Research Project

The Sea is Rising

Narrating Climate Change in the Pacific Islands

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Research Project

The Sea is Rising: Narrating Climate Change in the Pacific Islands

Twenty years ago, the Tongan anthropologist Epeli Ha‘ofa published his deeply influential essay “Our Sea of Islands,” arguing that the legacies of colonial belittlement that render the Pacific as “islands in a far sea” need to be replaced with a more accurate and world-enlarging view. Instead, he argued, we must recognize the primacy of the largest ocean on the planet which facilitated both the legacies of Pacific voyaging as well as contemporary circuits of globalization, rendering the region as “a sea of islands” better known as Oceania. Hau‘ofa’s work made a tremendous contribution to the fields of indigenous, cultural and literary studies of the region. While Hau‘ofa was concerned with the ecological health of the ocean, he could not have foreseen the ways in which climate change, particularly sea-level rising, has transformed islands that are in fact threatened by the expansion of the sea, faced with a new era of what has increasingly been termed “carbon colonialism.” The dramatic changes to the geographies of low-lying atolls in the Pacific have generated an unprecedented body of cultural narratives that are translating the urgency of climate change mitigation to a global audience. My project will explore the rise in documentaries and arts that are visualizing the challenges faced by island communities such as Tokelau, Tuvalu and Kiribati as they adapt and, increasingly, migrate in response to the erosion and salinization of their lands, and raise questions as to the possible narrative differences between these texts and the production of climate change discourse in the global north.

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