Minister Tony de Brum of the Republic of the Marshall Islands describes the clear and present danger posed by climate change to his nation, and urges the world to act against this threat.
My country needs a precious gift from the world’s people – the vision to take bold, urgent action on climate change, and the will to follow it through. Only concerted action can protect us from the rising seas and lack of fresh water that now threaten my nation’s very existence.
I am from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, a string of 34 low-lying coral atolls, comprising over 1,000 islands and islets scattered over one million square miles of the Pacific Ocean.
Climate change is not a distant prospect, but a reality for us now. People are starting to ask: What is happening to our country? What will my children do? Not our grandchildren or great-grandchildren, but our children, who are already on the frontline.
In other countries, you can talk about climate change as something intangible whose impacts will arrive in 50 years. But if the world does not tackle climate change now, then my people will be displaced. We will become strangers in a foreign land, having lost our national identity, our traditions and our very collective being.
This is today’s reality in the Marshall Islands: we lie an average of only 2 metres above a sea level that is rising much more quickly than previously thought. The most recent US National Climate Assessment says that sea levels in our immediate neighbourhood will rise by 2 metres before 2100.
Today, climate change has left our capital Majuro with only two hours’ worth of fresh water every second day, and many of our outer islands with none at all.
We recently declared a State of Emergency to protect lives and communities against this imminent danger. As I write, ships are traveling to these far-flung communities to deliver fresh water and desalination machines. Of all the ironies, these water-makers are powered by climate-warming diesel.
A small nation, a big voice
When world leaders failed to agree an inclusive, ambitious climate deal in Copenhagen in 2009, the Marshall Islands decided that it needed to take matters into its own hands. With our existence at stake, we could not afford to stand by and let the opportunity for truly collective action on climate change slip away.
We want to lead by example. When we host the Pacific Islands Forum summit this September, we will announce the full “solarisation” of our outer island communities – every household and school now uses solar-powered lighting, and every clinic uses solar-powered lighting and refrigeration.
I believe this is a tremendous achievement considering that our islands are scattered over over one million square miles of ocean. It is also a good way of winning hearts, minds and votes for efforts to tackle climate change.
Our foremost foreign policy goal is collective action that delivers a safe climate for humankind and a future for the Marshall Islands. This must happen in two ways.
We must conclude a new legally binding agreement under the UNFCCC, which safeguards the most vulnerable from the impacts of dangerous climate change. But beneath this agreement, we need to see policies, actions and a fundamental change in the way the world powers its growth.
Development cannot come at the expense of the most vulnerable. We need to transition to a no-carbon economy.
Climate diplomacy starts at home
We need to recognise that the inadequacy of the current international response to climate change is an enormous failure of international cooperation. Climate diplomacy is one way to seek to address this.
In the aftermath of Copenhagen, the Marshall Islands’ then-UN Ambassador, now Foreign Minister, convened a multi-stakeholder, week-long workshop involving Ministers, government officials, community leaders and civil society to develop a national climate change roadmap for the future.
The Roadmap put climate change at the heart of government policy, and established a National Committee on Climate Change, comprised of the heads of the relevant government agencies, to implement a new whole-of-government climate change policy.
One initiative under the Roadmap was to invite our friends at Independent Diplomat, with support from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN), to help us develop a new strategy for climate diplomacy.
We threw ourselves into enhancing our technical capacity on climate issues, including among our diplomats and Ministers, and into enhancing our international profile. We now put climate change front and centre in every one of our diplomatic encounters, stressing the existential threat and the need for an urgent response. I took this message to the UN Security Council earlier this year.
We have learned some big lessons about climate diplomacy in the three years since then. It needs to be strategic and high level, and we need to forge alliances around common interests. Most importantly, tackling climate change requires awareness, understanding and action from all parts and levels of society.
Governments cannot do it alone. Businesses cannot do it alone. We must all be part of the solution.
No more delay
This September, the Marshall Islands will host the Pacific Islands Forum summit, and welcome the 14 Pacific Island countries and Australia and New Zealand, as well as our Forum Dialogue partners, including the US, China, EU and India. Altogether, countries representing over 60% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions will take part in the meeting in Majuro.
For the summit, we have chosen the theme Marshalling the Pacific Response to the Climate Challenge.
The Majuro Declaration on Climate Change, the summit’s signature outcome, will spell out what this means: no more ‘kicking the can down the road,’ but action now, by every one of us, to ensure that a below 2 degree world remains within reach.
We all face a desperate battle against a looming and intensifying climate catastrophe. It is the battle of our generation. Will you join my call to arms?
Tony de Brum is Minister in Assistance to the President of the Marshall Islands. Read his February address to the United Nations Security Council here.