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Climate change and culture wars

Photo by Alson Kelen


Microwaves By Jack Niedenthal  

Majuro—When I was a young boy growing up in Pennsylvania, I had a beagle named Bébé. She slept with me, head on pillow, and faithfully stationed herself beneath the dinner table each night where I would feed her a constant stream of all the food I didn’t care for as a kid: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, string beans, slices of pizza with healthy toppings and meatloaf. She gobbled them all up and made me appear as if I had eaten a well-balanced meal with no one the wiser. 


Bébé was a hunting dog with fine-tuned senses. Whenever a summer thunderstorm moved into the area, she would crawl into the corner of the room, curl up and cower in fear well in advance of the onset of nature’s chaos. Animals have these highly developed senses. They can “feel” weather events before they are even seen. This form of “animal sensory instinct” is why I believe climate change is becoming more responsible for the recent worldwide intensification and upheaval of human-cultural divisions.

There are a few basic stances when it comes to the ever-expanding debate over the impact of climate change. There are the all-out climate change deniers. There are the climate change believers, though some of whom, for whatever reason, assume that there is absolutely nothing one can do about it. Then there are the climate change believers who are working to find solutions to the issue because they believe our future can be salvaged if the right steps are urgently taken to save the planet.  

Regardless of the climate-change-belief category one falls into, their commonality is that they are all “feeling” that nature is rapidly changing whether they admit to this happening or not. Even if one chooses to ignore or disregard the news of more frequent inundations from the seas, the extended droughts and heat waves, the violent tornados, the massive forest fires, the powerful hurricanes, etc., one sees them and senses that these events now occurring all around us are beyond what were once considered normal weather patterns. 

These impressions, whether consciously awakened to them or not, are starting to throw humanity into two philosophically opposed camps that seem to be growing more polarized as time passes. People who believe in hope and want to try to repair and preserve the earth for future generations, and people who believe that this is the beginning of the end of the world so one should grab for all the gusto that one can get, i.e., just get down and get ultra-greedy.  With this faction –in its extreme– it’s every man for himself, constitutions and laws and human decency be damned.


If you live in a country that at a high tide is only inches above sea level, and if there happens to be a full moon and strong, storm-driven winds that cause the ocean to roil and then to roll up over the land, you tend to fall into the “hope and fight” faction of humanity because you want to save your country and your cultural traditions from being wiped out forever by the sea, which is the group where I believe most Pacific Islanders fall. None of us want our homelands to disappear, though some of us have begun to lose hope.

Meanwhile, we watch the larger nations, like the U.S., where you see “culture wars.” These are not battles between different cultures and beliefs. Rather, they are subliminal, polar-opposite, edgy human reactions to climate change that have pushed their belief systems into greed-gouging hyperdrive that makes them want to get more “stuff” before the family farm gets sucked up into a massive whirlwind.

These outward and/or subliminal reactions to climate change in turn intensify radical, and at times dehumanizing, responses: racism and prejudicial behavior against those of us who are considered “different,” representing a form of hatred for others who are associated with unimpeded greed leading to extreme political –and at times religious– polarization. All of this makes for the exacerbation of the always-present underlying divisions within societies all over the world. 

People who are motivated by greed tend to rely on over-aggression. For them, tomorrow doesn’t matter, meaning laws and cultural restrictions have for the most part lost their relevance. If such an attitude spreads, society would descend into cultural anarchy. Those who find themselves in the camp of hope often have a hard time matching the energy and the determination from the other side. To fight this attitude, however, it can sometimes only take a “fiery few” to join the cause and then the struggle becomes a serious contest.

On the side of hope is that of “necessity being the mother of invention,” which drives scientific and cultural innovations that could potentially outpace and overcome the quickening deterioration of the planet.

In any newsfeed you can read the daily articles that trumpet discoveries of hope in the form of new medicines, vaccines and cures and potentially innovative climate change solutions and possibilities but the encouraging news scrolls along with the reports of horrific forms of unabated, unchecked, blatant corruption and violent events throughout the various countries of the world.

Climate change-induced greed leads to unabashed corruption (grab what you can, while you can) and thus becomes extremely dangerous and costly, especially for smaller countries and communities.

It is imperative that the current escalating attitudes of greed in the Pacific region be counterbalanced and kept in check because once they overwhelm a government, recovery is almost impossible in a short timeline, so most of the people suffer. Rebuilding reputations and financial stability once a government has been crushed by blatant corruption and the squandering of financial assets can take years if not decades to repair because the effort involves a ton of longer-term fiscal disciplines that many key decision-making individuals in our island governments simply don’t have. 

Most people living in small island nation environments already have a hard time conserving financial assets for the future because of the constant pressure of traditional extended family survival responsibilities, making any attempt to “save for a rainy day” almost impossible.  What I am saying is:  We need to be more careful with what we do with what we have now.

The best and time-tested way to preserve financial assets in our islands is by constantly making pertinent financial information available to members of our government, social organizations and to the public in general via the media. One might say that this is already being done, I maintain that it is not being done enough.  

When people understand how their precious financial resources are being deployed, they can take more of an overseer role in their management so that a stable future can be preserved and hoped for. It also makes government more resilient when, and if, the climate change storms do approach and send us all, finally, cowering into our corners.  

RIP Bébé, I hope they are feeding you well in heaven.

Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of Health Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 42 years. He is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini,” and president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to

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