Marshall Islands President Pleads in The New York Times: Don’t Let Us Drown

All nations, big or small, need to step up efforts against climate change, says the leader of the Pacific nation.

An aerial view of part of a low-lying atoll in the Marshall Islands.
National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
Sept. 26, 2013, 8:53 a.m.

The latest president to pen an op-ed in a major American newspaper is not calling for diplomacy in handling military or nuclear threats, as Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Hassan Rouhani of Iran have done in the last month. This president is asking the world to work together to keep his country from drowning.

The threat of climate change is very real in the Marshall Islands, wrote president Christopher Loeak in The New York Times on Wednesday. The republic is a string of more than 1,000 small islands southwest of Hawaii, with a population of 52,555. Some land is what’s known as atolls — narrow, ring-shaped strips of low-lying land that encircle lagoons. The entire nation sits about seven feet above sea level.

“We are increasingly panicked by recent scientific reports suggesting that the world is currently heading for a three- to six-foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century,” Loeak said. ‘“If such predictions are accurate, my country will be lost forever.”

Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands, along with 15 other states party to the Pacific Islands Forum, signed a declaration to combat the effects of emissions on planetary warming. Forum members range from small states like Fiji and Tuvalu to large nations like Australia and New Zealand. The Marshall Islands aims to cut its greenhouse-gas emissions in half before 2030 and become carbon neutral before 2050. “The message to the bigger countries is this: If we can do it, so can you,” the president said.

Loeak said he received support from U.S. officials on the declaration, but stressed that more needs to be done. “For too long, others have used American inaction as an excuse not to act themselves. The world needs American leadership on climate change. United States support for the Majuro Declaration could not be more welcome, and it is likely to spur action from others.”

The president declared a “state of disaster” for the country’s northern atolls after a severe drought left thousands without fresh water. Six weeks later, a rare high tide struck the capital city of Majuro, flooding the airport, neighborhoods and “even my own backyard,” Loeak said.

Some have suggested the Marshallese seek higher ground, but for them, there’s no such thing. The island nation’s residents won’t choose to leave either, said Loeak, who is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday afternoon. “If the water comes, it comes.”

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