KINGSTON, RI – August 1, 2022 – For Richard Polnack, the focus has always been on the people. This University of Rhode Island professor emeritus has spent his career studying the cultural impact on people who live near bodies of water. An anthropologist by training, he began his career at URI in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and was also a faculty member in the Department of Maritime Affairs, the first program of its kind in the world. Today, his work as a faculty mentor has influenced students who carry forward his inspiration for work around the world.
For decades, Polnac has taught students to take into account the human dimension of the oceans in their work. He has conducted research on coastal peoples in all regions of the world—the United States, Africa, the Middle East, Central and South America, the Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asia—with a focus on community resilience, vulnerability, and the socioeconomic impacts of climate change. His focus on the human factor in marine and coastal ecosystems is now over, with one of his former students launching a comprehensive study of the topic, the first of its kind – and not only inviting his former professor to join it, but flying him to Australia to be a part.
Joshua Cinner ’00 (MA) led the recently published study; He is now a Distinguished Professor and Social Science Research Leader in the ARC Center of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia. The paper found that tropical regions are expected to suffer losses in fisheries and agriculture as the effects of climate change become increasingly felt. Recently Posted in Nature Connectionsthe paper incorporates research by Amy Diedrich (PhD ’06), an environmental social scientist and associate professor at JCU.
Diedrich says, “It was great to be able to work with Richard again. I had a great experience with URI’s Naval Affairs program and working with Richard who was so inspiring. I applied to URI specifically to work with him. This certification helped me really well.” It helped me land a job in the environmental social sciences and gave me the essential knowledge and skills to be able to work across the natural and social marine sciences.”
Several naval specialists who worked with Polnac and were trained in his methods took part in the project. In 2017, they all came together to collect their data, and met on a magnetic island, off the east coast of Australia. “It’s a nice place to work, think, and gather data together,” Polnak says. The resulting study is unique in the number of sites included, the amount of data and the complexity of the research, as well as the number of maritime professionals who joined from around the world, including Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Spain, Madagascar, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea and Tanzania. From that point on, 28 researchers began investigating the effects of climate change on fisheries and agriculture for coastal communities across the Indo-Pacific region. Several of them conducted their own analyzes of agriculture and fishing, but this was the first time that existing data had been pooled. As the data merged, a strong picture was formed indicating the food security vulnerabilities of the communities studied.
According to their findings, climate change will profoundly affect fisheries and agriculture. By 2050, potential losses to fisheries will be as high as 32% in some locations, and two-thirds of the studied communities may experience potential losses in fisheries and agriculture simultaneously. In total, they surveyed 3,000 households from 72 villages in 5 countries: Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines.
“Climate change mitigation — reducing greenhouse gas emissions — could halve the proportion of places facing this double burden,” Sener says. “It really shows how many ordinary people’s lives depend on decisions over which they have no control and highlights the moral responsibilities that decision makers have towards them.. “
The paper’s standardized methodology, rare in the social sciences, made its authors look at emerging patterns more broadly. From the macro point of view, they were able to get a better understanding of the impact of climate change at the micro and individual level.
Polnac’s focus continues on people affected by climate and sea change, studying the effects of environmental and climate change on fishing communities in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with Tarsila Ceará (PhD 14), associate professor and marine affairs program coordinator at the University of New Haven, and South American fishing communities with Nikita Gaibor (PhD 16), Project Coordinator at the Public Institute of Aquaculture and Fisheries Research of Ecuador.
Polnac cannot be thrilled to see the success of his former students. “We have produced some outstanding students in naval affairs,” he says. “I have always wanted them to be better than me and they are. Their success reflects well on the university.”
Polnack is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Maritime Affairs at the University of Rhode Island and Affiliate Professor in the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle.
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