Climate change might be fueling ethnic violence. PhD candidate Emily Sample explores why

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PhD Candidate Emily Sample stands with her arms crossed and smiles at the camera. She is wearing a black collared shirt and a golden necklace with three interconnected circles.
Emily Sample. Photo by Shelby Burgess/Strategic Communications/George Mason University

As a junior and senior at Annandale High School in Virginia, Emily Sample spent her summers as a docent at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. She was a teenager who had just lost a friend to police violence, she said, and joining the museum’s Young Ambassadors Program resonated with her.

“I was fascinated and continue to be fascinated by this highly illogical idea of genocide,” said Sample, a PhD candidate at George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.

Since then, Sample has built her career around atrocity prevention. In addition to earning a master’s in human rights and genocide studies from Kingston University London, she has worked as a genocide scholar and educator for Holocaust Museum Houston in Texas. She currently works for the Fund for Peace, where she said she supports their portfolio on human rights and international peacebuilding.

“The best way to prevent genocide is to help make violence not an option,” Sample said, explaining that an “us-versus-them” mentality can develop when people believe there is scarcity of resources, and are manipulated into thinking ethnic violence is an answer.

She’s further studying this at Mason, with a case study in West Nile, Uganda, where she lived and conducted research while enrolled at Kingston. Her dissertation examines structural mass atrocity prevention through the lens of climate change adaptation and gender.

Emily Sample stands shoulder-to-shoulder with her researcher partner Lina Zedriga in Uganda in 2013.
Emily Sample (right) and her research partner Lina Zedriga in Uganda in 2013. Photo provided.

“If we make the climate better, if we empower women and have better access to clean water, then [Ugandans] will not be forced into making decisions about whether or not their family lives and the next family dies,” said Sample, who is interviewing Ugandans over Zoom.

Sample is also looking at the effects of environmental racism, where negative environmental impacts disproportionately affect people of color.

“The day-to-day life of someone in Uganda may be much more impacted [by climate change than a Westerner’s] because they’re having to adjust their farming season, and the type of seeds and livestock they’re buying,” she said.

These impacts have gendered implications, Sample said, as women often tend the gardens, cook, and walk to retrieve water.

Increasing education and environmental justice, such as reparations for environmental racism, while reducing scarcity fears, could alleviate many atrocity issues, she said.

Sample said she came to Mason because she wanted to dive deeper into the genocide prevention field.

“My hometown university has one of the best [conflict resolution] programs in the country,” said Sample, who also works with Mason’s Raphaël Lemkin Genocide Prevention Program.

“The Carter School is extremely unique in how many scholar-practitioners we have,” she said. “They integrate students into their work in unique and really pivotal ways that allow students to become practitioners.”

Though the PhD journey is demanding, Sample said her studies have been worthwhile.

“Every single professor is approachable, interesting and has contributed to me seeing the world in a variety of different ways,” she said.

“Emily is a rising star in genocide studies and conflict resolution, and the nexus of these fields with the practice of peacebuilding,” said Douglas Irvin-Erickson, director of Mason’s Genocide Prevention Program. “She’s a brilliant social analyst with many years of ethnographically informed research experience, and her deeply rooted sense of justice endears her to those with whom she works the closest.”

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Emily Sample conducts her research over Zoom. Two Ugandan men are shown sitting at a table and talking to Sample via Zoom on an iPhone.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Sample conducts interviews for her dissertation virtually. Here, two Ugandan men communicate with her from Africa via Zoom using a smartphone (bottom right). Photo provided.