Climate Change Threatens to Destroy Marshall Islands

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A high tide energized by storm surges washes across Ejit Island in Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands on March 3, 2014, causing widespread flooding and damaging a number of homes.
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Buses from around the country and flights from across the globe brought an estimated 400,000 marchers to New York City for the People's Climate March on Sunday. 

The height of the demonstration against global climate change was marked with a raucous display of noise. The sound of drums, whistles, and trombones were used to sound the alarm on an environmental future being stolen.

The march coincides with the start of the United Nations Climate Summit. The meeting, which begins Tuesday in New York, will bring 120 world leaders together in an effort to improve upon the progress of the last summit, which was held five years ago in Copenhagen and called "disappointing in substance and hectic in progress."

In attendance will be the leadership of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, a series low-lying ring-shaped islands, the highest of which is only two meters above sea level. To say that the Marshall Islands are vulnerable to the effects of global climate change is an understatement.

The Takeaway sat down with Tony De Brum, Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands, just ahead of Tuesday's Summit, to talk about his hopes and fears for an island nation that finds itself dangerously close to destruction.

“Anything that the sea does is felt immediately by our people,” says De Brum. “As the tide comes in a lot higher than it used, it begins to affect life as we know it. Not only as to where you can live or have a family, but also where you can grow your food, where you draw your water, and where you bury your dead.”

De Brum says the side effects of climate change are already being felt in not just the Marshall Islands, but the Federated States of Micronesia, Tuvalu, and other Pacific nations as well.

“If we do not keep the temperature under two degrees centigrade, as the United Nations FCCC [Framework Convention on Climate Change] is trying to do, then in 50 years there will be nobody living there,” he says. “Already, communities are having to move from their traditional sites because of erosion and the impending movement of the water.”

Though there is some movement, many citizens of the Marshall Islands feel that their sense of identity is attached to specific localities. And now they are finding that the places they have called home are no longer inhabitable.

“The displacement that is occurring now is because of droughts and floods,” he says. “Thousands have been moved from their homes to places that they do not traditionally belong in order for them to get away from the immediate effects of climate change.”

Though many are moving to different islands, many other citizens are abandoning the country altogether because the waters continue to rise and there is no where left to run.

“Many of our people live in America, but more are moving there because of the threat of climate change, and more will move if it continues to threaten us,” says De Brum. “We will try to do what we can to keep our population in place because moving people threatens our traditions, language, culture—everything that we stand for.”

Not even Marshall Island government officials are immune from the effects of climate change—the home of President Christopher Loeak has even been touched by rising waters.

“He himself had to build a wall around his house to prevent the salt water from inundating,” says De Brum. “Our airport retaining wall that keeps the saltwater out of the landing strip has been breached. You will see buildings being flooded and roads being cut.”

Climate change is disrupting almost every aspect of life in the Marshall Islands. So much so that not even the dead are safe.

“Our graveyards are also being undermined—coffins and bodies are being dug out from the seashore,” he says.

As the crisis continues to worsen, De Brum is hoping that an urgent call to action will be heard about 7,000 miles away from his home within the halls of the United Nations in New York City.

“We still hold our hopes high that the world will realize that allowing the Islands to go under is not a solution,” he says. “I don’t think that’s an option. We will continue to fight to make sure that the world understands that it’s still possible to do something about the effects of climate change. We hope that this week in New York we can convince those that still have doubts.”