“The Marshall Islands are the distant cousin you’ve never heard of” is one portrayal I heard to describe the unique relationship between the U.S. and the Marshallese. Personally, I’ve known about the islands since Tony de Brum, Marshall Islands’ Foreign Minster, spearheaded the creation of the “coalition for ambition” at the climate talks in Paris in 2015.
This coalition of developed and developing countries agreed to a target of limiting planetary warming to 1.5°C so that island states could continue to thrive and not go under water. But I’m in the climate nerd camp, so there is a good chance you’ve never heard of the Marshall Islands or know where to find them on a map.
However, I should have been introduced to these islands far earlier. They should have featured prominently in my U.S. history books alongside the stories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and our past of nuclear weapon usage and testing. It’s a period of our history we like to glaze over.
Between 1946 and 1958 the U.S. conducting 67 nuclear weapon tests on several of the Marshall Island atolls. Yes you read that right.
I was at the Alele National Museum in Majaro, Marshall Islands when I first read that number. I had to ask an employee at the museum for help when I looked at the list of “tests.”
I initially didn’t understand. I had briefly read about the nuclear testing but when I saw the list I asked, like an idiot American, “those are the dates of ALL the bombs…like actual nuclear bombs being dropped.” I think internally I was hoping there was something lost in translation even though it was in English.
The US dropped 23 bombs on the Bikini Atoll alone. You recognize the word Bikini because the French designer that created the Bikini swimsuit called it by that name based on the explosive history of the atoll.
The largest of the US bombs vaporized 3 small islands and was a thousand times more powerful than Hiroshima. You can imagine the nuclear fallout and the sickness that ensued along with the U.S. denial that anyone was impacted.
The bombs haven’t been the only aspect of US impact. The flow of cheap (and sometimes free) packaged and canned food has created a severe dependency on imports and unhealthy foods. The health ramifications are extremely problematic with the Marshall Islands being the 7th most obese country in the world.
As I received a glimpse of the Marshallese experience with the US, it’s no wonder it’s a complicated relationship mired in dependency, abuse and opportunity.
In the 1980s, the Compact of Free Association was signed allowing the Marshallese to live and work indefinitely in the US without visas in exchange for allowing the US military the right to use the atolls freely. This has led to nearly 30K Marshallese (50k currently reside in the Marshalls) moving, mostly for jobs, education and healthcare needs.
Then add the final layer — climate change. The U.S. is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and the Marshall Islands are literally drowning because of it. With one meter of seal level rise, more than 90% of the Marshall Islands will be submerged.
As Ben Graham, the country’s Chief Secretary, put it “when the oceans rise, we will be wiped off the map.” Globally, we are currently on a path toward 1.5°C temperature rise by as early as 2030 and with it the rapid rise of the oceans will follow. However, before the sea level fully rises, the Marshall Islands will face what Graham calls, “slow creeping misery” through increases in flooding and wave driven inundation as well as salt water intrusion to the water lens and local crops.
The Marshallese know they are a disrupted people and they regularly refer to themselves as survivors. You have to be fierce survivors to thrive on islands in the Pacific for thousands of years.
But as we barrel down a path toward surpassing the 1.5°C warming threshold that Tony de Brum and so many other island countries fought to keep below, how the Marshall Islands survive is an open question. Do they build up or migrate away from the land that is so critical to their culture and identity? Or is there still time for another future?
When de Brum was asked at the Paris Climate Conference, “Are you here to save your country?” his response was “No, we’re actually here to save the world.” Because if we save the Marshall Islands — the lowest lying, most vulnerable islands — we save the rest of us.
Lynn Englum has been writing and working on climate change and resilience issues for over a decade. She co-authored World Wildlife Fund's Climate Blog and her articles have appeared in various other news, journal and magazine outlets.