Joanne Silberner wins travel grant from Pulitzer Center for third year in a row

Joanne Silberner collects audio from the slowly rising waters of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Samisoni Pareti.

Joanne Silberner collects audio from the slowly rising waters of the Pacific Ocean. Photo by Samisoni Pareti.

Earlier this year, Artist in Residence Joanne Silberner won an $8,200 travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to go to Australia and Fiji for three weeks to do a series of stories on mental health and climate change.

Passionate about covering topics that are underreported, Silberner has received a grant from the Center for three years in a row. Past trips include reporting on diabetes and high blood pressure in Cambodia; and cancer in Uganda, India, and Haiti.

With the extreme heat waves in Australia and typhoons in the South Pacific, Silberner began researching scientific literature and studies done by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to see if these major events were causing depression, stress, or other mental illnesses.

“Everything I saw kept saying we need to consider the mental health impacts while these catastrophic events start to happen more, but nobody was,” she said, “and nobody was looking into how to lessen the affect.”

She started to notice that the few studies that were being done mostly took place in Australia. Silberner also chose to visit Fiji because of the dramatic typhoons and rising sea level around the island – although she found Australia was experiencing equally disastrous events with more bushfires and incredible heat waves that included hottest days on record for four to five consecutive days.

During her two week stay in Australia, Silberner spent a week in a farming community where she interestingly found a lot of climate change denial. While one reason is that the new prime minister is more interested in selling coal to China, farmers also feel that there is nothing they can do about it so they just live season to season.

“They may not believe in climate change, but they believe in climate variability because they’ve always had it,” Silberner said. “In fact, two farmers quoted me a poem that was written in the early 1900s by Dorothea Mackellar that has lines about Australia being a land of floods and droughts. It was happening in 1910, but you talk to the climatologists and they say, ‘Yes, but we’re having more of them now.’”

While Australia’s farmers have been struggling with extreme heat, the natives of Fiji are facing re-location due to rising sea levels.

“When you go from one place where people are worried about their island disappearing and then you see the issue of re-location on another island, re-location doesn’t seem that bad, but these people are starting with the feeling that they didn’t do anything wrong,” Silberner said. “But now they are having more typhoons, forced to move upland, the cemetery where their grandparents are buried is underwater – maybe it’s not as bad as losing everything and having your entire community disappear, but it’s not good.”

Silberner plans to publish a series of stories on these topics in hopes to bring the global issue of mental health and climate change to the forefront.