How a Word Could Save the Earth

Read this.

Read the next sentence out loud.

“What difference can a word make?”

Did anyone hear you say this aloud, or were you speaking in a room to yourself? Consider what you have just asked yourself. Whether a word, a tonal click, or perhaps even a motion in sign language, you just called for an attention of sorts by speaking.

Regardless of how it was said, loud or soft, alone or to a million people, you just made noise. And whether or not you have been understood by those around you, at a basic level, you have now been heard.

Now let’s take a minute and think about all the things that go unheard but occur every day, largely unbeknownst to a listening world— earthworms wiggling; sunrise and sunset; sap dripping; dew forming; chloroform seeping different colors; vegetables growing; clouds collecting. None of these entities have voices or sounds, but the continue to move and create while being affected by our actions. In regards to mass actions that cause global events, consider climate change. Though this is a global issue with worldwide consequences, physical nature and its creatures (including human beings) will not be affected uniformly.

Taking this into consideration, what about those who do have voices, but they are muffled? One filter that gets placed on voices around the globe comes from policy related to climate change with the biggest problem being… there aren’t very many policies. For the first time, it is finally starting to be undisputedly acknowledged around the world that climate change is even occurring—at least we are moving the right direction.

It is critical to note that the impact of climate change will vary in depth and rate depending on the continent, country, or region, with different locations or peoples being more affected than others. The ability for such places and groups to mitigate against the changes can vary to an ever greater extent depending on the amount of damage or shift and the resources available to them. For example, coastal areas are currently in much greater risk than land-locked areas.

Vulnerability Coastal Deltas

Vulnerability Coastal Deltas, IPCC.

For countries closer to the equator, such as many of those in Southeast Asia, coastal cities are in the greatest danger of sea level rise and coastal deterioration, especially at a time in history in which urban populations have skyrocketed compared to their rural counterparts. According to a recent study by the World Bank, fifteen of the world’s 20 ‘megacities’ are highly sensitive to sea level rise and increased coastal storm surges. In Vietnam alone the study estimates that at least a quarter of the population in Ho Chi Minh is already affected by extreme storms with the potential in the next 30 years for this number to increase to sixty percent. Vietnam’s neighboring Thailand, home to over 65 million people, is facing similar issues. Bangkok is a vital business entity on the global stage and also houses around 15% of Thailand’s population.

Southeast Asia, an area of the world whose languages are severely underrepresented in the American education system, is particularly affected by melting Asia glaciers that are melting faster than ever historically documented with the consequence of an extreme decrease of freshwater availability. Delta areas in the region are heavily populated, in Thailand specifically with rice farmers who are the largest exporters of the global rice supply— agriculture accounts for the employment of 50% of Thailand’s population and 10% of its GDP. Changes in the hydrological cycle due to climate change have severe implications not only for the agriculture in Thailand, but for the global food supply and the extent of global poverty.

And yet, Southeast Asia as a region produces very little of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions; Thailand only accounts for .8% of the world carbon dioxide emissions. Despite this small amount, in 2007 Thailand created an Action Plan on Global Warming Mitigation that was recently replaced by the Bangkok Action Plan, a city-based leadership approach. What Thailand’s ‘pro-activism’ on the climate change front cannot change though is its extreme sensitivity to the effects of climate change, such as likely higher temperatures, floods, droughts, storm surges, and sea level rise. Given that even a one degree global temperature shift could devastate rice crops in Thailand, much is at stake. But what is to be done?

There is some good news­— 2014 showed a growth in the percentage of American undergraduates studying abroad in Thailand, with other more seriously threatened countries in Latin American and Asia being more represented as well. This small change may perhaps be representative of an change in attitude towards our global perspective, one that includes more narratives in history and the future. Elevating the voices of those in need of a critical adaptation shift is a first step.

Here at SLE we challenge you to learn one word today in another language (Thai or otherwise) as a first step to begin a dialogue around our future as a global society. As Ludwig Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my languages are the limits of my world.” Expand your world a little bit this week. What could you do if you were able to speak to citizens across the globe about issues that have very real effects on your own everyday?


Kirsten Craig

Kirsten Craig

Kirsten is a graduate student in Columbia University's Masters of Global Thought program. A lover of anything friend and everything sweet, she is passionate about the environment and the many ways our communication is intricately linked to its preservation.

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