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Bearing Witness: Voices Of Climate Change Part VI: Climate Refugees

Gary Nabhan

This week, we're airing a series of interviews called Bearing Witness: Voices of Climate Change. They're stories told by longtime Arizonans about changes they've seen in the familiar landscapes of their lives. While personal experience, in and of itself, is not scientific conclusion, many researchers believe long-term observation is a critical component to understanding how climate change affects humanity and the planet. Today's interview is with teacher, author and ecologist, Gary Nabhan. He is the founding director of Northern Arizona University's Center for SUstainable Environments, and currently teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Nabhan is also a farmer of indigenous foods in the desert of Patagonia, Arizona. A pioneer of local food and heirloom seed movements, he connects food supply to culture, ecology and poverty. Nabhan is now documenting stories of 'climate refugees': the most marginalized people affected by climate change. 

Surprisingly, I think climate change was evident to me before I knew that word is that there were global trends. When I worked on the Tohono O’odham reservation right after graduating from college, I was helping elderly farmers with planting their fields and improving water harvesting for them. These old men would say, it’s not like farming in the old days. The rains are dying…The traditional knowledge of the farmers I was working with was actually more precise  than the tools we had to look at climate change at that time.

More recently, when I was teaching up at NAU, I did a little children’s book with a Native American elder from the Seri Indian Tribe on the Gulf of California, Amalia Astorga, who was sort of a cultural treasure-keeper of her community with stories and crafts and songs. Four years ago I think now, a hurricane came off the coast of Baja California, across the Gulf, and everyone in the coastal villages were alerted to evacuate the villages. She had flu, and could not be moved, she was so sick she couldn’t move …and before anyone could get back into the village, she died of thirst…. So to me, these aren’t things that are going to happen in the future, but events that are upon us now, and the poor and most marginalized in our society are the ones being affected and we don’t often hear how severe these events are that are happening to them. About that time I was first introduced to the term “climate refugee.” This is a village of fishermen and so now they’re building new houses three quarters of mile back from the oceanfront where they’ve lived their whole lives, and don’t even know if that’s far enough.

We’ve always had floods, we’ve always had wildfires, of course. So we have to be careful how we attribute a single event to climate change…. But the frequency and severity are such that people in rural areas and along seacoasts palpably feel it, and know that it’s different. One Inuit friend said: This world is moving faster now. We feel these changes coming upon us more and more.

My calling, my work, my avocation, my vocation is working on issues of climate change and the protection of nature for the benefit of poor communities. I really don’t have much fear anymore, I really have faith that each of us as humans, no matter what our disabilities are, and no matter what our education level is, we have the possibility and the mandate to generate positive change in the world and we have the talents to do so, and each of us has  a different gift and a different kind of weirdness, and in my own weird little way I try to do what I can while I’m still alive on this earth before they roll me downhill and compost me.