Pacific professor researches climate change in Svalbard, Norway

If we really are going to affect climate change and slow it down, it's going to have to be a bottom-up movement. We're going to individually have to decide: ‘I need to do something, whatever that might be.’


– Dr. Teresa Bergman

Earlier this summer, Dr. Teresa Bergman, professor of communication and chair of the communication department, embarked on an arctic expedition to document the effects of climate change alongside 29 other academics and creatives. Bergman answered some questions regarding her research.

Tell us a bit about the expedition you went on.

I went on this expedition to Svalbard, Norway, in June 2023, and it was about two and a half weeks. Svalbard is the archipelago of islands that's pretty far north of Norway, and actually just about 750 miles south of the North Pole. So it's very, very far north.

This expedition is run by, which is a nonprofit. One of their main goals is for educators, artists, and scientists to study climate change. I applied as an educator, was accepted, and was supposed to go in the summer of 2020. Because of COVID, it got delayed until May 2023. On this particular expedition, things had been delayed quite a while for the group, but of the 30 participants, there were 28 artists, myself and my husband, who's an environmental historian. It’s a competitive process to be accepted and it's an international expedition. We had people from ten different countries.

My project was for my documentary film production class. I proposed to interview all the people on the expedition and ask them about their projects and what they were doing. Then, I would make all my interviews, as well as my b-roll (which is landscape shots, stills, and moving images), available to my class in the fall when they make one of their documentaries, which would be on climate change.

How did you find out about this expedition?

I found out about it through my husband. He's a professor at CSU Stanislaus. He is a professor of environmental history, and he was at a conference where he had heard about it, and he asked if I had any interest.

My area of research and where I've been publishing my books have been sites of public memory. (This was not a site of public memory). I said I would think about it because it sounded interesting. 

There is no question that climate change needs all of us to pay attention and to do something. So I came up with this project and he and several people said, “this sounds great, you should definitely submit it.” So I did, and it was accepted.

It has pushed me in good ways to think about and to actualize: “what can I do about climate change? What can I do as a concerned environmentalist in my work and personally?”

How was this expedition funded?

I applied for funding from the university, and I received it, so that's how my expenses were covered. That's part of why it's tied to the class. One thing that I've really taken from this expedition was how much I appreciate the University of the Pacific supporting me. I am not a traditional environmental scholar; I'm a communication scholar. The university had the wherewithal and the insight to realize that these things do intersect and that, when they saw this application for me to go on this expedition, they didn't see me just in a box. They saw me as a very active and engaged scholar and were willing to invest in how communication around climate change takes place in art, science, and education. For that, I am so thankful. It was a life-changing event, and I really couldn't have done it without the university's support.

How does your research connect to your Documentary Film Production Class?

In COMM 134: Documentary Film Production, the class that I teach every other year, my students will make four short documentaries. I normally assign a form of documentary. It can be a poetic documentary; it can be observational. Participatory is another one, and that's where this one's going to fall under. The idea of a participatory documentary focuses on the filmmaker, and this would be the student making their film, their point of view and their issue and bringing it front and center into the film. The one film that they make on climate change will be a participatory form of documentary, and they can use any portion of the interviews and images that I shot, they can make their own, or they can use a combination thereof. It's really their call on how they want to put their film together and whatever message they want to communicate about climate change.

What is your main goal for these students to accomplish with this project?

One of the things I learned on this trip was how artists create. What I came to understand in each of my interviews with the people on the expedition is the artistic process (and everybody's artistic process is different), and how important it is to respect your process. That’s the reason these residencies exist, for these people—28 of them being artists—to be artists. 

That took me to asking them in the interview, “how does your art communicate climate change?” Brilliant answers came up because I did not know the answer to that question. I did not know where they would go with it, but almost everyone was so articulate and so smart and so insightful about how art communicates. I think that's one of the things that maybe most people might think, well, of course, art communicates. 

Coming at it from the creator's point of view, and coming from—I want to use the word activist, because if we really are going to take climate change seriously, it is going to require some action—coming at it from an activist point of view, I can generalize that most of the people I interviewed see their art contributing to the conversation, making all of us aware. It could be viscerally, it could be aesthetically, it can be intellectually, it can be psychically, it can be emotionally. I mean, that's what's so amazing about art. It can reach us on all those levels. 

Sometimes a piece of art will be more in one direction than another, but you never know. That was the other thing that was quite cool about all the interviews: a good portion of the artists weren't really sure [about] this experience of being in Svalbard, going to see all these glaciers and experiencing the landscape (and in addition, understanding how quickly things are melting).

That's one of the reasons that we should circle back to why this expedition was in Svalbard. In the entire world, that's where climate change is happening the fastest. They're seeing the people who live there. In Longyearbyen, the town that we took off from and came back to, there’s around 2,300 people. But the ice is melting at a rate way faster than people anticipated. So everyone who came on this trip was aware of and concerned with that and was looking to find ways that that would inspire their art and inspire those who see their art (or hear their art or participate in their art, because we had all kinds of artists) to understand, be concerned, and take action about climate change.

Do you have any professional end goals in mind for this project?

Well, the main thing is for the class in terms of my project. I would say there is definitely a side goal that was impossible to ignore when I was in that landscape. Just seeing glaciers that are so much further away than they used to be (because they're melting so fast) and where they'll be gone in the next 20 to 30 years… I think one of the personal insights I had was it reminded me of what sort of lessons I've taken from the civil rights movements of the 1960s. It was very much of a bottom-up movement. Everyday people got involved, took action and didn't ride the bus. Everyone did something. 

The lesson I took from this if we really are going to affect climate change and slow it down (which I think is the best we can do right now), it's going to have to be a bottom-up movement. We're going to individually have to decide: ‘I need to do something, whatever that might be.’ If it's being a vegetarian or vegan if it's driving less or flying less, whatever that contribution might be, it needs to happen on that level in order for it to be effective and to keep our world around a little bit longer.

The other thing I thought a lot about was, because I'm older, it was a term for something I experienced, but I hadn't heard the term eco-anxiety before. So many of the artists who are very concerned and have their eco-anxiety. To grow up in a time and come of age in a time when you're not sure about the environmental future, where so much of what we hear is more fires, more floods, more intensity (and we see it all the time on the news), that causes a lot of eco-anxiety. I think that needs to be addressed in terms of, well, how do you grow up? How do you manage to make a life? How do you find any kind of ability to plan for the future if your eco-anxiety is raging? That is a concern and it's real and it's something that I think almost all of us have to figure out and hopefully not ignore, but embrace it and figure out what we'll do.

Can you dive a little deeper into the intersection of art, communication, and climate change?

I think one of the things that was wonderful for me on the trip and in terms of my project was talking to all of the artists and learning about their processes and how they do their art and their concerns. Many of them shared with me how they came to art and their history, and it was just so wonderful for me to hear them talk about their art in terms of communication, what they think their art is communicating and what they hope their art is communicating, knowing full well that none of us have control over reception, but knowing also full well that we are communicating as creators. 

When I would talk to the artists about their specific arts and what their exhibits might be, what their presentations might be, there was no denial—there was complete agreement that art communicates. The place where it gets fun and interesting and confusing and wonderful is well, what does it communicate? There is no hypodermic needle when it comes to how communication works, but it does work. We do take messages if we’re creative or work in rhetoric or in sites of public memory.

I'm writing a chapter right now about the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, and the choices that are made on what they represent communicate to us their choices, and they're persuasive. I found such a similarity with art. The artists, they're making choices about what to put in their art, what to represent, and what they want to be in there. 

The sound artists that I interviewed from the Netherlands and France were using beluga whale sounds (in addition to other sounds that they were picking up underwater) for—well, I can’t even say “for,” because intentionality is a little different in art. One of the things that I took from listening to their sounds and looking at some of their previous presentations was [firstly], it was overwhelming. It completely pulled me into their exhibit and gave me room to think that—those are whales! They really are talking to each other. There is no question there is a back-and-forth going on and this is so amazing. The way their exhibits work is pretty all-encompassing. I was listening on headphones, but I could see the exhibits they were putting together. I loved every single one of their pieces. I would look at them just completely wrapped up in the idea of, oh my god, what if the whales don't exist? We could never have this. What are we doing that would affect oceans so profoundly that we might not be able to have these kinds of experiences? That is the intersection of art and the environment and communication. 

One of the things that they're working on right now that caught my imagination was much of the drilling on the ocean floor now is for the so-called Green Revolution, looking for minerals that we need in our phones, computers, and cars (as we go electric). But there has been no research done on how that affects the ocean floor and everybody who lives down there. That's what they're trying to emphasize in their particular sound work.

Was there a story you heard that you resonated with most?

Every day was something incredibly new and interesting and surprising (because I don't come out of the art world), and I would just be so taken with their concerns. One Canadian artist, Colin Lyons, told me the story of a horrific environmental disaster. It was a dumping that took place in 2012 on the west coast of Canada, and he was giving me the details about that particular chemical dump from a boat. There was no research done on the effects of it. It was hundreds of tons, and that's what motivated him to do the kind of work he does to become an environmental artist who will communicate environmental concerns through his art. 

There was another woman, Rebecca Manson from New York, who had this joyous approach to her art and her work that was irresistible. It was so important to her that her art communicates a kind of fresh eyes, a fresh experience with the environment…like if you can remember the very first time when you were a kid and you ran outside and jumped in leaves, or the first time you felt snow. The way she talks about it, it's absolutely infectious. It just made me feel so happy to be human because she's spending so much of her artistic drive and creativity in capturing and representing that in her art. And I just found that great.

Everybody was so accomplished. They were just amazing. I had retired university presidents, retired deans, a woman that was doing her research on the protozoa that live in the water and making art out of that. It was a really accomplished group.

How did being surrounded by these people impact your own research?

I would say the hardest thing for me was they were all so interesting and so outside my experience that, after I had done two interviews, I was kind of done for the day. It was really hard to kind of catch up to where they were at and even pose questions that would be insightful and helpful, and then also make sure that whatever I was asking would be helpful to my students as well. That really tested my interviewing skills. 

One of the main things that was reinforced, and I learned again and continue to learn is the best interviewer is somebody who listens very, very closely. That’s why I had to have good sound because I was listening to everyone. Often when you're interviewing (and this is something I try to share with my students and teach in my documentary class), you'll ask a question and the people will give some sort of pretty straightforward answer, nothing terribly emotional, but there would be one thing in there, there will be one word, one phrase, and you're like, what? Wait, what was that? That's where the fabulous interview is. That's when you ask that question: "well, wait, what did you say about being youthful?" 

With Rebecca, that is what opened up that whole part of her, because it was very clear she, along with everyone else, had done quite a few interviews. They're really used to being interviewed, being on camera, and talking to journalists. I don't consider myself a journalist. In this particular case, I’m more of a documentarist, and part of what documentary folks do that's different than journalism is if you listen closely enough, you are going to develop a relationship so that your conversation on camera is more than just “who, what, where, how, when.” It's much more: you get into motivation and you get into ideas and you get into history and you get into thoughts about the future. 

With your previous project on George Moscone and this one on climate change, do you have a topic for your next project?

I'm working on my third book right now, which is the future directions in commemoration, bringing women, people of color, and the working class into the commemorative landscape. I'm looking at U.S. sites that are commemorating these groups of people, which is a really different approach to commemoration in the U.S.

I think one of the things that is going to affect everyone, like the first chapter I wrote, is the Anthracite Coal Museum in Eastern Pennsylvania. When we look at coal mining and its history and what's going on now and in the future, you can't have that conversation without talking about climate change. This is part of the environment. The place that I’m looking at now is the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Climate change affects everyone's work. So when people were first immigrating to the U.S., one of the first things you have to do was figure out your job. How are you going to make money? There's climate change. How is that going to work? The next site that I'm going to in my next chapter is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Memorial. That's where about 127 young women, mostly immigrants, Jews, and Italians, jumped to their death because of a fire. It was on the eighth and ninth floor of the building and none of the fire equipment went up that high; the ladders went to the sixth floor. So most people died by jumping out the window. 

When we look at contemporary sweatshops, which exist all around the world, we've seen fires in all kinds of places; this is not something that only happened in the early 20th century. How are we helping the workers? What are we doing? It's much hotter now. We have all kinds of other issues that we have to take into consideration when it comes to worker safety and health. So I think in many ways, when I think about climate change, it's something that I will keep in mind as I go through each of these sites and look at them. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory led to OSHA. It led to the creation of workplace regulations to protect us.

And coal mining has had all kinds of issues, to put it mildly. And all of the sites have to take it into consideration, especially when we think about environmental racism and how it affects people of color and working-class people who maybe don't have the means to move someplace else where it's not so affected. bThese are considerations that need to be part of any analysis of what we're learning when we go to these sites of public memory.

Lastly, from what you’ve seen in your expedition, what changes have you made in your daily life to fight the climate crisis?

I think one of the things is probably eating less meat, because that has a tremendous environmental effect. I’m trying to stay more plant-based, going in that direction, continuing to support all the organizations that I support that are doing climate-based work, and supporting any kind of legislation that works in that direction to limit carbon emissions.