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Climate Change

RI President says our environment is 'ultimate mission'

Eighty percent of the land in the Bahamas is less than 5 feet above sea level. Which means that, if oceans rise at the rate scientists are projecting, the hilltop home on New Providence Island owned by Rotary International President Barry Rassin may someday be reclassified as beachfront property. “I look at my own country — climate change is almost personal,” he says. “My country is going to be gone if we do nothing.”

The environment isn’t one of Rotary’s six areas of focus, but it’s deeply intertwined with each of them. Rotarian senior staff writer Diana Schoberg sat down with Rassin to talk about why and how Rotarians should put the welfare of the planet on their agendas.

Our climate series

Rotarians understand that the whole world is their backyard. They can see the effects of climate change in communities they care about, and they haven’t waited to take action. They’re tackling the problem the way they always do: coming up with projects, using their connections to change policy — and planning for the future.

Read our series to see:

Q: Why should Rotarians care about climate change?

A: We’re people who care about our world. We want our world to be a better place, and it’s not just about the six specific areas of focus. It’s broader than that. We have to look at the world as a whole and how we can make it a better place. If we’re losing countries due to sea level changes, if stronger storms are disrupting water supplies or destroying people’s livelihoods, that’s more people who are going to be disadvantaged. So caring about the environment goes toward our ultimate mission, and we should give it the importance it deserves. As a humanitarian organization, we’re obligated to talk about it. We need to have the conversation.  

Q: What kind of feedback do you get from Rotarians when you give speeches about climate change?

A: There’s a lot of positive response. About 95 percent of the people I’ve spoken with say it’s about time that Rotary talks about the environment. They say it’s about time that The Rotary Foundation Trustees look at helping us understand where the environment fits into the six areas of focus. People have been waiting a long time for this. We plant trees, but we don’t really have the larger conversation. 

Q: What do you say to the other 5 percent?

A: I’ve had one very negative letter telling me that I was doing a great job until I mentioned climate change. Well, the writer said “global warming,” but I’ve never used those words, so he reinterpreted what I said. But for me, climate change is something we have to talk about.

Q: What kind of language do you use when you talk about climate change? Are there ideas that Rotarians can rally around?

A: I talk about the environment. People don’t have a problem with that language. I talk about the seas rising, and they don’t have a problem with that language. I don’t use the words “global warming.” It’s the only thing people get up in arms about; they say there’s no such thing.

Rotary International President Barry Rassin and his wife, Esther, live in the Bahamas.

Photo by Alyce Henson

I don’t make judgments. I just say the facts, that things are changing: 2017 was a devastating year for hurricanes. These things are happening. Call it what you want, but we need to look at the environment and we need to talk about it.

With polio, people say, “OK, that’s just health care.” But when you start talking about the environment, people ask if it’s political. I’m not talking politics; I’m talking about our world and how to make it a better place. We’re in a position where, with all the people Rotary has around the world, we can make a difference.

Q: Why is Rotary uniquely able to have an impact?

A: Our strengths are that we’re in 200-some countries and geographical areas around the world, and our members are people who are connected to the right people. You look at our polio eradication program: It’s successful not because we’ve provided vaccines. It’s because Rotarians were able to talk to the right people, to give the right support, to do the right thing. If we did that with the environment, governments would listen to us. 

Q: What else can Rotarians do? 

A: I’ve been asking Rotarians: What can you do in your region? In the Bahamas, for example, we can plant mangroves to make our coastlines more resilient to stronger storms. After I gave a speech about the environment in the Netherlands, I received an email telling me that if we need any help in the Bahamas, they’re experts, and they can come and help us. 

There are a whole lot of Rotarians who want to do something, but they aren’t sure what to do. I think that’s part of the dilemma. Rotarians are very solution-driven. If we know a village doesn’t have water, we could bring them fresh water. We know how to do it, and we do it well. But climate change is a complex challenge. How do we find a complex solution? 

Q: Is this Rotary’s moment to make a difference in climate change?

A: I think this is Rotary’s moment to start the conversation. I don’t think we’re going to get much further than that at this point in time. One of our challenges as an organization is how complex we are and how much we do. Therefore, to get everybody rallied around something, you’ve got to focus. It probably will take a Rotary president who’s going to make this the No. 1 focus. That will make a difference, and the world will rally around it. But if Rotary is going to be relevant, then we’ve got to be looking at the environment.