How do people deal with the real threat that their homeland might become uninhabitable within their lifetimes due to rising sea levels? David Krzesni, a Wilfrid Laurier University PhD candidate in community psychology, is working to find out.
Krzesni received a prestigious Early Career Grant from the National Geographic Society to conduct research in the Marshall Islands, a collection of low-lying islands in the central Pacific Ocean between Hawaii and the Philippines.
Problems could begin in the Marshall Islands well before rising sea levels literally put the islands underwater. Higher waves might make inland water too salty to drink. More frequent storms might make it uneconomical to rebuild and recover before the next major storm hits.
“The Marshallese are among the first people in the world facing the possibility of having to evacuate the whole country,” says Krzesni. “Naturally, the government would prefer to make it possible for people to continue living there.”
Krzesni says some people are already adapting by building their houses on stilts or pontoons. Keeping the islands habitable, however, would likely involve complex, expensive infrastructure projects – not easy in a country of 1,156 islands and islets with a population of just over 50,000, though not all of the islands are inhabited.
Many Marshallese have already left for a variety of reasons, largely for the United States. The Marshall Islands are a United States associated state and a treaty allows its citizens to live and work in the U.S. without visas. There are more than 22,000 Marshallese Americans, largely in Arkansas and Hawaii.
Krzesni, who is originally from California, left for the Marshall Islands in July. While he had not previously been to the islands, he feels a sense of responsibility to make a positive impact.
“During the Second World War, the Marshall Islands, along with some other Pacific islands, were occupied by the United States, which carried out nuclear weapons testing there,” says Krzesni. “People were displaced, which disrupted the culture and changed lifestyles and the economy. Some people suffered physical effects from the radiation. Also, the U.S. contributes so much to climate change, which is changing lives there now. I feel like as an American I need to do something.”
While Krzesni holds a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, he has long been interested in environmental issues. That interest led him to complete a master’s degree in education, focusing on environmental education. His master’s thesis led to a book, titled Pedagogy for Restoration: Addressing Social and Ecological Degradation through Education.
After working in health promotion and outdoor education, Krzesni became a math teacher at Yakama Nation Tribal School, a high school run by the Yakima Nation in Washington State. In addition to teaching algebra, geometry and practical skills such as managing finances, he started a food pantry and spearheaded the installation of solar hot water heaters. But Krzesni felt it wasn’t enough – he wanted to concentrate more on social justice and environmental issues.
“My grandmother was in a concentration camp and plenty of my family members died in the Second World War, but I was fortunate enough to have been born in the United States, where I was given a lot of opportunities other people don’t have,” says Krzesni. “I feel that those privileges come with responsibility.”
That sense of responsibility, which for Krzesni is associated with his Jewish faith, helped lead him to pursue a doctorate in community psychology and ultimately to think about how climate change might be exacerbating social issues and what can be done about it. He plans to spend approximately a year researching just that in the Marshall Islands.
After the long and complex journey to the islands, Krzesni spent time getting to know the community through volunteer work and time with local residents. He plans to hold consultations that will shape his work, with a goal to interview community members about their desires and aspirations, ranging from improvements to their day-to-day lives to big life decisions such as whether to migrate. Krzesni’s research supervisor is Laurier Assistant Professor Simon Coulombe.
“I want to understand what people are trying to achieve, why it’s meaningful, what’s in the way and what are the factors supporting them,” says Krzesni. “That will inform the next steps, which will be more action-oriented.”
Depending on community members’ goals and interests, those next steps might be policy-oriented – working with local leaders on climate adaptation, for example – or project-based, such as a video or photovoice project featuring community members using digital arts to express what’s important to them. Exhibiting materials online would help get islanders’ stories out to the world.
Krzesni is also in contact with the International Organization for Migration, a UN agency. He wants to help inform the organization’s policies and practices with a deeper understanding of the goals and aspirations of potential climate migrants, as well as those who would rather stay. This is of critical importance because the Compact of Free Association, which gives Marshall Islanders a migration pathway to the United States, expires in 2023.
– David Krzesni
“I don’t want to make a determination about whether people should stay or go,” says Krzesni. “So much of Marshallese history, identity and culture is tied to the place they live. As individuals, though, there are people who want to leave for reasons such as education, job opportunities and health care. Climate change is exacerbating challenges in all those areas.
“I’m hoping my dissertation project will contribute to informing policy internationally and at the local level, as well as help people tell their stories so they can be better supported in what they want and need.”