Most island states have yet to come to grips with the possibilities of relocation

MAJURO, Marshall Islands -- Tony de Brum narrates the watery landscape of his homeland as he passes through it in a motorboat: over here, an island swallowed more than a decade ago by rising seas. There, an atoll where some Bikini Islanders were relocated in the wake of U.S. nuclear testing. Everywhere, shorelines that have receded or disappeared.

"Every island, even as small as this one, has a name and someone has land rights on it," de Brum said, pointing toward a sliver of white sand and coconut palms. "Even the loss of a single tiny island like that is significant."

As minister in assistance to the president of the Marshall Islands, de Brum feels strongly that relocation is not an option for his citizens and called the very idea "repugnant." President Christopher Loeak, addressing Pacific leaders here this week, did not mince words, either, when he challenged nature to "let the waters come" but said his people would not move.

Yet, about 2,200 miles away in Kiribati -- a close neighbor in these Pacific parts -- President Anote Tong said his low-lying island is grappling with reality when it drafts relocation plans and considers a $2 billion Japanese engineering plan to build a "floating island" for citizens.


"Climate change and the response to climate change is not something that you do this and not the other," Tong said this week. "We in Kiribati are acknowledging the reality that our land area will be reduced. ... The question is, then, what do we do? Do we hang onto it? It is our national strategy to consider both."

Grappling with the possibility that rising sea levels might force island dwellers off their land is one of the biggest and most existential threats Pacific countries face from climate change. Yet leaders meeting here for the 44th Pacific Island Forum say the topic remains so uncomfortable that finding a common message about climate-induced migration is nearly impossible.

Reluctance to give up hope

The Majuro Declaration on Climate Leadership, endorsed here by the forum's 16 members, carries no mention of climate-induced migration, for instance, and no official U.N. documents offer coordinated proposals for handling the likely move of millions.

"I don't think we want to admit that we're going to be there," Palau President Tommy Remengesau told ClimateWire. "To begin to contemplate relocation efforts at this time, there's an element of not having faith in the current process, of giving up hope."

While each island nation appears to be taking its own path toward deciding how to handle the possibility of displacement, they all are paying close attention to the options. At a climate expert panel earlier this week, Columbia University professor Michael Gerard outlined the labyrinth of international law on sovereignty.

He noted that states must possess a defined territory, a population nucleus of at least 50 people, a government and a certain measure of independence. While the loss of sovereignty likely won't be a problem for any island nations within this century, he said, "now is the time to begin" discussing the legal ramifications and solutions.

"The mere fact that these questions have to be asked is a great tragedy," Gerard said. He pointed out that while some island nations have compacts with large developed countries. The Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, for example, have agreements with the United States allowing their citizens to freely enter and work indefinitely in America, but other nations will have to find a place for their people to go.

"No developed country has expressed any interested in taking in climate-displaced people," he said. "They may not confront this for some time, but now is the time to begin ... looking for international agreements to handle large number of climate-displaced people."

The whole topic angers Kathy Jentil-Kijiner. The 25-year-old poet and activist in Majuro -- who brought hardened diplomats to tears with a climate change poem she recited this week -- said she still remembers reading a news story questioning whether the Marshall Islands would retain its seat at the United Nations if it sank.

"To me, it seems like everyone is caught up in the politics, but they don't understand the humanity behind it," Jentil-Kijiner said. "If we lose our land, that's it. We lose our culture."

A 'scary' future for teenagers

Members of the youngest generation, meanwhile, said they are confused and a little scared.

"It's funny how we live in the Marshall Islands, but most of us don't even know that we're in danger," said Claret Conggum, 15, who listened to a presentation that Ambassador from Nauru to the U.N. Marlene Moses made on climate change.

On hearing that her island might one day disappear, she said, "It's scary. I love my life here. I don't want anything bad to happen."

Patsy Glad, 14, put it this way: "It's pretty sad to know the country we grew up in, our nationality, will be gone. It would be cool to help prevent it. I think the least you can do is try."

Deals to buy land in Fiji, as Papua New Guinea was reported to have done, or starting a relocation fund like Fiji is considering, have gotten major news attention, but most leaders in this part of the world are focused on ways to stay put.

They want to make major polluters take responsibility for both reducing emissions and paying for resilience measures.

'It is too late'

That's Tuvalu's mission, said Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga. He called migration "voluntary death for the people of Tuvalu" and told ClimateWire it would not happen.

"It's suicidal," he said. "There is no way the U.S. and others are going to force the people of Tuvalu off their islands. What I'm telling people is, we're going to stay on our islands forever and the world must pay."

Palau's Remengesau said he is putting his hope in the U.N. process to save his country.

"We are hoping that we don't come to a relocation point," he said. "This is our home, and it has been our home for centuries. We still have faith the big boys will come to their senses, because we are talking about existence for our people."

But he and others intent on holding their island ground say they support Pacific kin who feel they must at least consider moving to ensure the survival of their people and who don't think endless talk of climate change treaties will result in enough emission cuts to save their homes from the sea.

"We are one of those countries for whom it is too late," Kiribati's Tong said. "We'd like to see an international agreement so it doesn't get any worse, but for countries like Kiribati and the Marshall Islands, it's too late.

"If you have no other option, what would you do?" he asked.

Like what you see?

We thought you might.

Request a trial now.

Get access to our comprehensive, daily coverage of energy and environmental politics and policy.



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines