When Max Webster ’12 fled his home on the gulf coast of Mississippi in the face of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 with only a change of clothes, he had no idea that he would next see his house on television, collapsed amid the wreckage of the natural disaster.
Webster presented his story Saturday at TEDx Nashville, an event where speakers across many fields share ideas about how to improve society, and explained how his experience led him to found a nonprofit organization last fall with other members of his Yale “Ethics and International Affairs” course. Webster’s nonprofit, “Climate Voices,” aims to raise awareness about how climate change affects people’s lives, particularly about instances of forced migration because of rising water levels, severe storms and erosion.
“My charge became … to redefine the debate about climate change around the issue of human rights,” Webster said.
Though Webster had often read about environmental issues before Katrina struck, he said seeing the suffering of the hurricane victims made him realize that climate change is a “human issue.”
People argue about the causes of climate change and ways to mitigate the problem, but anyone can sympathize with the human victims of a crisis, Webster said. People in some nations already have to cope with the challenges of climate change, he said, and he hopes to make their “voices” heard around the world.
Climate Voices began in philosophy and political science professor Thomas Pogge’s course last fall when Webster and several other students decided to come up with projects that would link “ethics and action,” at the suggestion of their teaching assistant Gilad Tanay GRD ’11. Those students who elected to pursue this optional assignment ultimately voted to continue with Webster’s idea for Climate Voices.
Webster said the group uses the moral philosophy they learned in class to argue that people have an obligation to help others who have been harmed by the negative effects of climate change. Pogge said he tried to distance himself from the project last fall to prevent students from thinking membership with the group had any effect on their grades, but he has since begun to work more closely with the group as a faculty advisor.
Hurricane Katrina completely changed Webster’s life, he said, forcing his family to move to Nashville, Tenn. and damaging his parents’ businesses. And while a storm in the United States had such a devastating impact, developing countries sometimes see suffering of much greater magnitude, he added.
The nonprofit is currently working on a “citizens’ handbook” that will include testimonials from individuals who have been affected by climate change, such as farmers in Africa whose lands are becoming less fertile because of arid weather, or people in Southeast Asia who have had to vacate coastal areas because of rising water levels.
Suzie Jing ’13 is writing a piece about the philosophical underpinnings of the group’s efforts, which will be published in the handbook. She said she will argue that international and domestic law should adopt terms such as “climate refugee” and grant those displaced by the consequences of climate change the rights of refugees. By definition, refugees are the victims of persecution, she said, so displaced people should fall under this category since part of climate change is man-made.
“By making these terms accessible to scholars and the general public, people will slowly accept the idea of legal recognition of these terms,” she said.
Tanay said the group’s method of gathering support by displaying the plight of victims is an effective one, and could be utilized for other causes.
This month, Climate Voices will also present at Yale for the first conference hosted by Academics Stand Against Poverty (A.S.A.P.), a group of professors from around the world first brought together by Pogge about one year ago. Pogge said the experts in his organization plan to collaborate with one another to address global poverty and provide guidance to promising projects, such as Climate Voices.
Other groups interested in presenting their ideas at the A.S.A.P. launch conference can submit up to 1,500-word proposals summarizing their ideas on alleviating poverty to A.S.A.P. by April 11. Five winning proposals will receive advice from a panel of professors at the April 23 conference, Tanay said, and will continue to work with A.S.A.P. going forward.