How Climate Change Is Erasing The Past

The sun sets on Doha. (Photo: Abraham Puthoor, Flickr)

When Omar El Akkad returned to the playground where he snuck his first kiss as a teenager in Doha, Qatar, he was dismayed to find the swings and slides replaced with skyscrapers and hotels. But the rapid urban transformation of one of the richest countries on Earth reminded him of another kind of obliteration, a loss driven by his former country’s unnervingly rapid warming and its overpowering role as oil magnate—a role that may one day influence the fragmentation of millions of migrants’ own disjointed memories.

“Almost every immigrant’s relationship with the past has an element of quicksand to it,” El Akkad, a novelist who was born in Egypt, grew up in Qatar, left for Canada at 16, and now lives in Portland, Oregon, told Earther. “You just don’t get the privilege of a single unchanging story to lean back on, a single root system you know is going to be there.”

With climate change, there’s an added intangible uncertainty mixed in with the tangible, he added. It’s not just our changing landscapes or our potentially uninhabitable homelands at stake; it’s our histories, too. If we forget the past, forget what led us here to this moment, are we not, as philosopher and poet George Santayana once said, condemned to repeat the worst of times? Couldn’t an erasure of the past give way to more strategised denialism in the name of political or national gains? Would a melting away of history rip out the very foundation of a community’s roots?

Victoria Herrmann, managing director of The Arctic Institute, has witnessed this threat of erasure firsthand in the Arctic’s many indigenous rural communities.

“It’s a constant fear of losing who you are, of redefining who you can be if you’re no longer the seaside, traditional tribal village you’ve always been,” she told Earther.

In the absence of forced migration, individuals typically migrate for education, for jobs, for better lives. But “sometimes we forget that who we are is directly connected to landscape, the physical space and history embedded in that land, water and air,” Herrmann said. This is especially true among indigenous communities, many of whom have a spiritual and emotional connection to their physical environments.

When, for example, the shore-fast ice pathway connecting families in neighbouring Alaskan villages melts away, the cohesive fabric of everyday life and intergenerational life changing in real time, she said.

“It’s often about the things you can’t see,” Herrmann said about the impact of climate change on the fragmentation of our histories. When we return to the lands we used to know and no longer recognise, the grounding memories of hunting out on the ice with your father or your first kiss as a teenager feel like parts of a past life, memories you forgot to mourn.

“It doesn’t mean that there isn’t resilience in these communities or visions for how to survive,” Herrmann added. “But it also comes with trauma and grief. With an echo of intergenerational injustice.”

Outside of the Arctic region, which has lost 95 per cent of its oldest documented sea ice, Qatar is one of the fastest warming areas of the world It’s also a country where 88 per cent of the population is made up of migrant workers, many of whom reportedly experience exploitative and abusive treatment in return for the lure of comparably high wages made possible by the country’s oil economy. It’s not uncommon for individuals from neighbouring nations to immigrate to Qatar to support family back home.

And business there is booming. If Qatar were to turn off its natural gas and oil industry, said El Akkad, the country “would be immediately rendered economically and politically irrelevant.” And therein lies the primary clash in the environmental debate.

“Climate change poses a direct conflict between the short term interests of the most powerful people on earth versus the long term interests of everybody,” said El Akkad. In Qatar, where carbon emissions per capita are the highest in the world and three times as high as the U.S., that conflict is playing out right before our eyes.

The country’s fossil fuel exports are driving climate change, ramping up heat that’s making living there increasingly challenging. Extreme temperatures caused a disaster at the World Athletics Championships marathon held there earlier this year. To combat the unbearable heat for residents, which has consistently exceeded a blistering 115 degrees Fahrenheit in recent summer months, the fabulously rich country and leading exporter of liquefied natural gas has begun to air-condition the outdoors. The short-term solution to this longstanding, worsening affliction, as the Washington Post’s Steven Mufson points out, is being temporarily dealt with thanks to some inventive engineering and “gobs of money.”

When El Akkad left Qatar in 1998, he left amid the hottest summer in the country’s history at the time. The severe heat waves maxed out at 117 degrees Fahrenheit and were associated with the 1997-98 El Niño year. But outdoor air conditioners? There were no outdoor air conditioners.

Migrants like El Ekkad who have willingly left the lands they once called home often experience the grief of climate disruption and dissonance upon their temporary returns, but the millions still living in the most vulnerable regions of the world are forced to contend with more violent shocks to their sense of place and cultural memory as the climate crisis worsens.

In the poorest and most unprepared countries—places lacking Qatar’s technical and financial resources—where civilians are at highest risk of climate-induced migration, even a temporary, albeit expensive Band-Aid won’t suffice.

In 2018 alone, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre recorded 17.2 million new displacements associated with environmental disasters in 148 countries and territories. Drought alone displaced 764,000 people in Somalia, Afghanistan and several other countries.

In an ideal world, Herrmann said, resilient migration has a bottom-up vision and is supported by top-down funding. Indigenous communities most at risk would have a prominent voice in what their futures look like, and governing councils would help grant financial backing.

The small community of Shaktoolik, Alaska, home to about 260 people, is one example of such resilience-in-action in the face of uncertainty. In the past 100 years, the village has had to relocate twice due to flooding and storm surge. Its abandoned Old Site—just two miles from the new Shaktoolik—“is a reminder that there is a limit to even the most resilient community’s ability to adapt,” Herrmann highlighted for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

But despite inevitable chaos, city mayor Eugene Asicksik and other local leaders have been working with a long list of state and federal agencies and organisations to ensure the community remains at the head of the decision-making table.

Together, local and federal entities developed a “defend in place” adaptation plan to address Shaktoolik’s potential relocation and long-term strategies in a way the community understands and sees fit. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, by remaining unified and maintaining control, Shaktoolik has put itself in a better position to ensure higher quality of life and cultural preservation for the next generation. It could provide a template for other villages across the Arctic, which are facing similarly dramatic climate shifts that upend people’s livelihoods and histories.

But communities aren’t monoliths. And they’re certainly not always unified in opinion or place. When the Brazilian government egged on the deliberate destruction of the world’s largest rainforestin the name of commerce, members of the country’s Huni Kuin indigenous tribe, one of more than 300 groups who call the Brazilian Amazon home today, watched as their forest lit up in flames. The inferno was unusually intense during the 2019 dry season, which runs from August through February. Brazil has seen one of the biggest year over year increases in area burned under President Jair Bolsonaro.

The fires, intensified by nearby illegal logging and land-clearing, consequences of Bolsonaro’s his unrelenting promise to privatize the forest despite the needs of his indigenous constituents, disproportionately hurt the indigenous communities who depend on the forest to survive. According to Vice, Huni Kuin is the largest tribe in the state of Acre. Yet like the country’s other 422 demarcated indigenous territories, their land is not officially recognised. Many of the Huni Kuin have already been displaced, reducing their ability to defend their home and memories attached to it.

“There are all these layers of power dynamics that really complicate decisions about climate migration and adaptation strategies,” said Herrmann. “In any community where power isn’t shared in a just way, it’s often the most vulnerable and most targeted that feel it the most.”

When resilient migration policies aren’t put in place to defend, document, and preserve a community’s history, what happens when its last member leaves?

We will continue to kill one another as land and food become more scarce, as commercial profits are favoured at the expense of vulnerable populations and long-term environmental protection. But, El Akkad said, “we will kill one another over memory, too.”

After all, “a damaged relationship with the past is at the heart of so much of the violence we do to one another as a species.”

If there’s one thing we can do as individuals to try and preserve our histories from vanishing into quicksand, both Herrmann and El Akkad iterate, it’s this: Continue to tell our stories. And we can document our current reality in a way that feels true to our communities, whether that’s through poetry or woodwork or, as Herrmann’s family did, a three-hour YouTube video of her grandfather’s fragmented retelling of what it meant to be a survivor of Auschwitz. Or perhaps we could take a page from anthropologist Guilherme Meneses, who designed a video game to both preserve his Huni Kuin heritage and address its continuous transformation.

“We must find other anchors,” El Akkad wrote for LitHub in September. “Anchors that link memory to people, to relationships, to the solidarity and compassion and resistance that will serve as our only useful lifeboats in this storm.”

Fiza Pirani is an Atlanta-based writer, editor and founder of the immigrant mental health newsletter, Foreign BodiesTwitter.

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