US considers Bikini Atoll climate refugee claims

Decades after a nuclear bomb uprooted a small group of Pacific islanders, global warming could make them homeless yet again

By Ed King

In the 1940s the Atomic Bomb forced thousands of Pacific islanders from their homes. Seventy years later and climate change appears to be having a similar effect.

Lawmakers in Washington DC will this week debate the fate of islanders who were relocated from Bikini Atoll to the Marshall Islands because of US nuclear tests after World War 2.

The problem is that Kili and Ejit – the tiny scraps of land they were relocated to – are now suffering from rising sea levels. Salt water is seeping up and killing crops, storms are breaching their sea walls.

It is “yet another indication” that impacts linked to rising greenhouse gas levels and a warming atmosphere are hitting vulnerable communities, Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum told media at a London briefing on Monday.

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As a result, some want out – and many they have their eyes set on the US.

Residents of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau are already allowed to work in the US due to historic federal treaties. But this case is different.

When people were moved from Bikini Atoll, the US opened a fund worth millions of dollars to allow them to build new homes in the Marshall Islands.

Under proposals published on 20 October the federal government could change the rules and allow hundreds of residents in Kili and Ejit use the funds to move to the US and buy a house there.

US interior assistant secretary for insular areas Esther Kia’aina is supportive, writing to the Senate and Congress last week urging them to back the plans.

“This is an appropriate course of action for the United States to take regarding the welfare and livelihood of the Bikinian people, given the deteriorating conditions on Kili and Ejit Islands in the Marshall Islands with crowding, diminishing resources, and increased frequency of flooding due to King Tides on their islands,” she said.

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Various studies have concluded sea levels are rising in the Pacific.

A 2011 Australian government report suggested the waters around the Marshall Islands could be rising as fast as 4mm a year.

The rate of global sea level rise increased between 1993-2010, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in its latest study at 3.2mm a year.

That may not sound much, but at ground zero residents of Kili and Ejit, which are around 500 miles from Bikini Atoll, say its means they have been covered by waves once every year since 2012.

According to de Brum, climate impacts are making life on the islands “almost impossible”.

He flies to Washington this week to make the case for the remaining residents of those islands who seek a new life without the constant threat of the unruly oceans.

It’s a subject close to his heart – and his house. Recent storms left a large boat three feet from his living room, which looks out onto the Pacific.

And it’s why we will hear and see more of de Brum as the Paris climate summit draws near. He is already living with climate change, he says, and it’s not a pleasant experience.

A key demand of small island states and other vulnerable nations is that a new UN climate deal under consideration helps them cope with irreversible losses and damages incurred by climate change, as seem in Kili and Ejit.

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It’s contentious because wealthy nations who pumped out the most greenhouse gas emissions over the past century fear that a new legally binding climate pact that includes this concept could leave them liable for millions – if not billions – in damages, and responsible for refugees from extreme weather.

“If there is an issue that has been difficult [at UN talks] it is loss and damage,” admits de Brum. A draft text for Paris deal offers limited options for compromise, but de Brum says the Marshall Islands and its allies are working on a plan.

“We do not want loss and damage to undermine anything else in the agreement,” he says. “There has to be a way of disengaging [it] from liability and long term responsibility.”

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