People in the Republic of the Marshall Islands have a lot to lose if global warming causes the seas to rise as much as scientists think they could. Their entire nation would cease to exist.
The Marshallese live on 1,100 islands spread across three-quarters of a million square miles of the central Pacific Ocean. Most of the islands are small, so small that if you added them all together, you would have a parcel of land no bigger than the District of Columbia.
A few are no more than a couple hundred yards wide, and their average elevation is just seven feet above sea level. They're arranged in 29 sandy, ring-shaped chains called atolls. Stand most anywhere on Majuro Atoll, the capital and home to one-third of the country's 58,000 people, and you can hear the surf crashing on either side of you.
Small island states are among the most vulnerable to climate change. Many of them will not be able to adapt by retreating from the coastal zone. There isn't anywhere else to go. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) notes that land lost to sea-level rise and associated effects “is likely to be of a magnitude that would disrupt virtually all economic and social sectors in these countries.”
Understandably, the governments of places like the Bahamas, Fiji and the Federated States of Micronesia have been among the most vocal critics of the U.S. and other governments that have opposed aggressive action on climate change.
Atoll nations like Kiribati, the Maldives, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are doubly vulnerable because they are literally built on the backs of reef-building corals that formed the islands and today protect them from storms. According to a study by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, the predicted increase in sea-surface temperatures can be expected to damage and kill the relevant corals through bleaching, preventing them from keeping pace with rising seas.
Signs of erosion are everywhere on Majuro. Beaches have vanished, seawalls have been battered down and chunks of the main road have been swept away by the sea. At a cemetery in the middle of town, islanders have to keep reburying their relatives because the sea keeps uncovering their coffins during storms. There are no rivers in the Marshall Islands; people rely on a thin “lens” of fresh groundwater for drinking and irrigation, but more and more of those lenses are becoming contaminated with brine.
On Majuro, some of those changes may be the result of poorly conceived developments and the mining of lagoon sand for use in construction, acknowledges Holly Barker, a senior adviser to the Marshallese ambassador to the United States “It's true that on Majuro there are some human impacts, but we see exactly the same effects on the outer islands, where people are still living sustainably off the land and there is no industry whatsoever,” says Barker, who previously lived on remote Mille Atoll as a Peace Corps volunteer. “On Mille there are these huge gun turrets that the Japanese built 100 yards inshore during World War II so that U.S. vessels coming in wouldn't see them. Now they're standing out in the water.”
A 1992 study of Majuro Atoll by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determined that if sea levels rise by three feet, the atoll will cease to exist. Defending the atoll from a 50-year storm event would be impossible in such a case, and NOAA has issued a sober policy recommendation: “Full retreat of the entire population of Majuro Atoll and the Marshall Islands must be considered in planning for worst-case [sea-rise] and climate-change scenarios.”
Children of the Marshall Islands in the South Pacific may lose their world if the oceans rise even a few feet. The islands are spread across low-lying atolls. Refugees from the Marshalls are already immigrating to New Zealand as the global temperature rises. (Mieco Beach Yacht Club)
“For the Marshall Islands, climate change is an issue of sovereignty,” Barker says. “The Marshallese have extremely low carbon emissions. Other countries' lifestyle habits don't give them the right to take away a nation. Where will the Marshallese go? Will they still have a voice at the United Nations? Will they cease to be a nation?”
In 2001, Tuvalu, another Pacific atoll nation, convinced New Zealand to take an annual quota of refugees, so as to allow an orderly evacuation of the nation. “While New Zealand responded positively in the true Pacific way of helping one's neighbors, Australia on the other hand has slammed the door in our face,” Paani Laupepa of the Tuvalu Ministry of Natural Resources, said at the time.
He also had sharp words for the United States, saying that its refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol had “effectively denied future generations of Tuvaluan their fundamental freedom to live where our ancestors have lived for thousands of years.”
Should it come to that, the most likely refuge for the Marshallese would be the United States, which governed the islands for more than 40 years after World War II under a mandate from the United Nations. The U.S. Postal Service still delivers the mail within the country, and Marshallese serve in the U.S. military in relatively large numbers.