Marshall Islands President: Future will be ‘like living in a war zone’

COMMENT: Leaders must put aside polished negotiating positions and look each other in the eye, says Christopher Loeak

Source: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

Source: UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

By Christopher Loeak, President of the Marshall Islands

On behalf of the Marshallese people and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, it is a great honor for me to welcome you all to our country – Yokwe!

We are proud to host this meeting of the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, a meeting which must help us reach a turning point in our battle against climate change.

That is because we welcome you here not only as a warm people, but as a nation in distress.

I am sure you will agree that this country is the kind of place that takes your breath away not only in its beauty, but also in its vulnerability. The more than 1,000 atoll islands that make up this country lie an average of less than 6 feet, or 2 meters, above sea level.

Nowhere else in the world is the threat posed by climate change more immediate and real than it is here. The rising oceans around us, our disappearing coastlines, the increasing salt in our fresh water, and the corroding coral beneath our feet tell us loud and clear that climate change is here.

Seeing is believing

Of course, you have heard the story of climate impacts in small island countries many times before. But ultimately, seeing is believing. On final approach into our airport, you probably would not have seen any land at all on either side of the plane, and your first signs of humanity may well have been the seawall and sandbags that dot the edge of our runway, which itself stretches the entire width of the atoll we call home.

The situation could not be urgent, nor the impacts more immediate. One month ago today, this atoll and others nearby were hit by the highest king tides in at least 30 years causing more than 1,000 people to flee their homes. The damage bill was more than $2 million, which is a very big bill for a country like ours, dealing with a whole host of other development challenges.

As a result of the catastrophe, my Cabinet was forced to declare a State of Emergency, only seven months after we declared a State of Disaster from a prolonged drought across our northern atolls that left many of our people without food and water.

Unlike many world leaders, I know through personal experience just how real the threat and dangers are. The beaches of Buoj in Ailinglaplap, where I fished as a boy, are beginning to submerge, and the little island Anebok here in Majuro atoll, which our Ambassador to the UN grew up on, has already been swallowed by the rising ocean. I – like many Marshallese – have already built a sea wall around my home. But the waves rise higher every month. Our tide gauges do not lie.

If this is what we see now, what does our future hold? What will king tides, droughts and storms be like in 10 years? In 20 years? In 30 years? I fear that life in the Marshall Islands may soon become like living in a war zone.

Joint effort

In the Marshall Islands, our national motto is “Jepilpin ke ejukaan”, or “Accomplishment through joint effort”. Cooperation and community deeply define who we are as a people, and who we are as a nation.

But as our struggle for a safe climate future becomes more desperate with each passing day, we look to you, the world’s most active and concerned countries, to do what is right, and to do it quickly. You are our beacons of hope out here in the open Pacific Ocean.

This week’s Cartagena Dialogue meeting is the most diverse gathering of countries we have ever hosted in RMI. We especially welcome delegates from our close neighbors from the region, Palau, FSM, and Kiribati, and all others for whom this is their first visit to the Marshall Islands.

But delegates, a big meeting does not necessarily mean a good and productive meeting. This meeting here in Majuro should not, and cannot be just another meeting of slow and technical climate negotiations. You have all travelled too far to let that be the case.

This meeting must help put us on the path to real outcomes for the real people that have joined us for this opening ceremony today. These people – the Marshallese people – stand to lose everything. You – the negotiators – have the opportunity to help prevent that from happening.

With this in mind, I urge you all to put aside your well-polished negotiating positions and talking points, look each other straight in the eye, and try to find a meeting of minds. I am told that one of the true benefits of this Cartagena Dialogue is that you not only engage as negotiators, but also as friends.

Friends support each other, but they also speak the blunt truth when it’s required. Working together, friends and allies can change the world.

This is an extract from remarks delivered at the opening of the meeting of the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, which launched today in the Marshall Islands

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