Dr. Andrea Simonelli has experienced her first year with VCU’s Political Science Department in a different way, traveling back and forth from Richmond, VA to the Marshall Islands in the Pacific to research the effects of climate change on a population. With a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University, Simonelli has made her focus the governance response to human migration, specifically in legal and institutional work that addresses internal and cross border displacement due to climate processes.
Simonelli published her first book, Governing Climate Induced Migration and Displacement: IGO Expansion and Global Governance, in 2015 and analyzed four intergovernmental organizations and their expansion to govern those becoming displaced by climate processes.
What made you want to get involved in researching how issues of human security affects climate resilience in Samoa, Fiji, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands?
I did a three year project on the perceptions of climate and displacement in the Maldives where I saw many islanders who were very resilient but represented as victims in the literature. However, I came to realize that there were many obstacles preventing them from being able to adapt as they would prefer which related to development and human security. After that wrapped up, I needed a change and did a preliminary field visit to the Marshall Islands where I noticed some of the same and decided to build a new project.
What was the desire for islands in the Pacific?
The small islands of the Pacific are considered some of the most existentially vulnerable to climate change. Outside of the Maldives, Tuvalu and others are a natural progression. Most are low lying atolls, but even the mountainous islands are susceptible to increasing storm surge, loss of ecosystems, and water insecurity.
What has your research shown thus far?
That indigenous knowledge is often overlooked for technological solutions and yet, those who live in vulnerable areas often have the most pragmatic ideas. Also, consumptive development is a much bigger threat to many small islands than sea level rise.
How does your research correlate with political science?
My work stems from the global governance or lack thereof when it comes to assisting migration due to climate displacement. In order to understand that, one has to be clear about the circumstances on the ground that lead to migration when a everyday life or a disaster becomes too much to handle. Governments are responsible for the safety of their citizens, but often create scenarios which allow structural inequality to flourish, making it harder for some to seek remedies in an emergency.
Do you spend the most of your time on the islands or in Richmond at VCU?
I am in and out of both. I am just back from a summer abroad and part of fall. I definitely miss my apartment, but it’s nice to not be anywhere too long.
Do you find that working abroad is difficult or easy to manage?
It depends. I was geoblocked from paying my electric bill, so that was a crazy surprise. But with a good internet signal, it’s usually not too difficult. I like to travel, but you have to be ready to be uncomfortable. I don’t work in resorts so it’s very basic- cold showers and sand everywhere.
What has your first year at VCU been like?
I really love our student population, they are really energetic about life and busy trying to make a difference. Richmond is also a great city, so much to do.
What made you want to become an assistant professor at VCU?
VCU had a great community atmosphere and was at the heart of a really cool city. The staff was open and modern and understood the needs of students going into the current job market.
What will your alternative spring break trip be like for next spring?
We will be going to St. Croix to experimentally learn about island vulnerabilities and environmental security (water insecurity, hurricane preparedness and recovery).
What type of research will students be doing at St. Croix?
I’m hoping to get them involved with a current program that is tracking invasive Lionfish. Waiting to see how that will be progressing when we arrive.
Is there anything else you would like students and or faculty to know about your research and why you went down this path?
For Students: I started grad school wanting to work on democratization, so your plans can really change and this can be a good thing. A solid research agenda should have room for progression and expansion.
For Faculty: Please correct people who use the term “climate refugee”- it’s NOT a real or legal definition for anything. I started my work in climate displacement by first coming to understand this and it is a huge misconception overused by journalists. This language victimizes and disempowers those on the front lines of climate impacts. Also, those most implied by that label are not a ‘security’ threat as some make them out to be; we’re talking about close-knit coastal fishing families.
Written by Jess Wetzler