Game Changer: Austin Shelton (Guam)

In Climate, Game Changers 16, Planet by Mary KurekLeave a Comment

Dr. Austin Shelton joined the faculty of the University of Guam (UOG) in 2016 as an assistant professor of extension and outreach. Shelton later received appointments to concurrently serve as the director of the UOG Center for Island Sustainability and UOG Sea Grant. He leads initiatives that support the transition of island communities toward a sustainable future. Current activities include aligning with U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and stimulating island circular economy industries.  A native of Guam, Shelton grew up observing environmental challenges of island communities and was inspired to become a marine and environmental scientist. Shelton conducts research to revive island ecosystems and builds STEM capacity in Pacific Islander communities through student research experiences and science fairs. Shelton manages a portfolio of grants from Sea Grant (NOAA), National Science Foundation (NSF) EPSCoR, NSF INCLUDES, Department of the Interior, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hawaii-Pacific Islands Cooperative Ecosystems Studies Units (U.S. Navy), and the Northern and Southern Guam Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Shelton coordinates multiple regional and international collaborations as the representative of the Guam focal point for the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), delegate to the National Sea Grant Association, and UOG member representative to the Global Consortium for Sustainability Outcomes.  Shelton earned a B.S. degree in marine biology from Hawai`i Pacific University and both an M.S. and Ph.D. in zoology with a specialization in marine biology from the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa.

Austin presenting at Island Sustainability Community Advisory Board


Q & A with Austin:

Q:  Austin:  you’ve mentioned that Guam is the first place to experience the effects of climate change.  Please share more information about that and how it is impacting the island along with major challenges you are facing.  

A:  Communities in small islands (not just Guam) are some of the first to experience the impacts of global climate change impacts. We are on the front lines of global environmental stressors related to climate change, such as 1) the increasing frequency and intensity of storms, 2) rising sea-level, 3) and warming sea surface temperatures (which, in recent years, is causing unprecedented levels of coral bleaching and loss of essential fish habitat).
Though Guam is only 212 square miles, it is the largest and most populous island in Micronesia. The island region of Micronesia is comprised of 2,100 islands spanning 2.9 million square miles, and it is home to 500,000 people. With more freshwater, higher elevation, and health and educational resources than many of our lower-lying island neighbors, we expect to receive more climate-change migrants arriving in Guam as climate change impacts worsen.
Q:  How did your role and the program at the University come about and how is it supported?
A:  The University of Guam Center for Island Sustainability was established in 2009 by President Emeritus Dr. Robert Underwood. The mission of the center is to lead and support the transition of our island region toward a sustainable future.
My faculty position as an assistant professor is supported by the university. All of our center’s staff and activities, such as watershed and coral reef restoration projects, forest research, an annual regional conference on island sustainability (, and educational outreach, are supported by grants and donations.
Q:  You have shared some facts and figures with me about the local economy and how you are dealing with waste there.  (Example:  shipping off waste to another country).  What projects are happening locally to try to mitigate the expense of waste and create a circular economy?
A:  Guam’s economy is mainly supported by two industries; 1) Tourism (over 1.5 million tourists per year, mostly from Japan and South Korea), 2) government and military spending. Two major sustainability challenges are a heavy reliance on imports and a massive production of waste. Guam brings in over 80,000 shipping containers annually to meet the needs of society. Though space is limited on the island, most of the imports end up as waste buried in a landfill. Transitioning from a linear economic model to the circular economy is a solution to these sustainability challenges and can contribute to a new green economic pillar for the island. A circular economy designs out waste and pollution, keeps materials and products in use, and regenerates natural systems.
In Guam, it costs $160 to landfill one ton of waste and $600 to ship off one ton of recyclable plastic waste to Indonesia.  There is an opportunity right there at $440/ton for innovation to save money and create a new local circular economy industry. Other circular economy examples exist in Micronesia, such as Green Banana Paper, that turns discarded banana trees into vegan leather wallets. We are working to stimulate new circular economy industries to reduce reliance on imports, reduce waste, and promote green economic growth.

Q:  Is there a new direction or something else coming along that will boost your efforts there and how might that impact other islands around you? 

A:  The University of Guam and our local government are planning strategic steps to align with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and to accelerate local implementation of the SDGs.  We are currently working with the Hawaii Green Growth UN Local 2030 Islands Hub and the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA) to become recognized as a Local 2030 Hub in Guam.  This will boost our local and regional sustainability initiatives.

Austin’s Networking Contacts:

  • Philanthropists and corporations who are interested in working in small islands (the frontlines of global climate change impacts) to advance sustainability initiatives, reduce waste (especially plastics), and increase climate change resilience.
  • Investors interested in working with our Center for Island Sustainability and local business incubator to fund new and/or expand existing circular economy industries
  • Experts from NGOs, non-profits, foundations, and academia interested in partnering on island sustainability initiatives (i.e., food security, fisheries, climate change, sustainable tourism, education, renewable energy, etc)




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