A Pacific Island Nation Slips Into the Relentless Rising Sea
Linber Anej waded out in low tide to haul cement chunks and metal scraps to shore and rebuild the makeshift sea wall in front of his home. The temporary barrier is no match for the rising seas that regularly flood the shacks and muddy streets with saltwater and raw sewage, but every day except Sunday, Anej joins a group of men and boys to haul the flotsam back into place.
“It’s insane, I know,” said Anej, 30, who lives with his family of 13,including his parents, siblings and children, in a four-room house. “But it’s the only option we’ve got.”
Standing near his house at the edge of a densely packed slum of tin shacks, he said, “I feel like we’re living underwater.”
Worlds away, in plush hotel conference rooms in Paris, London, New York and Washington, Tony A. deBrum, the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands,tells the stories of men like Anej to convey to more powerful policymakers the peril facing his island nation in the Pacific as sea levels rise — and to shape the legal and financial terms of a major United Nations climate change accord now being negotiated in Paris.
DeBrum’s focus is squarely on the West’s wallets — recouping “loss and damage,” in negotiators’ parlance, for the destruction wrought by the rich nations’ industrial might on the global environment.
Many other low-lying nations are just as threatened by rising seas. In Bangladesh, some 17 percent of the land could be inundated by 2050, displacing about 18 million people.
But the Marshall Islands holds an important card: Under a 1986 compact, the roughly 70,000 residents of the Marshalls, because of their long military ties to Washington, are free to emigrate to the United States, a pass that will become more enticing as the water rises on the islands’ shores.
The debate over loss and damage has been intense because the final language of the Paris accord could require developed countries, first and foremost the United States, to give billions of dollars to vulnerable countries like the Marshall Islands. Senior Republicans in Congress are already preparing for a fight, they say on behalf of the American taxpayer.
“Our constituents are worried that the pledges you are committing the United States to will strengthen foreign economies at the expense of American workers,” 37 Republican senators wrote last month. “They are also skeptical about sending billions of their hard-earned dollars to government officials from developing nations.”
DeBrum is undeterred.
“It does not make sense for us to go to Paris and come back with something that says, ‘In a few years’ time, your country is going to be underwater,'”deBrum said in an interview at his seaside home in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. “We see the damage occurring now. We’re trying to beat back the sea.”
In the global fight over climate change, leaders of vulnerable low-lying island nations have long sought to draw attention to their plight. They have staged symbolic events like an underwater Cabinet meeting, gone on hunger strikes and delivered anguished speeches to the United Nations.
In the meantime, Anej and millions like him cope with the fallout while stranded on disappearing shores.
“I’m the oldest — I can’t leave my parents,” he said. “But I don’t want my kids to drown here.”
On defense matters, the Marshall Islands’ strategic value to the United States no longer rests on the Pacific nuclear testing grounds but on Kwajalein, the largest of the Marshall atolls, which is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
The 1,200 Americans who live on the base launch missiles, operate space weapons programs and track NASA research, supported by an annual budget of $182 million. About 900 Marshallese workers take a ferry to the base every day to support them.
The Pentagon, which has a lease on Kwajalein until 2066, has commissioned scientific studies on the effect that rising sea levels will have on the base’s mission. In 2008, a tidal wash flooded the base and destroyed all the freshwater supplies on the island. The military responded with expensive desalination machines and heavy-duty sea walls made of riprap, a fortified granite used in hydraulic engineering.
That is the kind of adaptation deBrum wants to see on the islands where his people live, and it would not be cheap.
Among the most contentious terms to be negotiated in Paris will be a pledge, put forth during the 2009 climate change summit meeting in Copenhagen by Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, that rich countries would mobilize $100 billion annually by 2020 to help poor countries control their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the punishing effects of climate change.