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Marshall Islands adapting to a changing world

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

By Nic Maclellan

“Marshall Islands was always a climate leader. The responsibility to raise awareness about the impact of climate change on our islands and our livelihoods is a responsibility we own. We have to be part of the solution and show other countries that if we can do it, so can they.”

That’s Hilda C. Heine, the former President of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI).

Dr. Heine detailed RMI’s diverse responses to the climate emergency during a recent webinar hosted by He Pou a Rangi, the NZ Climate Change Commission. She was joined on the webinar by her daughter Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a performance poet, educator and community activist, who also serves as a Climate Envoy for Marshall Islands. This dynamic duo has become international campaigners alongside other Marshallese concerned about the long-term, adverse effects of global warming.

As the latest assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is released in the lead up to the next UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP26), Heine says it’s time for action.

“The IPCC report presents a sense of clarity, if and where there were doubts, and it also lays a sense of urgency, especially for big emitters and all of the G20 countries,” she said. “It also tells us that if we act fast, it will pay off. So let’s stop dragging those feet and rise to the occasion. Do the right thing by ourselves, by our neighbours, by our future generations.”

She adds: “Clearly big emitters are not doing enough to reduce emissions – including Pacific Rim countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the United States. They could do more with their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as well as increasing finance to help vulnerable developing countries.”

Heine is the first woman to serve as RMI President between 2016 and 2020, and continues as the Senator for Aur in the RMI Nitijela (national parliament). As President, she was active in the Smaller Island States (SIS) group – Pacific atoll nations that are small in population and land area, but enormous in ocean space. The SIS group has long been advocating for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to hold temperatures well below 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures – a target often watered down by larger members of the Pacific Islands Forum in their annual communiqués.

“The window for 1.5°C is very rapidly narrowing according to the IPCC report,” Heine says. “It is still there though, and still worth fighting for. We said 1.5°C for a reason. We know it gives a vulnerable countries like mine the best shot at survival. For atoll nations, the risks are extreme – expressly for sea level rise.”

Climate, culture and adaptation

Through videos such as “History Project”, “Dear Matafele Peinem” and “Anointed”, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has achieved international recognition for her poetry and performances, which highlight nuclear legacies, racism and the threat of climate change.

Her work is part of a broader movement of youth campaigns across the Pacific – PICAN, Youngsolwara,, Pacific Climate Warriors and more – using social media and traditional culture to unite diaspora communities and home nations.

At local level, Jetnil-Kijiner co-founded the youth group Jodrikdrik in Jipan̄ Ene Eo Ekutok Maroro (Youth for a Greener Environment). Through her Iep Jeltok blog and international campaigning, she highlights the importance of youth mobilisation and art to respond to the climate emergency: “It was in those spaces with other Pacific Islander youth that I was able to speak and use poetry to connect to the emotional core of climate change, because climate change is so much more than numbers and nameless faces. It is also about figuring how to fight, and where we can get the fire to continue to fight long after you are exhausted.”

In 2019, the Heine government established the Tile Til Eo Committee (TTEC), co-chaired by

the Minister of Environment and the RMI Chief Secretary, to co-ordinate responses to the climate emergency. This national committee includes three Working Groups, on Adaptation, Mitigation and the NDC Partnership.

On the international stage, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner joins RMI diplomat Tina Stege in New York as official climate envoys for the country. They follow a long tradition of international advocacy by leaders such as the late ambassador Tony de Brum, through the High Ambition Coalition, the Alliance of Small Island States and now the Climate Vulnerable Forum and International Maritime Organisation.

In December last year, RMI submitted its first official Adaptation Communication to the United Nations, the first Small Island Developing State to do so. It highlights the work underway to develop a National Adaptation Plan as a guide for future action.

After creating a consultation framework, Jetnil-Kijiner says a current priority is to draw on the knowledge and diverse perspectives of people living in the outer islands: “This framework allows us to go to the outer islands, to meet with the different communities and find how climate change is actually impacting them and what kind of observations they’ve seen. It’s there that we can discuss what possible adaptation solutions they could be exploring.”

Beyond this, Jetnil-Kijiner stresses two distinct features for the national adaptation initiative: “One is the human rights core of it, but then it’s also going to be one of the few National Adaptation Plans that takes into consideration the nuclear legacy, and how the nuclear legacy can inform how we plan for climate change action.”

Nuclear displacement

Today, lessons from decades of Marshallese anti-nuclear struggle inform contemporary debates around how climate change will affect land, culture and possible displacement in the atoll nation.

In March 1954, the United States conducted its largest ever atmospheric nuclear test, codenamed Bravo, on Bikini atoll. Radioactive fallout contaminated nearby islands, leading the evacuation of local villagers and US military observers.

Just weeks after the Bravo test, schoolteachers Dwight Heine and Atlan Anien and customary chiefs Kabua Kabua and Dorothy Kabua lodged a petition with the UN Trusteeship Council. It highlighted the importance of land as a source of culture and identity – land that was being vaporised or contaminated by the nuclear tests. Beyond the health hazards, the 1954 UN petition stressed that the Marshallese people “are also concerned for the increasing number of people removed from their land …. land means a great deal to the Marshallese. It means more than just a place where you can plant your food crops and build your houses or a place where you can bury your dead. It is the very life of the people. Take away their land and their spirits go also.”

People from Bikini, Rongelap and other atolls are in exile from their home islands to this day. The parallels with loss of land from sea level rise and salinity of water sources are clear.

Developing the RMI National Adaptation Plan, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner notes that “we’ve looked at land tenure already and how are we going to deal with land issues if we have to move. So that is a conversation that definitely can’t come from the top and it can’t come from a political level. It has to come from our traditional leaders and from conversations with our community.”

Jetnil-Kijiner says the ongoing exile for people from the nuclear atolls informs contemporary discussions about possible displacement from climate change and extreme weather events: “One thing for sure that we’ve identified is that mass relocation is something that we will not consider as a requirement, although it will be an option to relocate. We are looking at relocation within islands, consolidating centres, moving from different areas.”

Climate funding

Successive governments in Marshall Islands, under Hilda Heine and her successor David Kabua, have been forced to re-allocate funding from long-term development programs to emergency response, following flooding, king tides, drought or the introduction of new diseases.

Heine notes: “As President, my first official act in 2016 was to declare a state of emergency during my first month in office. We experienced a [more] serious drought than we have had in many years. That emergency continued for more than a year. Following the drought, we had another state of emergency when we had dengue fever on Majuro and Ebeye. We know that dengue fever is affected by changes in the climate and we’d never had dengue fever in Majuro before.”

To highlight the way climate affects people’s rights, the Heine government campaigned for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, which was achieved in 2019. She explains: “Our reason for getting a seat on the HRC was to bring the climate change crisis to the forefront … to create a special mandate in the HRC to address climate change as a human rights issue – the right to live in our ancestral lands, the right to perpetuate our language and culture that is a product of these unique environments, the right to maintain our sovereign territory of our land and ocean space as a country. Even if islands were to disappear, these are of great importance to us.”

At international climate negotiations, RMI is increasingly highlighting issues of adaptation as well as emissions reduction.

“We are trying our best at an international level to get more nations to focus on adaptation, to increase funding and support for small island nations” Jetnil-Kijiner said. “We’ve recognised what the IPCC has just stated – the science is clear, it’s going to get worse. For atoll nations in particular, we’re going to have to protect ourselves.”

However the failure of most industrialised nations to pledge new and additional climate funding is a serious problem, as developing country NDCs are often conditional on support from OECD states (at least 136 countries have made their NDCs partially or wholly conditional on receiving one or more types of support – climate finance for mitigation or adaptation; technology transfer; and capacity building).

Hilda Heine highlights the failure of OECD countries to meet their 2020 commitment for adaptation and mitigation funding: “We all know that the US$100 billion commitment that is there in the Paris Agreement hasn’t been met, so we continue to ask countries to ramp up their financial contribution.”

Dr. Heine welcomes new US pledges for bilateral climate finance but also calls for more contributions to multilateral structures like the Green Climate Fund (the Trump administration and the Morrison government in Australia both ended support to the GCF committed by previous governments).

“I continue to support the Green Climate Fund because it’s a big pot of money that has one set of requirements, rather than have multiple funds that we need to write grants to,” Heine said. “One of the challenges we have is that our grants office only has one or two people. When you have multiple requirements for grant writing, it makes it very difficult for our people. That was one of the good things about the Green Climate Fund: we know what the requirements are and it’s easier to follow.”

As countries prepare for COP26 in November, the RMI’s agenda remains constant: mobilising local communities, developing adaptation plans, strengthening public financial management, campaigning internationally for emissions reductions, seeking climate finance and reparations for loss and damage. But time is short, and more support is required.

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