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No Home to Return To

With climate change causing rising temperatures and sea levels, the South Pacific islands are going to disappear soon, leaving a lot of us without homes to return to.

By Gabrielle T. Langkilde, Crimson Opinion Writer
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

I love going back home. In fact, it’s really the only thing that gets me through Harvard’s rough semesters and Boston’s brutally cold weather. Thoughts of returning home to the beautiful beaches and the shimmering Pacific ocean that surrounds my beautiful American Samoa. Memories of riding in the back of the truck with all my cousins as we pass by lush, green mountains. And daydreams about the fresh catch that Uncle brought to be cooked and wholeheartedly devoured at the family function.

But soon, that’s all I’ll have of home — thoughts, dreams, and memories. With the course that climate change is taking, the South Pacific islands are going to be the first to go.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, the South Pacific islands are among the most vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. In particular, low-lying South Pacific islands and atolls, such as Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, are already experiencing high sea levels that are destroying their homes and threatening to overtake their islands. In fact, the Marshall Islands are expected to be completely submerged by 2030, and their people are being forced to either elevate or relocate, removing their 55,000 citizens from their homes and making them climate refugees.

Rising sea levels is not the only consequence of climate change threatening our homes and way of life. Rising temperatures are bleaching our coral reefs and shifting our ocean’s temperatures, contributing to a decrease of one of our main sources of food and export — fish. And with rising temperatures heating sea surface levels and destroying our natural barriers, like coral reefs and mangroves, we are left to live in constant fear of stronger and more frequent tropical storms wreaking havoc through our villages.

But Harvard doesn’t understand this. It claims to be a safe space for all, but how can I feel safe when its very investments in the fossil fuel industry are contributing to the destruction of my home? How can I feel loved or welcomed here when Harvard is actively threatening the survival of my people? Some students have written and talked about finding a “home away from home” here, but I could never call Harvard home — not when it is part of the reason my true home’s existence hangs in the balance.

But Harvard as an institution is not the only problem. It’s the very people on this campus as well. And I’m not just talking about the very few climate change deniers that I have encountered here. I’m talking about those that claim to believe in climate change, but refuse to endorse Harvard’s divestment from fossil fuels. As you sit in the comfort of your safe highland city utopias, you are just as complicit.

For whatever reason you may have — whether it be that you don’t believe that Harvard’s investments are a true representation of their sentiments, that divestment would not really help in any significant way in the fight against climate change, etc. — you must first check the privilege from which you are able to make these arguments. Chances are that you’re not from a small island in the South Pacific and go home to see the sea level rise a little more every year. Chances are that the closest you’ve come to seeing the immediate, major threats of climate change is through your TV screen. Chances are that you do not come from a community who has to get creative about their survival.

It’s not fair that the South Pacific islands, which contribute far less than 1 percent to the total amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, are left to receive the harshest consequences of climate change. Our homes and our people deserve better. Actually, it’s more than that — we are entitled to better.

We should be ensured the right to our land and our homes. And we should not have to live in constant fear of the ocean, a beautiful friend we’ve all been raised to love and respect, swallowing our homes whole. But this is our reality. And the more that you continue to deny or belittle our reality, the harder it becomes for Pacific communities to feel hope for change.

So help us in our fight. Talk to your Pacific islander friends (though I know there are very few on campus) and try to get a better picture of our reality. Maybe then, we might have hope of having homes to return to in the future.

Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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