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Different Worlds, Connected by Climate Change
The new documentary 'ThuleTuvalu' shows how global warming is transforming lives on opposite sides of the planet.

Life in Thule, Greenland, and the Pacific nation of Tuvalu couldn’t be more different. At 750 miles above the Arctic Circle, Thule is among the northernmost inhabited places on earth. In July it reaches an average high of 52 degrees. Tuvalu is a tropical island where the temperature rarely drops below 75, even in the middle of the night. But the two seaside communities have at least one thing in common: Climate change threatens them both. Melting sea ice has dramatically shortened the hunting season in northern Greenland, while halfway across the globe, rising seas threaten Tuvalu’s farms and contaminate the island’s freshwater supply.

As their traditional ways of life become unsustainable, families in both locales are contemplating leaving their homes—if they haven’t done so already. A new documentary, ThuleTuvalu, directed by Matthias von Gunten, chronicles how our changing climate connects these far-flung places and people.

With his film set to screen tomorrow at the American Museum of Natural History’s Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York, von Gunten recently spoke with OnEarth.

Brian Palmer: Why Thule? Why Tuvalu?

Matthias von Gunten: In my fantasy journeys on the map as a child, I wanted to find the northernmost place where people live. Thule held something terrifying for me, but I felt attracted to it. I found Tuvalu because I didn’t understand how the dateline was possible—on the left, it is Friday, on the right, Saturday. I had a bad map that put Tuvalu right on the dateline, so I remembered it. [Tuvalu is slightly west of the international dateline.]

These places later came together in my mind with climate change. I consider them like seismographs—sensitive instruments that tell us what is happening in the world.

BP: What’s at stake if the ice disappears from Thule and the sea submerges Tuvalu?

MVG: I have never planted a plant for food. I have never killed an animal for meat. I have no physical relationship to the origin of my food.

In Thule and Tuvalu, they live in a permanent dialogue with nature. They have to react to nature. Their schedules are made by nature. You can’t even tell them, “Tomorrow at 10 o’clock I will meet you,” because the conditions may be good for hunting and they will be out. The intensity with which they live by nature makes you think of how our ancestors lived.

Thule’s hunters are afraid. They don’t know whether they can cope with the future. They are losing a kind of security. In Tuvalu, they will have to move to a new place, learn to be someone’s employee so they can make money to buy food. This is not their way of life. I personally think it would be a loss because these ways of living say a lot about us.

BP: Your film has some shocking scenes: hunters shooting narwhals with high-powered rifles at point-blank range, slicing the throats of squealing pigs, and beating fish to death with sticks. Why did you decide to show these aspects of their cultures?

MVG: The thing I'm showing is not the killing. The whole film is about getting food. In these places, that means killing. I didn't want to hide that. I wanted to show that these hunters are shooting from a boat, not nicely with traditional spears or from a kayak. This is their reality, and I didn’t want to romanticize it.

BP: Do the people of Thule or Tuvalu blame anyone for what is happening?

MVG: I was in Tuvalu’s outermost island, which is very isolated. It takes three days by ship to get there from the capital. They have Internet and radio, but they only use it to get weather. They are not interested in the news. They are also very humble and religious. They think what is going on is their fate, and they have to cope with it. I did not meet anyone who said, “We are the victims of what you are doing in the industrialized world.” In the Tuvaluan capital, Funafuti, it is different. There are people who are more involved in the science and politics.

I was also astonished to find no blaming in Greenland. I got the impression they are too proud to blame anyone. They don’t want to be seen as victims. That is their pride as hunters. They want to be able to manage every situation.

BP: Some Tuvaluans cite the Bible and say they don’t believe the ocean will engulf the island. Is climate change shaking their faith at all?

MVG: No. They live in a paradox. They know what is going on, but they behave like they don’t. They deeply believe God will not forget them, but they also see the water rising. They cannot be put their religious belief into question. It gives them stability and holds the community together.

BP: The film introduces us to a Tuvaluan family who moved to New Zealand. How do the remaining Tuvaluans view emigrants?

MVG: Some people say they are kind of traitors. They say, “We want to be strong. We want to stay here. We want to survive here.”

But there are other views. Patrick [a Tuvaluan in the film] says the ones who left had the money to do it. If he had the money, he would probably go to New Zealand as well. Emotionally, he prefers to stay, but he wants a safe future for his children. He is very much in a bind.

The Tuvaluans know what is going in Kiribati. [The island nation of Kiribati has purchased land in Fiji to grow food and to be a new home in case evacuation becomes necessary.] I think sooner or later, if things go on like this, they may all have to say "We cannot live like this anymore."

BP: Did you tell the Greenlanders about the Tuvaluans and vice versa? Were they worried for each other?

MVG: Very much so. The Tuvaluans could not imagine what it is like to live in the cold with ice. They loved talking about it with each other. In Thule they did not know about Tuvalu, but they were very concerned when I told them. One hunter asked me to bring him a coral stone from Tuvalu. It meant something special to him.

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Brian Palmer covers daily environmental news for OnEarth. His science writing has appeared in Slate, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and many other publications. MORE STORIES ➔