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A VCU professor and student are visiting Pacific islands, exploring how they are adapting to the threat of climate change

“People are not planning for out-migration,” said Andrea Simonelli, an assistant professor of political science. “They are focused on preserving their way of life for as long as they can.”
Andrea Simonelli and Kaitlyn Novalski in the marshall islands

Right: Andrea Simonelli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, and political science major Kaitlyn Novalski are conducting research on how island nations are adapting to climate change.

Beautiful and remote nations Samoa, Kiribati, Vanuatu and the Marshall Islands are among the most threatened by climate change, with their citizens’ lives, culture and economies at risk. How are the local populations and their governments addressing the crisis? A Virginia Commonwealth University professor and an undergraduate VCU student are visiting a variety of islands in the Pacific to find out.

Andrea Simonelli, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, is conducting field research as part of a follow-up to her 2015 book, “Governing Climate Induced Migration and Displacement: IGO Expansion and Global Governance.”

“I am researching the interaction of governance, climate adaptation and human security,” said Simonelli, who is currently in the Marshall Islands and who studies governance, climate displacement, resilience, vulnerability, development and human security as they relate to small island developing states.

“Building off of my previous work in the Maldives, it became apparent that most locals had no intention to migrate due to climate impacts and that national responsiveness to local needs was hindering the Maldivians from flourishing,” Simonelli said. “I wanted to see if those concerns were the same in other climate vulnerable islands.”

Traveling with Simonelli is Kaitlyn Novalski, a senior VCU political science major who is working on an adjacent research project titled, “How Literalist Bible Interpretation Affects Understandings of Climate Change in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI).”

Novalski’s project is exploring whether fundamentalist Christianity — which is popular in the Marshall Islands — and its literal interpretations of certain Bible stories that are counter to climate change ideas, are counteracting communications about the dangers of climate change.

“For example, if you believe in God’s promise to Noah that the Earth would never be flooded again, then you may not really take sea level rise as a serious threat,” Simonelli said. “If so, secular climate communication is going to be ineffective where it may be needed the most to communicate risk.”

Documenting climate change

Novalski’s project grew out of a summer 2019 Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program project and a fall 2019 independent study project under Simonelli.

“During the summer months and the fall semester, Dr. Simonelli and I discovered that a tension exists surrounding the way in which the Marshallese understand climate change,” Novalski said. “The Marshallese are very religious and highly influenced by fundamentalist Christianity, which causes climate change effects such as sea level rise to be brushed off and sometimes even rejected through God's promise to Noah (Genesis 9:13-16) that he would never flood the Earth again.

“My main goal for this study is to gain a better understanding of the beliefs of Marshallese Christians, learn about how they define and experience climate change, and figure out if there is a relationship between their religious and environmental beliefs and their understanding of scientific climate change communication,” she said.

Simonelli and Novalski are documenting their island travels and research findings through two video series they’re posting on YouTube.

"People are not planning for out-migration. They are focused on preserving their way of life for as long as they can."

The idea to create a video series was inspired by students in Simonelli’s environmental security class in spring 2019. They suggested that short videos would provide viewers with a chance to see firsthand how islands are dealing with climate change, and understand the bigger context of the issue.

“I am still pretty self-conscious about it, but they iterated that they live in a world of videos rather than text, and I couldn’t disagree,” Simonelli said. “However, the learning curve was a bit steep with editing software and all.”

In her first video, before leaving VCU, Simonelli introduces herself and her research, and encourages viewers to follow along with her travels and use the hashtag #mylifeonislands.

“[My research] has taken me to some of the most remote and beautiful places on the planet, such as the Maldives, Tuvalu, Samoa and the Marshall Islands,” she says. “This channel is my opportunity to educate both you and my students about the environmental issues where I travel and to see it as I do.”

In one video, Simonelli visits a climate change restoration project in Samoa. In another, she visits a chocolate factory in Vanuatu, explaining how climate change is affecting the chocolate production industry, which makes up 25% of the island’s agriculture sector.

Simonelli and Novalski are producing a second video series, “VCU Pacific Semester,” focused on the challenges and opportunities of working in the field. In one video, they describe how they had to hike a mile-and-a-half in blistering heat and rain to buy expensive groceries. And in another, Novalski, having just learned to snorkel, and Simonelli get footage of fish and coral in a Samoan reef.

An ‘eye-opening experience’

So far, Simonelli said the fieldwork has reinforced her previous research. Her findings, she said, will likely inform a book highlighting how governance can help or hurt climate adaptation through building secure communities.

“As theorized, people are not planning for out-migration,” she said. “They are focused on preserving their way of life for as long as they can. As such, it is imperative that responsive democratic governance support this by finding ways to keep people safe and improve their human security outcomes in the face of increasing climate impacts.”

For Novalski, the experience so far has been “nothing short of incredible.”

“Like many other undergraduates at VCU, I am relying on student loans and part-time employment to pay my way through college, and never thought that it would be possible to have a study abroad experience,” she said. “I am very fortunate and privileged to be traveling with Dr. Simonelli, and she has been so generous and helpful in finding funding to bring me out to the Pacific.”

The trip was Novalski’s first time flying and leaving the United States. “I really jumped in the deep end for this trip,” she said.

a view of the ocean and beach in the Marshall Islands
Beautiful and remote nations, including the Marshall Islands, are among the most threatened by climate change. A VCU professor and an undergraduate student are visiting islands in the Pacific to find out how local populations and their governments are addressing the crisis.

So far, she said, she has met koalas and kangaroos, eaten Pacific delicacies such as taro chips, wahoo, and palusami, attended a traditional kava ceremony, participated in a Melanesian dance, observed the process of traditional Samoan tattooing, and even attended an event at the Japanese Embassy honoring former Emperor Hirohito.

“I've done these things and so many more, and it has been such an eye-opening experience for me both in terms of culture and education,” she said. “I’ve been assisting Dr. Simonelli with her current project by coming along to her meetings with researchers and government officials, driving around countries to gain a better understanding of the islands and their people, and attending cultural events to gain a deeper understanding of the values of Pacific islanders.”

“Finally,” she added, “I have been given the opportunity to further understand the privilege I have of being a white, middle-class, college-educated, able-bodied woman. This experience has made me much more aware of the privileges that I am afforded daily, and I hope to use these privileges to uplift the voices of the most marginalized populations and educate others about how they can do the same.”

Novalski’s research will serve as the basis for her senior thesis, and she plans to present it at the VCU Political Science Undergraduate Student Research Conference and co-author a paper with Simonelli that they will submit for publication in an academic journal.

“I’m also planning to apply to the Fulbright Scholar Program in the near future, which will hopefully give me a chance to continue my research in the Pacific,” she said.

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