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The Smallest Country with the Biggest Mouth

By Joseph Naeem

In 1954, the U.S. dropped its largest ever hydrogen bomb near Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands (RMI), ushering in an age when nuclear weapons posed a global existential threat. Now sixty years later, rising sea levels threaten to engulf the low-lying Marshall Islands, putting them again on the front line of a terrifying new era. “We are the smallest country with the biggest mouth,” said Alson Kelen, director of WAM Canoes of the Marshall Islands.

Tom Armbruster, the U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands, said the Marshallese delegation to the recent COP21 climate summit in Paris “punched above their weight,” adding that “the ability of people like [poet] Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Foreign Minister DeBrum to humanize the challenge of climate change and sea level rise is largely why the Paris conference was so successful.”

The Marshall Islands are a series of atolls—sunken volcano rims topped with coral, sand, and plants—located halfway between Australia and Hawaii. There are no hills or mountains on the Marshall Islands. The average height above sea level is just seven feet. If global temperatures rise more than the anticipated 2 degrees Celsius, the Marshall Islands and other islands nations like Kiribati will be underwater by 2050.

Photo courtesy of Jack Niedenthal

The Marshall Islands are tiny specks on most maps, but diplomats and artists have amplified the country’s voice on climate change. By far the islands’ two most visible and outspoken global representatives, as noted by Armbruster, have been poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner and Foreign Minister Tony DeBrum.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and performance artist. She rose to international prominence when she was selected from 500 other candidates to read her poem Dear Matafele Peinem at the opening of the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit. Her earlier and best known poem, Tell Them, includes a plea for the world to understand that the Marshallese want to stay on their islands and maintain their culture and identities:

but most importantly tell them
we don’t want to leave
we’ve never wanted to leave
and that we
are nothing without our islands.

Jetnil-Kijiner, 27, was present at the Paris COP21 climate change summit.  She pushed for a 1.5 Celsius limit—“1.5 to stay alive”—since the projected 2 degree Celsius limit could still submerge her country. She called a 2 Celsius limit “gambling” with her country’s future.

On the political side, the Marshall Islands’ genial foreign minister, Tony DeBrum, 70, has been a force in international climate talks for years. Self-styled as one of the foremost spokespeople on climate change, DeBrum has collected a string of accolades and was recently profiled by news sources such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. Echoing Armbruster’s sentiments, one publication dubbed him the climate champion of the COP21 conference.

Photo courtesy of Alson Kelen

But it hasn’t just been the international superstars who have given voice to the Marshallese plight. Local talents have done so as well. Jack Niedenthal, 57, known locally as “Bikini Jack,” arrived as a Peace Corps volunteer on Namu Atoll in 1981 and never left, eventually marrying a Bikinian woman. Since 2008, he has directed several short and feature length films that dramatize Marshallese experiences related to nuclear issues, climate change, and life on the islands.

His most recent film, Jilel, subtitled “A Global Warming Fairy Tale,” is the story of a girl confronted with the idea that her homeland is disappearing. When her dying grandmother bequeathes her a shell, she discovers that it has the magical power to shut down technological devices and sends it off to Barack Obama in the White House. When he receives it, the power shuts down in White House, then across the U.S., and finally throughout the entire world, thereby cutting carbon emissions to zero and thus saving the Marshall Islands. Jack said he hopes that his films will showcase the “nuances” of Marshallese culture that will be lost if the land disappears.

Jack, who filmed Jetnil-Kijiner’s submission to U.N., said he believes in the power of art to spread an environmental message: “To me, almost, art is the most important part. The political part is important, it’s always in the background and will be there, but I think a lot of people buy into it emotionally on a much better level when it’s art. It’s something you can relate to as a human being.”

Photo courtesy of Jack Niedenthal

A frequent actor in Jack’s films, and something of a Marshallese celebrity, is Lulani Ritok, 20. Ritok is a sophomore at Las Positas College in Livermore, California. She said she first realized the dangers of climate change when people from a nearby island had to flee to Majuro, the capital city where she grew up.

“When I was younger, I remember thinking the polar bears were going to go extinct, but I thought of climate change as something happening far away.   Then, one day I was at church and noticed a growing population of Kiribas there. Someone in my family said, ‘These people had to relocate because of climate change.’ And I was still pretty young, but I thought, ‘The Kiribas aren’t that far from us,’” she said.

Recently, a flood had inundated her house: “Refrigerators were floating past me. Chickens which can’t fly were up in the trees.”

Photo courtesy of Alson Kelen

Niten Anni, 24, another actor in Jack’s films, is a master ukulele player who leads exercise and nutrition awareness at Majuro’s Wellness Center, and will soon to begin basic training as a Private in U.S. Army in South Carolina. Anni became aware of climate change when he revisited some of the sites his grandmother had taken in Majuro lagoon, teeming with beautifully-hued coral.  When, as a junior in high school, he returned to those same reefs, he saw that they had lost their color, a phenomenon known as “coral bleaching,” one caused by rising water temperatures. He says his friend’s house was completely gutted by recent flooding.

Even though the Marshall Islands is filled with ambitious individuals trying to spread the message of climate change, the domestic situation of the islands is far from idyllic. Large amounts of money come into the island nation from the U.S., the U.N., the EU, Japan, Taiwain and other nations and agencies. In spite of the cash, development projects often move at a snail’s pace, and corruption is widespread. Voicing their frustration, voters in the RMI turned out almost half of its senators. Among the deposed was DeBrum.

Feelings about the future of the islands range from optimism to depression. Ritok said she is “expecting the worse, hoping for the best.” Bikini Jack notes, “I just don’t know. I just don’t see how this has a happy ending.”

Still, others are more optimistic. Ambassador Armbruster said he thinks that the recent Paris COP21 deal signals a change in norms that will hopefully cause nations to change their policies. In the end, the Marshallese were instrumental in getting the Paris deal done. And they won’t—and can’t—stop talking anytime soon.

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Joseph Naeem is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Top image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

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