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December 8, 2015 | “The Beginning of Us, Rising” — Storytelling for Climate Change

A new voice emerged at COP for the low-lying island nations subject to the immediate effects of climate change, and it’s 18-year-old Aussie-Filipino poet Eunice Andrada.

The teenager is one of a team of four poets who travelled to Paris for COP21 from the islands of Samoa, the Philippines, the Marshall Islands, and Guam to tell their nations’ stories of climate change in a voice that may speak louder than delegations, legal jargon, and policy positions can. 

On Monday, December 7, Andrada opened the day at Earth to Paris, a side event held at Le Petit Palais accompanying the negotiations happening at the Conference of Parties across town, with her poem “Pacific Salt.” She was followed by such noteworthy speakers as billionaire investor Tom Steyer, Secretary of State John Kerry, Governor of California Jerry Brown, biologist and UN Secretary for Peace Jane Goodall, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Andrada’s poem won her a trip to COP21 earlier this fall, when she was one of four winners selected to receive the global Spoken Word for the World award. The competition called for poems from spoken word artists all over the world who could most compellingly tell the stories of how climate change impacts their daily lives.

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Eunice Andrade (L) and Caroline Saunders (R)

“Pacific Salt” focuses on the increasingly intense “monster” storms generated by climate change that impact her home country of the Philippines in cycles of devastation, displacement, aid, and further devastation.

These smaller island nations, because of their low populations and comparatively weak economic power, tend to get less of a say in these kinds of international negotiations. But Andrada and the team of poets aims to augment this historically small voice by rendering the struggles low-lying islands face in more relatable, emotional terms — in her words, “to ground the conversation about climate change in the human story.”

In “Pacific Salt,” what happens when a hurricane strikes an island is not impersonal “collateral damage for a business deal,” as the logic of politics and business might have you think, but rather “the ocean spit[ting] out another hometown.”

Using emotionally charged language like Andrada does is the forte of all creative writers, but the skill is particularly honed by spoken word poets, who master the performative aspect of writing in addition to the written word.

In the context of an international conference on the urgency of climate change and the energy transition, one has to ask — what is the value of creative writing and performance at the negotiating table, and what can the world’s leaders learn from Eunice Andrada?

Well, let’s imagine for a moment that President Obama or Chinese President Xi Jinping broke out into a few lines of Andrada’s poem, and cried, “How can you see the sky and not admit the decay?/ This world isn’t a race to turn away from the ruins.”

It would seem out of place, right?

We expect from our world leaders a stoic temperament, but the time has come for a sea change.

When it comes to communicating scientific information — or any information, for that matter — those being preached to must be told why it affects their daily lives. Values-change and subsequent behavioral change can only occur when an issue is made emotionally pertinent to the audience. As Andrada explained it to me, “It’s important for poets and artists to cut through that dense language that not everyone can relate to.”

But does rhetoric really matter within the context of mobilizing masses? Just ask the Republican Party in the United States. They’ve been effectively capitalizing on the power of rhetoric for years.

Moving forward after Paris, what we need from Obama, Jinping, Hollande, Modi, and Ban Ki-moon is a discussion of climate change and its ramifications inflected with unprecedented passion. Telling “the human story” is the best way to engage people who aren’t directly affected by — and thus may not appreciate the urgency of — climate change.

And Eunice Andrada’s poem was a perfect place to start. She ended her poem, looking up at the audience and taking a breath:

“Let us not say there is nothing we could have done. Let this be the beginning of us rising.”

You can watch Eunice perform her poem written exclusively for COP21 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5CTZjl5hWg

Caroline Saunders is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Caroline is a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, studying Creative Writing and Environmental Studies.