Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera

‘Tell them we are afraid’: Marshallese urge sustainability but fear future

As the Marshall Islands tries to convince the world to reduce emissions, many residents face a future without a country

This is part three of a three-part series examining the effects of climate change on the Marshall Islands and what is being done to adapt to the increasing threats it poses. Part one examined the threat of rising sea levels on the low-lying coral atoll nation. Part two looked the country's disaster preparedness and efforts at climate adaptation.

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — “I’d rather sink with the islands and have tradition and honor,” said Jack Jefferson, a resident of Majuro, the capital of the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Sea level rise poses an existential threat to the Marshall Islands where the atolls are only about six feet above the waterline. With scientists predicting oceans will rise by up to six feet by the end of the century, the Marshallese regularly head to U.N. summits to demand that the world’s biggest polluters wean themselves off fossil fuels, but most also realize they could be among the first climate refugees to see their country nearly disappear.

The geography of the Marshall Islands — a chain of 29 atolls and five islands spread across 700 miles of open ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia — puts the country of more than 50,000 people on the brink of oblivion. With its low-lying atolls and over 230 miles of coastline, even a small sea level rise would make much of the nation uninhabitable. 

About 70 million years ago, coral reefs began developing in the shallow water around a set of volcanic islands in the Pacific. As the geologic plates shifted, the ancient volcanoes slowly sank back into the sea, Jefferson explained, but the coral kept growing. When the coral reefs broke the ocean’s surface, waves pounded the reef, producing sand and creating a ring of low-lying islets encircling a lagoon.

“Coral grows about one inch in a year, so how old do you think the Marshall Islands are?” asked Jefferson, who studied the effects of chronic disease on coral’s ability to tolerate heat stress at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“That means decades for just an arm’s length,” Jefferson said, gesturing. The lagoon of Majuro, he said, is about 300 feet deep, where the original volcano sits buried by the sea.

Jefferson took an interest in studying coral reefs because he "lives on them," he said, adding that climate change has pushed coral species around the world to the edge of extinction through warmer ocean temperatures and ocean acidification.

Offshore coral reefs still sit below the waterline and provide a buffer to unpredictable storm surges, but, especially with the sea level rise, those reefs haven't been enough to prevent the extreme flooding that has hit the Marshall Islands in recent years.

The floods and other effects of climate change prompted leaders of the Marshall Islands to call on the world’s biggest carbon emitters to reduce the pollution that’s raising the oceans and threatening their nation.

The Marshallese president, Christopher J. Loeak, said he had to remain hopeful about his efforts to curb the burning of fuels around the world, especially with a global climate treaty still to be signed at the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) in Paris in December.

“I have to hope for Paris, otherwise it would be tantamount to giving up,” Loeak said. “We can’t continue to ignore this or the lives of an unimaginable number will be affected. Young people should be more concerned; our generation is on the way out.”

“I would like to go with the peace of mind that I’ve done everything I can,” Loeak said.

Ahead of last September's U.N. Climate Summit in New York City, Loeak sent a video message to conference delegates in which he stood in front of the seawall he said he built to keep the rising seas from swamping his home.

In the video, the president called on world leaders to embrace a carbon-free vision by the middle of the century, warning, “Without it, no seawall will be high enough to save my country.”

Majuro resident and poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijner earned a standing ovation at the U.N. from over 120 heads of state and other members of the audience for her description of the threat rising seas pose to the Marshallese people.

In her most famous poem, “Tell them,” she wrote:

“Tell them about the water, how we have seen it rising, flooding across our cemeteries, gushing over sea walls and crashing against our homes.”

“Tell them what it's like to see the entire ocean level with the land, tell them we are afraid, tell them we don't know of the politics or the science but tell them we see what is in our own backyard.”

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is joined by her husband and child as she receives a standing ovation after her address to the Climate Summit, at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.
Richard Drew/AP

But like many Majuro residents, Jefferson said he didn’t believe any of the Marshallese efforts abroad would make a difference.

“They don’t care about ants,” he said about the world’s larger countries.

As Loeak and Jetnil-Kijner called on the world to take action, the Marshall Islands launched its own ambitious plan to reduce emissions — negligible as they may be.

Though Loeak admitted the country’s emissions were “insignificant” on a global scale, the country has taken steps toward a low-carbon future to act as an example for other nations, he said.

In the outer atolls, more than 95 percent of rural households  — which had been powered by imported jet-grade kerosene — have been converted to solar according to Angeline Heine, energy policy planner at the Ministry of Research and Development. That means over 3,000 households now have a 200-watt system.

“Every house has electricity from solar for lights,” Billa Jacklick, mayor of Jaluit Atoll, located about 170 miles east of Majuro. She added that they have signaled a need for upgraded wattage so that they can have refrigerators and washing machines, which Heine said was a future goal of her department.

The Majuro power plant that provides electricity to the capital atoll is run on diesel, and Heine said she and her team aimed to change that.

“One of our overarching goals is to provide clean energy,” Heine said. 

The progress they have made on renewable energy has made a 6 percent dent in fossil fuel burning to date, she said. The Marshall Islands hopes to achieve 20 percent green energy by 2020.

“We’re confident we can reach our renewable energy target,” Heine said.

Other types of renewable energy projects in the works include small-scale wind turbines and ocean thermal energy conversion plants. The government has also established tax breaks for purchasing efficient appliances, and has transitioned all government buildings to be energy efficient, Heine said.

But the country’s biggest source of emissions is not from electricity, Heine said. Two-thirds of the remote country's emissions come from the transport sector, including shipping vessels and airlines.

To lessen those emissions, Heine said, they want to increasingly rely on their traditional sailing methods. The Marshall Islands has a long history of voyaging in outrigger canoes, which many Marshallese in the outer atolls still use.

Giving up diesel-powered boats wouldn't be much of a sacrifice, according to Alson Kelen, the executive director of Waan Aelon in Majel, or Canoes of the Marshall Islands. He said the Marshallese boats are the fastest canoes in the Pacific.

Kelen's nonprofit organization works with Marshallese youth to teach them traditional boat-building and other skills that he says are dying out.

“Culture is the most sustainable way of living,” Kelen said. “If we had followed those traditions, we probably wouldn’t have had this problem with climate change.”

The government spends 70 percent of its budget on fossil fuels, Kelen said, a fact he learned during his time as chairman of the board for government shipping. That money could be better spent on climate adaptation, especially given the difficulties large ships have in reaching the outer atolls, Kelen said.

“We want to come up with green vessels, since we have wind and sun 365 days a year — we can utilize those,” Kelen said. “Our traditional canoes are green.”

Though Kelen said he hopes that the worst effects of climate change will be abated and the Marshall Islands will survive, he is also a realist.

“Our program is cultural revival, but we also teach life skills,” Kelen said. “Migration is not something we can control, but we can give them the skills they need to survive if they have to go to the U.S. or Australia.”

The NGO teaches English, math skills and money management, so that people can get a job if forced to leave the Marshall Islands, he said.

But for many Marshallese, leaving the atolls is almost unthinkable.

“This is my mother’s land, and I’ve never thought of leaving — it would be very hard,” said Rusina Rusin, a resident of Majuro. “Owning land is more than land — it’s identity. The land is sacred. You earn respect through the land.”

Regardless, some Marshall Islands residents see migration as their best option, made easier by the Compact of Free Association between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands, which allows citizens to live and work in either country without visas.

Springdale, Arkansas, is the unlikely destination of thousands of Marshallese, according to Amatlain Kabua, former United Nations ambassador and former mayor of Majuro.

A small group of Marshallese migrants got jobs at a Tyson Foods chicken factory in the southern state in the 1980s, and the community has been growing ever since.

“I guess we pluck chickens better than anything else,” Kabua said, chuckling. She said that there were around 10,000 residents of the Marshall Islands now living in Arkansas and about 6,000 in Hawaii. There are also significant diaspora communities in Oregon and California, she added.

The downside to migration is that the traditional culture Kelen lauded may be lost as the migrants assimilate into American culture.

“Already in Arkansas they are losing the culture; the youth don’t speak Marshallese,” Kabua said. Though the migrants start off traditional and tend to stay in tight-knit communities, with time "they just walk like Americans with a modernized style in the way they dress," Kabua said.

Although Rusin lives on the most vulnerable edge of Majuro Atoll, where there is nothing to stop the unpredictable floods that sometimes destroys the agriculture she depends on to eat, she said she has never considered leaving.

“The land is the only thing that makes me feel rich, and on my land, I don’t see that I’m a widow and that I need things — I have the land and freedom and my grandchildren,” Rusin said.

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