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.