Climate Action Must Cross Borders

by Jay Joseph ‘22

The Marshall Islands, a chain of coral atoll islands in the central Pacific Ocean, declared a national climate crisis facing rising sea levels in 2019. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Deltares, and the University of Hawaii (UH) found that some of the Marshall Islands will be submerged by 2035. Another report by the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change confirmed this and found that many of the islands will be uninhabitable by 2050. 

The United States has an ongoing responsibility for “security and defense matters in or relating to the Marshall Islands” by the Compacts of Free Association. Considering the United States’ history with the islands and the islands’ consistent efforts to combat climate change, the United States must ensure that the Marshallese will not be forcefully displaced due to climate change.

The islands have suffered algae blooms, dying reefs, flooding, prolonged droughts with freshwater resource contaminations, and dengue fever and measles outbreaks. However, global warming is not the only source of the Marshallese people’s struggles.

Seventy-five years ago, the United States conducted 67 nuclear bomb tests on or above the islands from 1946 to 1958 during the Cold War. They also tested biological weapons and transported 130 tons of irradiated soil from Nevada to the islands. The U.S. military failed to fully evacuate the Marshallese until two days after testing began, leaving many to become exposed to the radioactive fallout and suffer from radiation poisoning. After the forced displacement, some were allowed to return to the Rongelap and Bikini atolls but were evacuated again after dangerous radiation levels were reported. Some scientists in the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) involved in this decision are suspected of malpractice. 

“It would be very interesting to go back and get good environmental data, when people live in a contaminated environment,” explained an AEC scientist at the meeting in 1957 where Rongelap and Bikini resettlement was discussed. “Now, data of this type has never been available. While it is true that these people do not live, I would say, the way Westerners do, civilized people, it is nevertheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”

Now, only two of the four atolls have been resettled and the Marshallese face high rates of birth defects, cancer, and chronic illness due to radiation exposure. Some food on the islands today still exceeds the European and Japanese limits on radioactive particle ingestion, but that’s not where the nuclear legacy for the Marshallese people ends. 

After testing ceased due to protests, the United States sealed the radioactive waste inside the Runit Dome, a concrete radioactive repository on the Enewetak Atoll of Marshall Islands, with little care for the radioactive legacy they left behind for the Marshallese people. A report released by the Department of Energy (DOE) in 2020 found that “any future increase in the severity and frequency of storms or other major climatic forcing events may affect local groundwater hydrology beneath the containment structure and potentially increase the flow of contaminated groundwater into the lagoon or surrounding ocean.” Climate change, specifically rising sea levels, poses a threat to the dome’s integrity and its ability to reduce the flow of radioactive waste into the ocean.

“As one of only four low-lying coral atoll nations in the world, the failure of the international community to adequately respond to the global climate crisis of its own making holds particularly grave consequences,” tweeted Hilda Heine, former president of the Marshall Islands, after declaring the climate crisis a national emergency.

As a steadfast climate and human rights activist on the world stage, the Marshall Islands was the first nation to raise its goals for greenhouse gas emission reductions under the Paris Agreement, aiming to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Endangered by rising sea levels, the Marshall Islands was made a priority of President Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate where 40 world leaders met to discuss action on climate change.

Biden’s summit last month was a step in the right direction. Many countries increased their greenhouse gas reduction pledge as the Marshall Islands did in 2018. The United States must maintain this advocacy as the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter. The country must also create a detailed plan to adhere to its new pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. “The challenge of climate change requires us to look beyond our domestic borders,” explained Heine in a news release.