World Traveler Learns Climate Complexities Juan Hoffmaister has spent the past 10 months traveling the globe to visit areas most threatened by climate change. But the trip has complicated his view on how to cope with the changes.

World Traveler Learns Climate Complexities

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Climate change is just beginning. Younger people will see more of it than the rest of us. We're talking with that generation in this final month of NPR's Climate Connection series with National Geographic. This morning, we meet a recent college graduate from Costa Rica. He's spending a full year traveling the world, visiting small communities that may become more vulnerable as the globe warms up. As often happens with such trips, things have not turned out quite as planned.

NPR's Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES: Juan Hoffmaister is a citizen of Costa Rica and a recent graduate from College of the Atlantic in Maine. Last summer, he received a Watson fellowship - a grant to travel for one year. And he laid out his itinerary: Fiji, Vietnam, Cambodia, the southern tip of India - all places where millions of lives could be disrupted by rising sea levels, shifting rainfall patterns, or more powerful storms.

Mr. JUAN HOFFMAISTER: I really was trying to understand how can we find global solutions?

CHARLES: At the end of it, he thought, I'll write a report about some of the best things that local communities are doing to cope with the changing climate. Maybe those examples will inspire others. Last July, he set off.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: I started the journey thinking that I was going to go out there and collect success stories. Within a matter of a couple months I realized that what I was collecting was survival stories.

CHARLES: He arrived in Vietnam right after a devastating storm, Typhoon Lekima. Hoffmaister watched farmers trying to salvage the pitiful remnants of a rice crop, people sleeping on roads because everything else was covered with water.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: There were some pretty tough moments, long days, and sometimes just not being able to fall asleep after seeing the terrible reality in which people were living, and just wondering if there was anything that we could do better.

CHARLES: But another part of Vietnam inspired him. In the mountains of the north near the border with China he found villages that seemed untouched by the outside world; mountainsides sculpted centuries ago into fertile terraces; people who welcomed him into their homes. One meal in particular sticks in his memory.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: The head of the household came in and she asked me if I liked duck.

CHARLES: Yes, I like duck, he said, not quite realizing he'd soon be eating the duck, the one he'd just seen swimming in the rice paddy. The way these villagers lived - and they've lived this way for generations - seemed to Hoffmaister like a sign of hope.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: And they made me for, just a few weeks of my life, see the world through their eyes, and see a world where respect for each other is very important; where the respect for your elders defines how you live your life; a way of life where you were so aware of what - everything that you do, every day means for your survival.

CHARLES: So it hit him even harder when he realized these villages are doomed. The central government of Vietnam plans to build a dam nearby to generate electricity. It will flood this valley.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: In a matter of a year or two, it's all going to be underwater. I mean, these people were not given the choice. The decision was made for them, and they don't even get a chance to complain. I've realized it was just not fair.

CHARLES: Now, even before this trip Juan Hoffmaister had traveled the world. He was ready, he says, for culture shock.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: But I was not prepared for the livelihood shock. I was not prepared to see how marginalized people can be. And nothing can prepare you to see the injustices that you see in a lot of these communities.

Ms. HELEN PLUME (New Zealand Ministry for the Environment): So what happens next?

CHARLES: For a few days, Hoffmaister is back among people wearing suits and polished shoes. He's attending a United Nations conference on adapting to climate change at a swank hotel in Port of Spain, Trinidad. The chair of the meeting, Helen Plume from New Zealand's Ministry for the Environment, is wrapping things up.

Ms. PLUME: The secretariats under my guidance will analyze the rich material obtained during this meeting.

CHARLES: Hoffmaister has been to a lot of international conferences like this, representing an activist group called Sustain Us. But he confesses after his travels he finds such meetings increasingly frustrating. He's not sure anymore that the words the experts throw around - food security, or water access, or even climate change - mean much to a villager in Vietnam. What that villager wants is something to eat when crops fail; also, a government that listens.

It was simpler before he met all these people to talk about adaptation to climate change. His trip has been disturbing and confusing, but Hoffmaister says he hasn't abandoned his conviction that we can make things better.

Mr. HOFFMAISTER: And perhaps I just think so because I just saw that these people, regardless of how many times they lost everything, they still had the energy to stand up again and start all over. And if they can do that, there has to be a way in which we can help them.

CHARLES: Juan Hoffmaister is now in southern Africa, in Namibia. He'll continue on to Mozambique, and then he says he'll still write that report on his trip. It just won't be the report that he imagined a year ago.

Dan Charles, NPR News.

YDSTIE: You can take a trip around the globe with Juan Hoffmaister on our Web site You'll find a slide show of his stories from Fiji, Vietnam, and India.

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