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Leaders of the Marshall Islands say climate change is the greatest single threat to their existence – one that is increasing migration to the United States. Rising tides, eroding shorelines, powerful storms and fresh water lenses poisoned by salt water may soon make living in the Marshalls -which are just a few feet above sea level – like living in a war zone. And that’s according to the country’s president.
The crisis is real, but sometimes it takes a personal story to fully drive home the consequences of climate change.
Poet, journalist and professor Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a young Marshallese mother who never expected to explain the threat her homeland faces to top diplomats at the United Nations in New York.
“Yokwe kom aulip (Marshallese greeting).
My family and I have traveled a long way to be here today. All the way from the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands encompasses more than 2 million square kilometers of ocean. Climate change is a challenge that few want to take on. But the price on inaction is so high. Those of us from Oceania are already experiencing it first hand. We’ve seen waves crashing into our homes and our breadfruit trees wither from the salt and drought.”
“It was terrifying, overwhelming, I couldn’t sleep the whole night before. It’s just another audience, that’s what I kept telling myself you know – don’t think of it as the United Nations.”
She is from Majuro, in the Marshall Islands out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where the highest elevation point is just under 10 feet. When people look for the palpable impact of climate change, they would do well to understand what’s happening in such low-lying islands.
Jetnil-Kijiner was selected from hundred of candidates, to read a poem that she wrote for her infant daughter, Matafele Peinem.
“Dear Matafele Peinem, you are a seven-month old sunrise of gummy smiles / I want to tell you about that lagoon / they say it will gnaw at the shoreline / chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees / gulp down rows of your seawalls / and crunch your island’s shattered bones / they say you, your daughter / and your granddaughter, too / will wander rootless / with only a passport to call home / so just close those eyes and sleep in peace / because we won’t let you down / you’ll see.”
“There was a standing ovation. I didn’t know at the time what a big deal a standing ovation was. I just kind of thought they were being polite. I think the best reactions, my favorite reactions though was the fact that a lot of people came up to tell me about their own children. You know, they came to me and said “Hey, I loved your poem, I have a 3-year-old at home”. They asked to play with my baby and hold her… And it just became less stuffy and it turned into more of a family atmosphere. And I think that’s my favorite reaction out of all of it, was all these diplomats and people with high statuses.”
And her fight is not over. She will speak out again at the next climate conference starting at the end of November in Paris where she hopes that words can help change the world.
And even if she can’t stand the term she still uses the words “climate refugee.”
“It’s a term that I’ve read a lot of journalists use lately, you know, that people will be homeless and will have to move to other places because of the climate change and the rising sea waters.
And I actually really hate that term — I really hate the possibility that there’s a new term for what will happen to us as a people.
So that’s why I put it in and I specifically say that there are people who are already climate change refugees – I made a point to name who they are.”
“Mommy promises you / No one’s becoming a climate change refugee / Or should I say, no one else.”
This podcast was produced by Chrystele Bossu-Ragis
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Chrystèle Bossu-Ragis has been a radio reporter, editor and newscaster for 15 years in her native France for Virgin Radio, previously known as Europe 2. She has also worked as a Silicon Valley correspondent for Europe 1.