In January, a group of Cornell University undergraduates travelled to the Mekong River Delta of Vietnam, a region of the world considered to be one of the most vulnerable to climate change. There they met with farmers, climate experts, government officials and their peers and learned about the ominous changes taking place in the Mekong that, ultimately, will impact us all.
The trip was part of course intended to help millennials better appreciate the interconnected and interdependent world they live in and to fully grasp what is ahead for Vietnam and for them – a grand challenge, on a grand scale. About the time these students turn 50, sea-level rise will have displaced an estimated million residents of the Mekong Delta.
Changes caused by rising sea levels are already flooding into the Mekong Delta, especially in the rural areas where Vietnam grows much of its food. Our group of Cornell students learned that rains now fall during what was once the dry season, interfering with seed set and reducing rice yields.
Increasing salt-water intrusion is forcing farmers to abandon rice altogether and switch to more salt-tolerant options such as shrimp production and crops such as coconut and watermelons. More groundwater is being used to dilute salty water for irrigation and drinking, which in turn results in land subsidence and exacerbated saltwater intrusion.
From this two-week journey to a country 8,000 miles from home and at the forefront of our greatest global challenge, the students gathered stories to tell and share with the world – because what is happening in Vietnam will be repeated globally.
One of the first things the students learned was that climate change is accepted as fact in Vietnam; it is not politicized, and is discussed freely. Messages to take home, “The Vietnamese people do not avoid talking about the changing climate; it’s happening in their own backyard,” said Conor McCabe, an animal science major, class of ‘18. “Climate change is definitely an uncomfortable topic since it has so many ramifications for society and the livelihoods of everyday people. Taking part in that difficult discussion, rather than shying away, is what I plan to do from now on,” said Becky Cardinali, an economics major, class of ’19.
These millennials also learned that despite the history of the Vietnam War and the role the U.S. now plays in exacerbating climate change, the Vietnamese people were extraordinarily welcoming: “I felt so embarrassed that I had contributed to the climate change that was destroying their livelihoods. How did they repay me? By inviting me into their homes for tea. They did not hate us, in fact they were extremely welcoming, hopeful and forward looking,” said Marc Alessi an up-and-coming meteorologist, class of ‘18.
One of the more salient moments during their visit occurred when students heard a Vietnamese government official explain that the evidence for climate change and its cause is well established, and for them, it is not a hoax. As the students observed, climate change is not a hoax for the rest of the world, nor is it a distant, future threat: “My time in the Mekong Delta served as a reminder that, for many, climate change is immediate,” said Gail Fletcher, majoring in history and government, class of ’17.
In 2016 the United States and Vietnam, along with nearly every other country on the planet, signed the Paris Agreement on climate change committing them all to a goal of keeping temperature rise to below 20C, maybe 1.5. Eerily, the Peace Accords that ended the longest war in American history were also signed in Paris. A war that cost the lives of 58,000 U.S. troops, many the same age as today’s Cornell students.
“Setting all other issues aside, the Paris Agreement must be backed by all signatories. The bond that can heal troubled relationships between countries can be a shared concern for the future of this planet.
Otherwise, as Earth continues to warm and food becomes more scarce, driving up prices, tensions among countries are only going to rise and result in more conflict, more wars. Regardless of your personal, religious or cultural beliefs, the Earth is going to keep on warming. And it is already happening in real life and is impacting real people. Ladies and gentlemen, it is 2017: time to wake up,” added Jeff Fralick, environmental science and sustainability major, class of ’18.
Climate change is not a hoax to these millennials, members of one of the largest voter-eligible blocks in the U.S. — nearly 1 in 3. It is deadly serious and an issue that just might arouse this sleeping giant. It is their future and yours.
Mike Hoffmann is Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Faculty Fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology. See also his TEDx Talk, Climate Change: It’s time to raise our voices.
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