When foreign exchange students prepare to come to the United States, they are forewarned that Americans place significantly less value on extended families than elsewhere in the world. Americans value punctuality. They tend to be direct. But above all else, Americans are individualistic and independent to their core. Tell an American that they are dependent on another person and expect the worst possible reaction.

This independence has turned America into an island all its own. We are an island of independence and unwavering autonomy and self-rule. True, we have neighbors to the north and to the south, and we roam the globe near and far, exerting our influence and defending our interests. But from an environmental perspective, America operates in a vacuum, allowing no one to touch it and all the while doing what it pleases. We either don’t realize or simply don’t care about the ways in which our actions and inactions impact others around the globe.

Before my trip to Costa Rica, I was a prototypical example of American irreverence. I was too bold, an island of self-containment, detached from the reality that I, too, am vulnerable. Anyone who actually lives on an island understands that dependence is important to survival. There is a holistic and integrated approach to island living. To live well in a village is to live in harmony with others. When one person takes the coconuts from the tree, others in the village suffer. When tuna outside the lagoon are sold to China or Hawaii, the village goes without. When livelihoods are threatened, the villagers must band together so that families don’t starve. Villages experience life together, interconnected. They contribute so little carbon emissions that they have an almost nonexistent impact on sea level rise on their own. Yet they are impacted disproportionately, bearing the brunt of climate change impacts in a silent struggle. That is the opposite of autonomy. The Western world acts, and they have little choice but to react.

I went into the water that day in Costa Rica feeling like myself liberated and free, but I came out feeling vulnerable and small, like a grain of sand. Ultimately, I connected these emotions to a deeper understanding of what it is like to live on an island in the age of a global economy and anthropogenic change. We all have these moments, like the waves of compassion in the form of support and money we see the wake of tsunamis or domestic flooding. We are all islands, and sooner or later, we all need each other’s help.

Americans cannot go on thinking we’re immune to the effects of climate change. Historically, Americans have emitted more carbon emissions per capita than any other country in the world. While countries like China, India, Russia, and Brazil are hot on our heels, each American is responsible for releasing massive amounts of sea-level-rise-causing emissions into the atmosphere. Statisticians from Oregon State University recently calculated that every child in the US adds 9,441 tonnes (which is equal to1,000 kilograms, or 2,204.6 pounds) to each parent’s carbon footprint. That’s compared to 1,384 tonnes of carbon dioxide for each child in China, or 56 tonnes in Bangladesh. We live comfortable lifestyles buttressed by air conditioning and readily available heat. My colleagues and I fly around the world spewing emissions into the atmosphere en route to climate change negotiations, so I put myself squarely in this category. But one thing is certain: We cannot keep this up.

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