The Vanishing

Roy Lander Lauren LeithThis afternoon, the entire delegation of Education Ambassadors donned their red jackets and boarded Paris Metro trains to travel to UNESCO, where we saw two short films followed by a live interview led by Robert Redford titled “Storytelling for Global Action,” facilitated by National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) President Rhea Suh. Redford has been an environmentalist since the early 1970s, when he fought the construction of a power plant in southern Utah. Redford spoke of the need to act on climate change, as “time has run out for talking.” He also said that we need to be talking to the Indigenous Peoples of the Earth, as they are closest to the land. He ended the talk on a philosophical note when, speaking of future generations, he asked, “What are you going to say about the Earth that you have left them?” Then he said, in a more hopeful voice, “There is no limit to human imagination and its ability to solve problems.”

Seeing and hearing an actor, director, and environmentalist would have been enough, but as an incredible bonus, we had a chance to hear from three representatives of Indigenous communities from the Marshall Islands, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Perhaps it was prophetic that this morning, when I was interviewing fellow Education Ambassador Lauren Lindelof ­Leith (see photo), a high school chemistry and physics teacher from Saint Paul, Minnesota, she said that her global focus at COP21 will be on the world’s poorest people, while her more local focus is on several Indigenous groups who were forced out of their homelands so that a hydroelectric plant could be built in nearby Canada. Her other focus area this week will be on alternative energy solutions, as her students are involved in project-­based learning around battery technologies and the chemical changes that occur during the burning of fossil fuels.

Back to the talks….Kathy Jetnill­-Kjiner, a native of the Marshall Islands, who left the islands to attend college but returned to live and to write poetry, spoke quite intently about the need to act now, because her home is experiencing higher high tides and the resultant flooding from rising sea levels has flooded homes and the island hospital. Because the highest point on the islands is a mere 3 feet above sea level, the threat of climate change is real and immediate. This environmental threat comes after some of her fellow Marshallese were removed from the Bikini Atoll so that the U.S. could use it as a test site for nuclear bombs. In a wistful tone, she wondered why they were being impacted again by the big outside world when they are such a small part of it. Later, Kathy read her poem “2 Degrees” that touches on the future of her young daughter and the future of her Marshall Islands.

The second activist, Mina Setra, from Indonesia, earnestly commented that we (Micronesians) are “fighting for our survival; why aren’t we being heard?” Finally, the crowd was introduced to a Papua New Guinea tribal chief who came in his native dress. If personality is important in his role as chief, his people chose well! He began his remarks by saying “I am a bridge ­– a bridge between your world and my world.” This powerful visual image could also be applied to those of us alive today, as we are bridges between today’s world and the world of future generations. The chief went on to say that “his people should have listened to their ancestors’ prophecies about the future” and described his rainforests as a place where “the clouds do not come anymore.” Because of that, “the water, the source water, does not come, and it is becoming difficult to live.” Before presenting Robert Redford with a ceremonial forest ax, the chief said, “if we vanish, we vanish together.” Prophetic words for future generations!

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