After Climate Symposium, Faculty Plans Ahead

Jackie McDermott, Sports Editor

Oberlin’s inaugural Global Issues Symposium was organized by the International Studies Concentration around the theme of “Climate Change Consequences: Disruption, Migration and the Development of Resilient Communities” this year.

The symposium brought together scholars, scientists and activists to discuss climate change and shine a light on the often ignored perspectives of indigenous communities.

Across the three days of panels and other sessions, faculty, staff, students and community members discussed with experts how indigenous populations are contributing to the fight against climate change, despite being marginalized in the conversation.

“An objective of the symposium is to bring to the table voices of people who are not typically engaged or featured in debates around global issues, people whose voices have to be heard,” said Kristina Mani, committee chair of the International Studies Concentration.

Keynote speaker Dr. Igor Krupnik, the Smithsonian Institute’s curator of Arctic and Northern Ethnology collections, delivered “Living on the Changing Planet: Why Indigenous Voices Matter for Debates on Climate Change,” which encouraged scientific and geo-political communities to collaborate more with native peoples.

During the talk, Krupnik explained that indigenous groups living in some of the planet’s most extreme climates have been contending with the issues of climate change and migration for centuries. However, because conversations on climate change occur between government bodies that often do not consider the indigenous groups included in their populations, native peoples are rarely brought to the table to weigh in on the issues.

“We invited Dr. Krupnik as the keynote speaker for the inaugural Global Issues Symposium because of his long-term experience of working in the circumpolar region collaborating with indigenous peoples on climate change and traditional knowledge,” Chie Sakakibara, an assistant professor of Environmental Studies, wrote in an email to the Review. “Research on the human dimensions of global climate change should consider the way populations that are at risk confront uncertainty through cultural practices.”

The symposium also featured two more guests who work in different fields to handle climate change and promote environmental justice.

Caroline Cannon, an Inupiat leader, participated in the panel “Resilience at the Local Level: Environmental Attitude and Knowledge in Indigenous Communities.” Cannon, who is a long-time environmental activist working to prevent drilling in the Arctic seas, shared her deep traditional knowledge of the Arctic environment with attendees.

Students taking the Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change course — taught by Sakakibara, who researches climate issues in the Alaskan Arctic — had the opportunity to present their research at a poster session with the three guest experts. The students presented on projects related to indigenous populations and the experts offered them constructive criticism and guidance for further research. The speakers also visited Environment and Society, Introduction to International Politics and International Law classes.

“The 20 students who participated in the poster session are currently in my class titled Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change,” said Sakakibara. “This class has developed in conjunction with the symposium planning. There were five posters prepared by my students under themes such as Loss of Home, Dislocations of Cultural Identity; Expressive Culture, Cultural Resilience & Gender; Traditional Knowledge, Scientific Knowledge & Indigenous Experience; Food, Agriculture and Climate Change in Native North America; and Indigenous Responses to Environmental Change in Latin America.”

Mani said that she hopes to create a “linkage” connecting what students are learning in their classrooms to the symposium events so that they can get more out of discussions with experts currently working to solve real-world problems.

The symposium has been in the works for years, as the faculty of the International Studies Concentration sought funding for an integrated “Global Scholars” program to provide students with practical experience through a Global Issues Symposium and an International Summer Fellowship. The program recently received pilot funding from the Isenberg Family Charitable Foundation to host the symposium and the fellowship for another four years. The fellowship opportunity was first offered last summer.

The planning process for this year’s symposium began with a brainstorming session last fall. Dozens of faculty attended the session, became involved with planning and helped shape the symposium’s theme.

“The theme became oriented to the resilience of local communities in response to climate change,” Mani said. “Because we have a number of faculty on campus who are working on important issues from an indigenous or native peoples perspective — in Anthropology and in Environmental Studies and in other departments — there [are] … knowledgeable populations who have been excluded from all kinds of debates, but certainly from [debates about] climate change, that could bring us all to a better understanding of what climate change really looks like on a global scale.”

Planning has already begun for next year’s symposium. Mani said the committee plans to continue focusing on environmental issues next year, but that the symposium will also cover how gender rights and identities influence the ways people respond to and harm the environment. The next time around, Mani also hopes to spotlight a different region of the globe, like the Caribbean or sub-Saharan Africa.