Honors College students host climate change film screening and panel discussion

Dr. Dana Dolan’s HNRS 230 students are taking environmental stewardship to the next level.

On Wednesday, April 24th, Dr. Dolan’s students hosted “When the Ice Melts,” an Earth Month event that the class developed and implemented from scratch.  The event featured a screening of the Thule-Tuvalu documentary, followed by an engaging panel discussion with Virginia political officials and GMU climate experts.

Dr. Dolan challenges students in her course, entitled “Climate Change Adaptation: Challenges and Opportunities for Public Policy,” to enrich their learning through community engagement activities.  Between the eye-opening, heart-wrenching Thule-Tuvalu film and the compelling debrief between experts and attendees, this student-led event reflects the kind of community engagement initiatives that Honors College students pursue. 

Thule-Tuvalu is a 2014 documentary that highlights how climate change is affecting communities living on opposite sides of the world.  The film follows two narratives, bringing viewers to contrasting regions of the planet: Tuvalu, a tropical, South Pacific island nation, and the Greenland community of Thule, the northernmost area inhabited by humans.

The film showed that seemingly opposite communities share something in common: the sobering realities of climate change impacts.

“[Tuvalu] used to be full of trees, now we can paddle canoes here,” explained a Tuvaluan villager during the film.  Tuvalu is recognized worldwide as the nation most affected by climate change, with increasing floods devastating Tuvaluan homes, food security and community health.  The island nation, which consists exclusively of coral reefs, faces worsening damage from droughts and sea level rise alike.

“We don’t want to disappear from the earth,” tells a Tuvaluan official to international peers in a conference featured in Thule-Tuvalu. “We have the fundamental right to exist alongside you.”

Halfway around the world, Thule faces different yet equally alarming impacts.  A small coastal community in the upper edge of the Greenland ice sheet, Thule has long relied on animal migration patterns for food sustenance.  But increasing warm currents are driving ecosystems to adjust their migratory behavior, affecting food security for people across the region.

“The animals are not here when they’re supposed to be here,” explains a hunter and fisherman from Thule. “When the animals adapt, we [have to] adapt.”

The Thule-Tuvalu screening illustrated the chilling effects of climate change on developing countries relative to developed countries.  After the film, panelists and audience members discussed how policymakers, community leaders and individuals are adapting to climate change impacts.

Panelists included: Dr. Andrew Light, a GMU University Professor and Director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy; Dr. James Kinter, the Director of the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies (COLA); Ali Rezaie, a GMU doctoral student focused on integrating science and policy; Loudon County Delegate David Reid; and Fairfax County Delegate Paul Krizek.

Dr. Light, renowned for his expertise on the intersection between scientific and normative dimensions of environmental policy, posed a serious question: “When a country disappears, where do those people go?”  He discussed the positives and limitations of policies that are evolving to protect communities that are more immediately impacted by climate change.

“There is a refusal to incorporate climate change in long-term planning,” said Dr. Light.  In other words, current and future policies need to account for long-term climate adaptation scenarios, rather than focusing solely on short-term solutions.

Ali Rezaie, a visiting scholar at Resources for the Future, pointed out the importance of prioritizing flood protection. “We are seeing that saving and preserving flood areas saves millions in flood damage,” said Rezaie, encouraging the audience to support policies for building infrastructure to protect coastal communities.

The panelists focused much of their discussion on state-level responses, pointing out ways that Virginia and local municipalities can strengthen resilience to inevitable impacts.  “Climate change knows no border,” explained Delegate Reid, emphasizing that climate change affects everyone to various degrees. “We can do a lot of things here to affect change in Virginia.”

“I enjoyed hearing the panelists’ perspectives,” said GMU senior Veronica Hays. “Their unique insights really put climate change into perspective for me as a Virginian.”

Hays also reflected positively on the Thule-Tuvalu documentary.  “These are real people who are being impacted by climate change,” said Hays, inspired to find solutions that help protect impacted communities. “It’s interesting to imagine yourself in their shoes.”

“When the Ice Melts” reflects just one of many events that Honors College students bring to life to supplement their learning.  Students who need HNRS 260 credit can enroll in Dr. Dolan’s course, a semester-long journey in understanding our roles and responsibilities as citizens resisting a changing climate.

Original reporting by Jimmy O'Hara