Climate Change Ambassador Hopes People Won’t Abandon RMI

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Tony deBrum addressed Sustainability Conference in Guam

By Gaynor Dumat-ol Daleno

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, April 12, 2016) – An international figure from the Marshall Islands holds hope that the Marshallese people won’t abandon the island republic – even when rising sea levels threaten to wash away their homes.

"We do not see evacuation as an option," said a Nobel Peace Prize 2016 nominee Tony de Brum, former foreign minister for the island republic.

[PIR editor’s note: According to a March 25, 2016 Marianas Variety report published in PIR, ‘deBrum is now the Marshall Islands’ first roving ambassador for climate change.’]

"Everything that we are doing is to try and prevent that from happening," de Brum said Monday. He’s in Guam this week as keynote speaker at the University of Guam’s 7th Regional Island Sustainability Conference, which is being held at Lotte Hotel Guam until April 15.

Rising sea level will have a profound impact on low-lying coastal areas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, in announcing a four-year study on sea-level rise in the Marshall Islands. The study is expected to be completed in 2017.

Some Marshallese have left home.

Some of them have moved to Guam, Hawaii and a few mainland states such as Arkansas and California, a U.S. Department of the Interior report states.

More might leave the island nation if given financial support.

Esther Kia’aina, assistant secretary of the U.S. Interior Department, voiced support for legislation that would help former residents of the Marshall Islands’ Bikini Atoll relocate at a U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing last week.

A trust fund established by the United States for the former Bikini Atoll residents, who were dislocated by a series of U.S. military atomic bomb tests decades ago, restricts use of the money from relocation outside the Marshall Islands.

At the recent Senate committee hearing, Kia’aina advocated the lifting of the restriction.

"Eliminating this restriction would allow the people of Bikini to resettle outside of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, giving them more relocation options and improving their quality of life," Kia’aina said at the hearing.

"There is an immediate need for this option given recent extreme weather events, which have threatened the health and safety of the people of Bikini," Kia’aina said.

The market value of the trust fund in 2000 was approximately $126 million, and it was expected to continue gaining interest, according to a congressional report.

Many of the Marshall Islands atolls and islands have maximum elevations of less than 13 feet above sea level, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

About 300 people from Bikini resettled on Ejit Island, which is part of Majuro Atoll, but they’re cramped into less than one square mile of land, according to Kia’aina’s report to the Senate committee. About 800 people from Bikini resettled on Kili, an island with a land area of 0.36 square miles, she added.

The United States conducted nuclear weapons testing in the northern islands and atolls of the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, according to the Interior Department.

The Geneva-based International Peace Bureau nominated de Brum and his team on Jan. 26 for their work in the Marshall Islands’ filing of landmark lawsuits against nuclear-armed nations, Pacific Daily News files show.

A way to stay?

Some of the Marshall Islands’ areas most vulnerable to storm surges and flooding are those that have had altered landscapes, in part through soil backfills and artificial waterways, de Brum said.

These alterations, he said, "interfere with the natural flow of the lagoons, rivers and bays."

Perhaps, de Brum said, if the landscape is restored to its natural state, that could slow down the rising seas "so that we can buy time" to get the technology and financing needed to try and save the islands.

UOG’s annual sustainability conference focuses on encouraging practical, tangible steps to reduce carbon emissions and slow global warming.

One of the activities at the conference was a contest that encouraged high school students to propose designs for energy-efficient homes.

"The concept behind sustainability is all these things are interconnected: the way we live, our relationship to our natural environment, and economy," University of Guam President Robert Underwood said.

As an example, if Guam were to reduce its importation of petroleum fuel for cars and power plants, doing so would help keep money circulating in the local economy and reduce further damage to the environment as well, Underwood said.

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