Activist helps indigenous communities adapt to changing climate

Activist helps indigenous communities adapt to changing climate

Survivor’s granddaughter pursues a personal commitment to human rights

Victoria Herrmann looks out over a bleak Arctic seascape.
Victoria Herrmann looks out over a bleak Arctic seascape.

Growing up in Paramus, Victoria Herrmann heard a lot of stories from her grandfather, Fair Lawn’s Siegfried Herrmann.

“He would tell me stories about his time in the camps,” she said; Mr. Herrmann was imprisoned at Auschwitz. This time of year, she thinks particularly of his story about how inmates used peanut shells for a Chanukah menorah.

What the 27-year-old — now an accomplished climate researcher and the founder and director of the Arctic Institute — had not known about her grandfather, she learned from his three-hour interview for the Shoah Foundation’s oral history project. “There were a lot of details he had spared me,” she said.

But there was more. She learned her grandfather’s deepest thoughts about what he considered most important from that interview. His experiences, and these reflections, helped guide the younger Herrmann into her future career.

“A lot of my initial inspiration came from my grandparents’ experience in the Holocaust,” she said, noting that her grandmother, Ann Herrmann, who had been sent to England on a Kindertransport, was the sole survivor of her extended family. “When I was an undergraduate, I decided to major in international relations,” Ms. Herrmann said. Her ultimate goal “was to work in human rights, to make sure that within the international arena, minorities weren’t being hurt.”

As she got deeper into her studies, Ms. Herrmann found that “one of the biggest injustices was climate change, so I continued that work in my master’s. I went to Canada on a Fulbright scholarship and continued to study international affairs but concentrated on indigenous rights, particularly how they fit into climate change policy and negotiations.”

At the time, she said, Canada’s prime minister was “less inclined to act than the current prime minister, something our own country is facing now.” Her focus, she said, was on how minority groups, particularly native groups, could have their voices heard.

Ms. Herrmann’s biography is a bit intimidating. As president and managing director of the Arctic Institute, her research and writing focus on climate change, community adaptation, human development, and resource economies, with a particular focus on Arctic oil and gas. In addition, she is a Gates Scholar at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, where she is working toward a Ph.D. in the political geography of the Arctic.

In 2016, she traveled across the United States for a National Geographic-funded book on climate change stories, “America’s Eroding Edges.” Before that, she worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Energy and Climate Program as a junior fellow and was awarded a Eureka! prize from the Baker Institute for Entrepreneurship in 2012 and a Fulbright Scholarship to Canada to pursue Arctic research in 2013. She is the author of “Arctic Melt: Turning Resource Extraction into Human Development,” published in 2015, and has been published in many peer-review journals and quoted widely in the media.

Ms. Herrmann, who grew up in Paramus — her parents are Marc and Patty Herrmann — holds a master’s degree from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and art history from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. (And remember, she’s not even 30.)

Ms. Herrmann notes that indigenous groups are unique victims of climate change.

According to this remarkable young woman, there are four main reasons why indigenous groups “face a bigger injustice in the climate equation.”

The first is culture. “They live much closer to the land, and have a stronger spiritual connection to the landscape around them,” she said. This tie extends both back and forward in time, she added, equating the concept to the Jewish understanding of l’dor va-dor, from generation to generation. The indigenous peoples use the same land for fishing and hunting as well as for spiritual and ritual concerns, “something city residents cannot understand.”

The second reason is economic. Faced with quick-onset natural disasters, for which “you need a lot of money to prepare for and rebound from something that destroys everything,” these communities have particularly high unemployment rates, “with 30 percent living under the poverty line, many of them children. There is little ability to rebound.”

The third reason is political. “It is very difficult for these communities to have their voices heard in the political process,” she said. “There’s not a huge lobby for ensuring that American Indians or Alaskan native communities are included in any way.” So, effectively, “they get lost.”

The fourth reason is geography. Many indigenous communities live in remote areas, so “They’re ecologically more vulnerable,” Ms. Herrmann said. “In the Arctic, we’re witnessing warming at twice the rate of the global average. The more immediate effect is that ice that was there for their ancestors is too thin to hunt on and the ground they built houses on is beginning to fall.”

Her first job out of college was working on the impact of climate change on cities, she said. “But I began to realize that while cities are very important to the solution, the most immediate needs are in more remote places.” She noted that when people think of the Arctic regions, they picture an environment. “Pictures of ice melting and polar bears is what captures people’s imagination and emotion, but it doesn’t factor in the communities on the edges of the ice. There are more extreme storms, and ice can’t buffer the waves. There are also fewer bears to hunt.”

So Ms. Herrmann “jumped ship” and used her Fulbright grant to focus on the Arctic, “to explore the gaps and see what was needed.” Then, with help from National Geographic, she began to visit American coastline communities across the country, “interviewing 300 local leaders about what was needed to adapt to climate change.”

If, for political reasons, she could not always use the term “climate change,” she still found a lot of commonality in the needs of the various communities. “One of the biggest responses we heard was that people don’t have the basic resources to know what to prioritize. They don’t have time or money.”

Her next project, set to begin in January, “is building a platform where pro bono work, with professional organizations and other associations, will provide that assistance to community leaders.” Given the current political situation, “the federal resources won’t be there,” she said. “But the hope is that as a short-term fix, the 2018 project will provide more immediate assistance, expertise, guidance, and resources for the communities to adapt.”

The work will be done with the help of the JM Kaplan Fund’s Innovation Prize for “Rising Tides,” which, says the organization, “will create a new online matchmaking platform that connects pro bono experts with climate-affected communities. Ultimately … Rising Tides will help communities adapt their important sites and places in response to quick and slow onset disasters related to climate change.”

Ms. Herrmann on her Arctic travels.

The Arctic Institute — a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit incorporated in 2016 — looks at the many security issues the Arctic region faces. Composed of researchers who meet with government decision makers to relay their findings, it also runs workshops and does “community-oriented capacity-building work.” For example, Ms. Herrmann said, it recently ran a workshop on renewable energy in northern Canada. Given that community’s remote location, it pays twice as much for diesel fuel as do communities in the continental United States.

“We work across the Arctic region, but not in Russia,” Ms. Herrmann said. Work is done in Canada, Alaska, Norway — where the institute holds an annual conference — Greenland, and Denmark. The group’s funding comes from grants, with some money coming from the Canadian government and from partnerships with universities, many in Norway.

Ms. Herrmann said that “today, in the U.S., there’s a lot of divisiveness and people not seeing eye to eye, not talking.” But, she said, “We can come together on issues of safety, as the world is changing at a rapid place.” Working with different community leaders, “I get a real appreciation for different ways of knowing the world.” But all community leaders, she said, are committed to keeping their communities safe from such dangers as flooding and erosion.

At the end of the day, “It’s all about climate adaptation. Making a community safer, you don’t need to believe in manmade climate change.” Her job is to help keep things moving “without entering into a debate on what causes climate change.”

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