ministry of health. This is easier said than done because many of our methods and practices have been ingrained and in use for decades, and the bureaucracy we deal with is brutally inefficient. However, because of the quality of those individuals who work with me, I believe a new paradigm for how healthcare works here is achievable. It is now an absolute necessity for our survival as a small island nation.
As climate change—with its inundations and disease outbreaks—becomes more and more of a central factor in our lives, I believe that healthcare must become the predominant priority for the government. Because of the overwhelming epidemic of TB and noncommunicable diseases like diabetes here in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the influx of climate change-propagated diseases is going to become a major threat to the people here. All this will put healthcare workers on the front line of our fight to survive as a nation.
Jack Niedenthal has served as secretary of health and human services for the Marshall Islands since January 2019. After studies at University of Arizona, he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Namo Atoll 1981–84, for more than three decades served the people of Bikini Atoll as their advocate and Trust Liaison, and was the first secretary general of the Marshall Islands Red Cross. He is an award-winning filmmaker and author of the book “For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands.”
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition..
Climate change and Pacific nations heroically trying to save themselves see more
Climate change and Pacific nations heroically trying to save themselves
By Mike Tidwell
Dying trees, sandbagged shore. Photo for Humans of Kiribati by Raimo Kataotao
At the United Nations building in New York, the national flag of every country on earth hangs from a pole outside. Whenever a new country is born — South Sudan being the latest in 2011 — a new pole is set up and a new flag raised.
But what happens when a country dies? What happens, for example, if unchecked global warming wipes entire Pacific island nations off the map in the coming years? Will we have a somber flag-lowering ceremony? Will we salute the newly stateless refugees with a tragic diplomatic farewell? It could happen. Indeed, in the feature stories that are part of this package, you’ll read about four nations — Fiji, Tonga, the Marshall Islands, and Kiribati — that are facing existential threats right now from rising waters and larger storms linked to global warming.
These nations are heroically doing what they can to save themselves. But ultimately, only you and I and the rest of the world can save these nations. We have to cut fossil fuel emissions drastically. And America must lead this fight.
It’s interesting to think of the Peace Corps itself in this context. The idea for the Peace Corps was first popularized by President John F. Kennedy, of course. Here was his vision: Take volunteers from the “solution” nation — the United States of America — and ask them to work hard to transfer knowledge and technology to the “problem” nations in the developing world. This arguably paternalistic view, a product of the era, has nonetheless led more than 240,000 Americans to serve as volunteers abroad. This in turn has produced tens of millions of people worldwide who today are slightly better fed, clothed, sheltered, and educated than they would otherwise be. I’m genuinely proud to have been part of that effort as a fisheries volunteer in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1985 to 1987.
But Kennedy’s original vision has now been turned on its head. We in the United States have become the world’s leading “problem” nation. We are now a direct and daily burden on all of the world’s poor, threatening to unravel whatever help we’ve managed to provide in the past. We are destroying the world’s atmosphere with greenhouse gas pollution. We are changing the climate.
Winston hits Fiji: A 2016 cyclone—the southern hemisphere’s strongest storm on record. Photo by Jeff Schmaltz/NASA.
Weather systems are deviating from ancient patterns. Satellite cameras show Arctic ice in full-on retreat while sea levels rise and precipitation patterns alternately veer toward Biblical flooding and unrecognizable droughts across the planet.
Meanwhile, with less than 5 percent of the world’s population (327 million), we in America generate a staggering 25 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gases.
So it’s time to resurrect JKF’s original vision by becoming a solution nation again. The dispatches of crisis and struggle you are about to read from Pacific island nations should motivate us to fight for electric cars and solar panels all across America and for wind farms along our coastlines.
We’re in a race against time to cut carbon pollution fast enough. It’s the only way we can save the island nations of the world — and ourselves.
ISLANDS IN PERIL | feature package
On the Front Lines
Fiji and Beyond: A MacArthur Fellow takes stock of climate change loss and damage. By Stacy Jupiter
Writ on Water
Tonga: Lessons and memories, hopes and fears. By Siotame Drew Havea
Dengue Fever Blues
The Marshall Islands: Climate change and healthcare. By Jack Niedenthal
Day Begins Here
Kiribati: Land is tied to identity. But the land is vanishing. By Michael Roman
Mike Tidwell is founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. He is also an author and filmmaker, and his most recent book is “The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Race to Save America’s Coastal Cities.”
This story was first published in WorldView magazine’s Spring 2020 edition.
Kiribati: Land is tied to identity. But the land is vanishing. see more
Kiribati: Land is tied to identity. But the land is vanishing.
By Michael Roman
Kiribati is the center of the world. Here the international dateline crosses the equator. It is the only country to have territory in all four hemispheres—north, south, east, west—and the first nation to see the sunrise of each new day. It is also predicted to be one of the first nations to vanish because of global climate change: summoning powerful king tides, devastating cyclones, and prolonged droughts. In the face of all this, how does a people stay resolute and try to preserve land—and a deeply intertwined culture and identity?
I have been connected to Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas)—an island nation of 110,000 people—for the whole of the 21st century. For me and my family in Kiribati, climate change means you learn to live with less—less fresh water, less land, fewer fish in the sea or traditional foods from land, fracturing social stability, and eroding long-term security. You adapt to higher population densities as resources diminish. You also learn to cope with more—incidents of dengue fever and chikungunya (both transmitted by mosquitoes) and tuberculosis, as changing lands develop new vector havens; increased cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity, as greater consumption of imported processed foods and imported sedentary lifestyles take their toll. But to recover from unnatural disasters, you find some way to call forth the greater humanity in each of us.
That sense of us is essential. Because the people of Kiribati, along with four other atoll nations—the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, the Maldives, and Tokelau—are, to use a metaphor we know from centuries of digging up fossil fuels, the world’s canaries in the coal mine. Their survival largely depends on people unaware of their existence.
Aftermath of a king tide: ocean water in the back yard—and flooding freshwater wells. Photo courtesy of Peace Corps
The arc of history
Twenty-seven of us arrived for Peace Corps training in Kiribati in November 2000. I was assigned to teach on Abaiang Island, an atoll with a few thousand inhabitants that was six miles long but only a few hundred feet to just over half a mile wide. From the capital in Tarawa it was an 8-hour boat ride—turbulent but beautiful. We were seen off by stingrays, reef fish, and octopi slicing through clear water. Minutes later we were over a dark blue sea, the Pacific trench. Bottle-nosed dolphins played alongside, while flying fish trailed our boat’s wake.
On Abaiang we were welcomed with a party in a village school. Teachers had prepared trays upon trays of lobsters, fish, babai (a kind of taro root), coconuts, and roast pig. They had rounded up a generator to power lights and a sound system for music.
Later that night, winds picked up. Trees rocked back and forth and fell. The sea roughened. Waves rose higher, crashing deep into the land. Sheets of corrugated tin were torn from the school roof. On the raised platform where I slept, I wondered if the the woven ribs of the house itself might fly away. Yet by sunrise the storm had passed.
Daylight revealed the damage. In the compound, some houses were missing walls, others roofs. Fallen coconut palms lay atop mangled corrugated tin sheets. Men began collecting downed foliage for women and girls, who wove new thatch. Boys straddled structural beams, installing it, piece by piece.
That storm was my introduction to both destructiveness of storms and the goodness of humanity in Kiribati. The people of Abaiang did not wait for relief workers. They worked together. It was a lesson from a place where “we” is always bigger than “I.”
The people of Kiribati call themselves I-Kiribati, and a sense of interdependency defines them. I’ve seen long-term impacts of climate change on the nation over two decades. But years before I arrived, some were sounding alarms about existential threats to the people and their home.
In 1989 Babera Kirata, minister of home affairs and decentralization, addressed the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise. He described the consequences Kiribati could face: “Groundwater would quickly become saline, making it impossible to obtain potable water, and agriculture would be destroyed,” he said. “Plankton upon which fish live will disappear, and the livelihood of Kiribati people who depend on fish would be severely affected. The effect of rising in sea level, accompanied by strong winds and high waves, would be disastrous.” Six years later, a 1995 article, “Climatic Change, and Migration from Oceania,” stated that “significant environmental changes could stimulate population movements, and in worst-case scenarios, cause significant health and psychological consequences.”
A few years after I completed Peace Corps service, I was back in Kiribati doing field work in medical anthropology. I worked with UNAIDS and the Kiribati HIV/AIDS task force. Drought ravaged the island where I was. Later, a king tide inundated several villages.
I sought to better understand the impacts of climate change on human populations through studies in cultural anthropology and behavioral and communication health sciences. While I was doing that work, Tessie Eria Lambourne, the former secretary for foreign affairs for Kiribati, declared: “We do not want to go, but if forced to go, we do not want to go as environmental refugees. We are a proud people, and we’d like to relocate with merit and dignity.”
July 2014: Not wishing to be dependent on others’ goodwill, the Kiribati government purchased 5,451 acres on Fiji’s island of Vanua Levu for agricultural use. Six months later, Fiji’s Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, broadened the idea of land usage rights: “If the sea level continues to rise because the world won’t tackle global warming,” he said, “some or all of the people of Kiribati may have to come and live in Fiji.”
In September 2014 an outbreak of rotavirus on my family’s island claimed the lives of two children. The outbreak sickened 500, 80 percent of them children under five. Waterborne in nature, the disease flourishes in times of drought and heavy rain. That month, there was no rain; what little water there was, was infected with the rotavirus. Climate change profoundly impacts the quality of groundwater. Ultimately without fresh water, there is no life.
Climate change also alters global weather patterns. I finished my Peace Corps service on the island of Tamana—about one mile long and 100 meters wide. In 2015, Tamana was hit by Cyclone Pam. To get firsthand accounts for Radio New Zealand, I approached several Kiribati residents. Teriba Tabe, a 51-year-old father, worried over the threats to current and future generations: “We are so vulnerable,” he said. “Even small calamities such as droughts and king tides at higher frequencies—which, of course, are directly linked to climate change—place our lives in great danger.”
I joined with other returned Volunteers to launch Kiribati Keepers, a U.S.-based nonprofit to help with disaster relief. To help tell stories to the world in words and images, photographer Raimon Kataotao and I started a social media campaign called Humans of Kiribati.
To Paris, with love: on the eve of the accords signed in 2016. Ozone-eating CFC’s are banned—but not greenhouse-gas trapping HFC’s. Photo by Raimon Kataotao
What of migration?
Having no permanent displacement agreements with other nations, the only migration opportunity Kiribati currently has is a labor-based scheme with New Zealand. The scheme allows 75 qualified I-Kiribati to become permanent residents annually. Since instituted 20 years ago, the program has resulted in small residential pockets of I-Kiribati workers in New Zealand. If it remains the only such agreement, the present-day population of Kiribati could be relocated by the year 3348. But Kiribati is projected to be uninhabitable this century.
There are Kiribati populations living in Fiji, the United States, Taiwan, Canada, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, and Australia. Like migrants from many countries, they fear losing cultural identity. Some cannot fathom the idea of leaving their homeland. In Kiribati, the word for “land” is aba. The word also means “people” and “country.” The connection between one’s aba and one’s life is everything.
When an individual in Kiribati is born, traditionally they are birthed on their family’s land. They grow up on that land and start families of their own there. When they die, they return to the land to join the ancestors above to watch over the land for future generations. Aba anchors personhood and ties together one’s past, present, and future. Leaving the land ruptures the connection between the living and ancestors. Elders speak with disdain when the topic of climate change or migration comes up. “The land has eyes,” they will say. “If our lands go, we will go with it.”
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has yet to develop a specific category for environmentally displaced persons. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person “owing a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” The perils of today’s environmentally displaced populations were not imagined.
That fact shaped the outcome of a notable climate refugee case from Kiribati. Ioane Teitiota overstayed his New Zealand work visa due to fears of returning to his endangered nation. Beginning in 2011 he fought to become the world’s first legally eligible climate refugee. After several years of litigation, his case was denied. The presiding judge found Teitioata’s argument convincing but noted that climate change was inapplicable to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and it wasn’t the court’s place to expand the scope of international law.
David Katoatau is a renowned weightlifter from Kiribati. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, he would delight viewers from around the world by dancing after every successful lift. In the September prior to the Olympics, he sought to shine a light on his home—in an open letter that began, “I am the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medalist weightlifter from the disappearing island of Kiribati. Every day my people fear for their lives, as their homes are lost to the rising sea levels. We live on an atoll with nothing but flat land and ocean surrounding us. We have nowhere to climb and nowhere to run to … On behalf of all the people who will die for the country that will no longer exist, and for the culture, which will long be forgotten, I am asking for your help. … The simple truth is that we do not have the resources to save ourselves. We will be the first to go. It will be the extinction of a race. Open your eyes and look to the low-lying island nations of the Pacific—they will soon fall with us. Soon, we will all drown.”
In 2017, New Zealand implemented an experimental humanitarian visa category for people displaced by rising seas. In 2019 in the United States, Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Nydia Velázquez of New York City introduced S.2565 and H.R. 4732 respectively to address the Climate “Refugee” Crisis. And in January 2020, the UNHCR declared that states now do need to consider climate change when determining refugee status—though they said that Ioane Teitiota was not in imminent danger, so was not eligible.
I take heart from those in the global community who are pressing leaders for concrete action on climate change. But it may already be too late for nations like Kiribati.
Those who assume the mantle of Pacific climate warriors say, “We are not drowning; we are fighting.” Telling our story and putting a human face on climate change is one way we fight. One of my fellow climate warriors is Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a poet and performer from the Marshall Islands. As she puts it, “We have never wanted to leave, and we are nothing without our islands.”
Michael Roman is a climate activist, author, and lecturer working at the University of Cincinnati. His love for Kiribati stems from his Peace Corps Service 2000–02. His work on behalf of Kiribati has fostered development of the films “Anote’s Ark” (2018) and “One Word” (2020). His current projects include “American Asylee,” a true story about a current Kiribati asylum seeker, and “When there was no money,” an autobiographical account of climate change from Kiribati. He asks that you share the story of Kiribati with others.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 issue.
Nearly two thirds of you said climate change was by far the global issue you cared about most. see more
So here’s what we’re doing next.
By Glenn Blumhorst
In January 2020 National Peace Corps Association conducted a national survey asking you about the global issues that you care about most — and what actions you might take to address these issues in your community.
More than 3,000 members of the Peace Corps community responded. Nearly two thirds of you said climate change was by far the global issue you cared about most. You also showed strong support for global health, access to clean water, and women’s empowerment and girls education.
Since January, we have learned an important lesson: Without proper preparation, existential threats like the Covid-19 pandemic or climate change can radically alter all of our lives.
These threats are not theoretical. They are real. We also know that these global threats are closely linked. For example, climate change, if left unchecked, will continue to raise the Earth’s temperature and make pandemics like Covid-19 more likely — and access to clean water more difficult.
We are working with our affiliate group, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers for Environmental Action (RPCV4EA), to document the impact of climate change through the eyes of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. RPCV4EA plans to post these stories on its website.
Many of you have seen first firsthand the impact of climate change in communities around the world where you have served. And you’re concerned about its impact in your own communities. So here’s a request: Please take a few minutes to share with us in a brief paragraph your experiences witnessing the devastating impact of climate change. Send your summary to Arianna Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will follow up.
We also want your help as we conduct additional research — including a series of virtual focus groups and town hall meetings this spring — to determine how your views about global issues may have changed since January. We know these are unprecedented times. The survey shows that global health resonates strongly as an issue with our membership. Should we help develop a new national affiliate to address global health? If you are interested in participating in one of our focus groups, contact Mike Kiernan at email@example.com.
As members of the Peace Corps community, we can all play a role in educating and motivating others in our communities and nationwide to learn more about the global issues that affect all of us. I hope you will take time to review our survey results and let me know what you think.
Glenn Blumhorst (Guatemala 1988–91) is President and CEO of National Peace Corps Association.