For parts of the world, climate change is not simply a potential future threat, it is an urgent and daunting reality. Rising sea levels are threatening to eradicate the tiny island nation of Kiribati, aiming a spotlight on the world's first climate refugees.

Biomedical engineer, passionate scholar of the Pacific Islands, and Harvard alumnus William Marks, S.B., S.M. ’13, hopes to bring attention to the plight of the people of Kiribati and to preserve the history of their culture and homeland which will soon disappear. In our interview with Marks, he discusses his and co-producer Micah Baskir's documentary project Rising Tides: The Last Generations of Kiribati, along with his motivations, his challenges, and his experiences at Harvard.

William and his team have also launched a kickstarter campaign

Watch the trailer for the documentary

Katie Hammer: Can you tell us about what motivated your work on your documentary project Rising Tides: The Last Generations of Kiribati?

William Marks: I first became interested in Kiribati as a child. I loved maps when I was young and was always fascinated by these small specks in the giant blue waters of the Pacific. I wondered about the country of Kiribati and the people on those little islands: how did people get there in the first place, what did they do, why did they stay, what is the culture like?  

Years later, as a freshman at Harvard, President of Kiribati, Anote Tong gave a speech sponsored by the Harvard University Center for the Environment. He is an incredible orator and his talk on the plight of Kiribati was deeply moving. Attending this event reawakened my passion for these islands and gave me the motivation to begin this project. I will never be able to fully understand the experience of losing a homeland, but as much as I can, I want to be able to share these experiences and the culture on the brink of extinction with the world.

I will never be able to fully understand the experience of losing a homeland, but as much as I can, I want to be able to share these experiences and the culture on the brink of extinction with the world.

KH: How about the issue of climate change generally, what specifically draws you to confronting climate change in this unique way?

WM: Climate change is an ever-changing science, and one that we may not fully understand for many years.  As an engineer and a scientist, I wanted to step outside the academic papers and data and try to focus on the human stories affected by climate change. It is here that we find our common humanity when trying to comprehend a threat as big and intangible as climate change. By documenting the culture and the stories of the I-Kiribati through this film, we help preserve an aspect of a culture remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years. In addition, hopefully, after watching this film, people from all different communities will connect on a personal level to the I-Kiribati and join to help in their own way.  As a single individual, it is hard to change a global phenomenon, but this medium allows me to connect people and inspire more action.

As an engineer and a scientist, I wanted to step outside the academic papers and data and try to focus on the human stories affected by climate change.

KH: Give us your elevator pitch for the project.

WM: As waves literally beat a path to their door, the small Pacific Islands of Kiribati face the unthinkable. The rising sea will soon annihilate these 33 low-lying islands and the thousands of years of history and culture residing there. There isn't much time left to stem the tide and preserve this nation. Our goal is to aim a lens on these first victims of Climate Change. Our Mission: to document this small nation’s fight for a future and reveal a culture on the brink of extinction.

Photo credit: Anna Therese DayPhoto credit: Anna Therese Day

KH: Many island nations are facing similar threats, what drew you to Kiribati?

WM: My longstanding interest in Kiribati, coupled with President Tong's speech at Harvard, really drew me to Kiribati. While it is true that many island nations are facing similar threats, Kiribati is unique in that it will likely face extinction before any of the other islands, in part due to its low average elevation, and in part due to geography. Kiribati has been relatively under-represented in this type of work, and we want the I-Kiribati to have a platform to tell their own stories.

KH: One of your goals is to help preserve the legacy of Kiribati through your documentary, what else do you hope to accomplish?

WM: In addition to preserving the legacy, culture, and traditions of Kiribati through the documentary, we also hope to provide a platform for the I-Kiribati to tell their stories, and to educate people worldwide about the real-life consequences of climate change. We often think of it as a far-off phenomenon, but by seeing and hearing from those on the front lines, we hope to generate an impetus to try and reverse the effects of climate change, or at least slow the progress.

We often think of it as a far-off phenomenon, but by seeing and hearing from those on the front lines, we hope to generate an impetus to try and reverse the effects of climate change, or at least slow the progress.

KH: How do you feel about the term climate change refugee? How do the people of Kiribati feel about it?

WM: The term "climate change refugee" is definitely an accurate descriptor, but I don't think one thing, like climate change, should define any group of people. The I-Kiribati are a proud people with a storied history, and they should be acknowledged as such, not as a particular type of refugee just because their ancestral homeland was inundated by rising sea levels. Despite this apocalyptic prognosis, the I-Kiribati people still live each day with joy and optimism for the future. 

Photo credit: Anna Therese DayPhoto credit: Anna Therese Day

KH: What would you hope people do after learning more about sea level rise and the people of Kiribati?

WM: Ideally, after learning more about sea level rise and the I-Kiribati, people will find a way to make a difference in whatever small or large ways they can. Whether it is contacting a congressional representative, joining a movement, working to find innovative solutions, or even just advocating greener lifestyle choices, I hope this film galvanizes people into action.  At the moment, people seem to have accepted climate change as a fait accompli, so the inertia and momentum to solve the issue has faded. I hope by having people know the names, stories, and culture of people facing real immediate threats, lasting change can start.

Whether it is contacting a congressional representative, joining a movement, working to find innovative solutions, or even just advocating greener lifestyle choices, I hope this film galvanizes people into action. 

KH: What have the people of Kiribati taught you?

WM: Obviously, we haven't yet been to Kiribati, but during our research we have had the pleasure to meet and connect with a few individuals. If there is one thing I noticed immediately, it is that they are such a joyful and proud people. They love their nation, they are proud of their accomplishments, and do they love to laugh! 

KH: What are the challenges you and your team face making this documentary?

In addition to the usual challenges of completing a low-budget film, traveling to remote areas of the world presents any number of challenges. Although the main island of Tarawa has basic modern infrastructure, many of the islands feature, at best, intermittent power sources to operate equipment. Extreme humidity and condensation can easily destroy lenses and electronics. Climate change brings about not only rising tides, but extreme weather patterns which can delay filming and damage base camp. 

So, we are doing everything we can to prepare if a disaster strikes. The last situation we want to be in, is on a remote island for two weeks with no way to work. Our budget includes establishing a complete self-functioning base camp with a number of backups and fail-safes. That being said, should our multiple cameras, backup power sources, our 3x media stations, and all our other fail-safes go down—we will really need to be creative and delays will certainly occur.

With the help of our Field Consultant, IMAX's Matt Scott, and my co-producer, Micah Baskir's 11 years of remote production experience, we hope to anticipate nearly every obstacle. But Murphy and his laws have a way of showing up in the most airtight of preparations. Because of this, we plan to return to Kiribati over the coming months for additional filmmaking, and to expand upon the foundation of this integral first documentary.

Photo credit: Marita DaviesPhoto credit: Marita Davies

KH: How did your experiences and studies at Harvard influence or lead you to this project?

WM: My time at Harvard definitely helped me to crystallize on the idea for this documentary as a way to make a difference, especially after listening to President Tong's speech.  Data and threats of doom, these have real trouble inspiring action, but there is a real power in human contact and personal stories. My time studying to be an engineer also helped me to develop the skills needed to approach any problem, breaking down the issue into components and finding innovative solutions for each to put together into a complete package.

My time studying to be an engineer also helped me to develop the skills needed to approach any problem, breaking down the issue into components and finding innovative solutions for each to put together into a complete package.

KH: As a biomedical engineer working on a climate project, can you talk a little bit about why you think it’s important for people from all backgrounds to confront climate change?

WM: It is incredibly important for people from all backgrounds to confront climate change because climate change cannot be stopped, prevented, or even fixed by any single group of people.  Achieving some sort of positive outcome with regard to climate change will take a concerted effort from every type of background from all over the world.  As a biomedical engineer, I long ago learned that collaboration is key for innovation, and I see this in the same way.

Achieving some sort of positive outcome with regard to climate change will take a concerted effort from every type of background from all over the world. 

KH: Do you have any advice for students who are aspiring Harvard “Greenpreneurs”?

Whatever you do, follow your dream. Never let an opportunity to achieve something slip by. Making a difference can seem intimidating from an armchair, but once you stand up and start something, it's unbelievable how much you can achieve. Like the age-old adage, if you put everything off until "tomorrow," all you're left with is a pile of empty "todays."

Making a difference can seem intimidating from an armchair, but once you stand up and start something, it's unbelievable how much you can achieve.