“Jepilpilin ke ejukaan,” the motto of the Marshall Islands, is translated as “accomplishment through joint effort.”
A loose collective of 29 atolls, or rings of coral reef surrounding a lagoon, that encompass 1,156 individual islands and islets in the northern Pacific Ocean, the Marshall Islands thrives on this cooperation.
However, in recent years, the survival of the islands has become more and more dependent on a joint effort with the other nations of the world that until now has been rocky at best. This effort is the global call to combat the negative repercussions of climate change.
With many of its islands sitting at no more than a foot above sea level, the Marshall Islands are extremely susceptible to the effects of climate change. Specifically, rising sea levels in recent years have left many of the islands very vulnerable to inundation. According to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body established by the United Nations to assess and respond to climate change, a 31-inch rise in Pacific sea levels could flood up to two-thirds of the Marshall Islands. The threat of such a change has become more and more real in recent years.
In 2008, large waves and high tides, known locally as king tides, led to widespread flooding in the capital city of Majuro, which sits a full three feet and three inches above sea level. This problem arose once again in 2013 along with a prolonged drought leaving many Marshallese people to survive on less than a quarter gallon of fresh water a day.
The resulting negative impacts on health, as well as crops, led to the declaration of a state of emergency in the Marshall Islands by President Obama and a call for a renewed commitment on the part of international leaders to impede further climate disasters by Marshallese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum.
Without this increased attention to concrete solutions to climate change, de Brum, as well as the IPCC, fear many long-lasting residual effects on nations like the Marshall Islands such as coastal erosion, lack of fresh water, coral reef deterioration, outmigration, social instability, loss of tourism, loss of agriculture and increased vulnerability of human settlements.
The crises facing the Marshall Islands hold a particular significance for one of Maryville’s own students. Carrie West, a Maryville College junior, is from Kwajalein, the largest island of the Kwajalein atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Kwajalein itself is home to 1000 citizens, while the atoll harbors some 13,500 Marshallese peoples.
West fears that the continued effects of climate change could not only drastically alter her home, but could displace the thousands of residents of the Marshall Islands and wipe out not only their homes but their culture.
“It’s real and it’s happening,” West said. “I think it’s difficult for a lot of people to realize that.”
Without the combined efforts of nations like the U.S. whose populations and power could be instrumental in the reversal of the damage done to our climate in recent decades, the fate of the 68,480 inhabitants of the Marshall Islands is uncertain.
“If things continue this way, in 50 years there will be no more Marshall Islands,” West said. “All of these people will be left without a home.”