It’s now been over a year since the UN Climate Summit in France, when the world came together to adopt the Paris Agreement, a first of its kind global climate agreement to reduce carbon emissions. In that process, despite its diminutive size, the 70 square-mile Marshall Islands helped lead the charge. Since negotiating internationally binding agreements is tough work, we were on hand with an ice cream intervention!
Tony de Brum – the Marshall Islands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs – was the first recipient for a well-deserved restorative scoop of ‘Save Our Swirled’, a flavour that was concocted to help raise awareness and funding for climate action.
The Front Lines of Climate Change
More and more, we’re seeing that climate change isn’t a distant threat. It’s happening right here, right now, and places like the Marshall Islands are on the very front lines.
A Rough Deal
Some might say this low-lying island nation has had it tough. During the Cold War it was used by the US as testing ground for nuclear weapons, and the bomb dropped on Bikini Atoll in 1954 was so powerful that it completely vaporised three entire islands. As if the radioactive fallout wasn’t bad enough, rising sea levels caused by climate change are now threatening to leave the entire country under water, and all this despite the miniscule contribution it makes to global greenhouse gas emissions.
To add to this, poverty levels are the highest in the Pacific, which is more than a little ironic considering its decades spent under US administration and its use of the US dollar. If that ain’t a rough deal, we don’t know what is!
As its shoreline steadily washes away, more and more people are being forced to evacuate. A spate of five-meter swells swamped the country back in 2014, causing a state of emergency and putting the gears of evacuation into overdrive. Around 20,000 Marshallese now live in the United States – that’s a third of the country’s entire population.
That, of course, is the one arguably positive thing to have come out of the country’s unhappy association with the US. Currently, a compact of free association allows Marshallese people to live and work in the US without a visa, although it’s due to end in 2023 and there are no guarantees that it’ll be renewed.
Many islanders fear that the doors to safety will snap shut leaving them nowhere else to go, which is powerful impetus to pack up and leave while they still can. That is, if they can part with leaving their home, friends, and way of life.
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Those who stay face only encroaching tides and rising unemployment, as their economy continues to wither. They do what they can to reinforce their homes against the sea, building makeshift walls of rock that last only until the next tidal surge knocks them down. Many have abandoned their homes and moved inland, but that has only bought them a little extra time at best.
One islander summed it up perfectly in a heartbreaking article that appeared recently in The Guardian. “When the next uprising from the sea comes and washes away all the crops and stuff from people’s houses, then what? We are going to go under. The water is going to keep coming up and we’re going to have nowhere else to go. We’re going to have no place.”
1.5 to Stay Alive!
It’s not just remote and low-lying islands that stand to suffer from climate change – what happens to the likes of the Marshall Islands, Palau, and Fiji today will happen to other places tomorrow. Major urban centres like Mumbai, New York, and Miami are at risk, since large areas of them are barely above sea level. That means tens of millions of people will be directly affected.
If we’re to avert this impending disaster and keep places like the Marshall Islands above water, we need to make sure we stick to our long-term goal of no more than 1.5°C of warming. With COP22 around the corner, it’s vital that we keep up the pressure on global leaders to swiftly implement the Paris Agreement, so let’s get together and shout out the message loud and clear!