Marshall Islands primed for climate survival fight

Foreign minister Tony de Brum tells RTCC he’s determined to stop his islands sinking beneath the waves

Pic: Christopher Michel/Flickr

Pic: Christopher Michel/Flickr

By Sophie Yeo

From nowhere does the problem of climate change look more desperate than standing on the shores of the Marshall Islands.

The tiny coral islands, seemingly idyllic, are slowly sinking into the ocean as sea levels rise. A 1.5C increase in global temperatures could make the islands virtually uninhabitable. So far, the planet has warmed by around 0.8C, and scientists warn that the CO2 already emitted means we’re already locked in for more.

Unsurprisingly, this means the Marshall Islands and other small island states have become some of the most progressive voices within the international negotiations around a treaty intended to limit the reach of climate change.

This leaves Marshall Islands foreign minister Tony de Brum, who leads their climate change efforts, with a tough job, pushing for a climate change deal that is far beyond what less vulnerable countries would happily settle for.

“Carbon free should be the ultimate goal of everyone and if we concentrated in developing on that pathway it’s a win-win for all concerned,” he tells RTCC, during a visit to London.

He has just come over from Brussels, where he met with EU climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard, and is about to fly over Abu Dhabi, where he will discuss with other politicians the potential for further pledges at a high-level meeting to be hosted by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in September.

Speck on the map

The international climate negotiations may be notoriously tough, but with their target of limiting warming to only 2C, they are not stringent enough for some of the small island states, for whom even a successful treaty poses an existential threat.

At present, even this modest 2C level of success is by no means a foregone conclusion; while the Marshall Islands are sinking, big emitters such as the US, India and China remain embroiled in largely ideological battles over who should bear the brunt of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions most and first.

Even if the Marshall Islands went carbon neutral today, it would barely make a dent on combatting climate change, where the impacts bear no relation to where the greenhouse gases are being emitted. In 2010, the Marshall Islands had a per capita emissions rate of 2 tons of CO2 for their 53,000 population, compared 17.6 in the US for each of its 317,000,000 inhabitants.

But although the Marshall Islands are a speck on the map compared to these countries both in terms of size and emissions, their vulnerability means that they punch above their weight when it comes to the negotiations.

“I think that we have enjoyed relatively good rapport with development partners, the big states, the big emitters,” says de Brum.

“We try and bring to the table what we consider to be the immediate and longer term concerns of the small islands states and to point out that our ambitions and goals are not that much different from those of the developed countries, that the idea of climate change leadership and working towards sensible climate change policies does not necessarily cancel out development.”


Rather than waiting for the annual UN climate conference to build these bridges, the Marshall Islands have been proactive in getting key players together in order to start forging the common ground that everyone needs to stand on if there is to be any chance of a successful outcome in Paris 2015, when the UN hopes a climate treaty will be struck.

Last year, they hosted the Pacific Islands Forum, where a focus on climate change saw participants sign a ‘Majuro Declaration’, designed to spark “a new wave of climate leadership”, which Marshallese president Christopher Loeak then presented to Ban Ki-moon as a “Pacific gift” at the UN General Assembly.

More recently, they hosted the Cartagena Dialogue, bringing together an unusual selection of the global north and south countries with a progressive attitude to tackling climate change.

And Tony de Brum is about to make his way to a meeting of the Major Economies Forum—the second time the Marshall Islands have been invited to participate—which he says is a sign that other major players are starting to realise they play key role in facilitating progressive action.

“We view that as America and the other big countries’ recognition of our ability to contribute to that debate and to come up with solutions that can be accepted and promoted by the big states as well,” he says.

He adds: “We also have been able to dialogue directly with the United States and also with Chinese officials throughout the Pacific and have been able to share with them what our concerns are. It seems to us in fact that is taking hold.”


The conversations that he has had during his current diplomatic mission have left him feeling hopeful he says, as there seems to be a growing recognition among international leaders of the Marshall Islands’ predicament.

But there is one thing that this trip cannot do, which is allow foreign politicians to witness the destruction facing the Marshall Islands for themselves.

“There’s nothing like seeing it,” says de Brum. “Landing on the airstrip in the capital city of Majuro and seeing sandbags on either side of the runway is a message that’s rather too powerful to forget.”

He explains how those who have attended events hosted by the Marshall Islands in recent years have been “awed” by the sight of the disappearing islands—a feeling which has contributed to the success of his meetings with the likes of Connie Hedegaard and UK foreign minister Hugo Swire.

“It’s ridiculous the kind of climate displays that are occurring in small island states, but it was a powerful message that we wanted to share with the world, and I think it worked,” he says.

“Our job as a bridge between the developed states and the small island vulnerable states is difficult, but it’s something that someone must do.”

Read more on: Climate politics | | | | |