Last year during a trip to the Marshall Islands, I met a man named Henry Romeu, an American coast guard who was on a mission in the Pacific Ocean. He monitored various pacific islands and their surrounding waters, monitoring fishing zone boundaries and reacting to various emergencies as they arose. As you can imagine, Mr. Romeu had interesting stories to tell, but it was one exacting comment about the power of the sea that stuck with me. With seriousness in his eyes he said "there is nothing immune to the ocean. Nothing." These words were uttered just inches from the water's edge, on an island in a country that hovers just above sea level. During my time there, residents recounted stories of flooding during particularly bad king tide storms where they fled to the tallest point on the island -- a small bridge that takes just moments to walk across. They flock there because the Mr. Romeu was correct: nothing is immune to the ocean.
The vast majority of scientists agree that as the earth heats up, which is hastened by our consumption of fossil fuels and other human activities, warming waters and melting ice will raise sea levels and kill off protective coral reefs. The impacts of climate change are felt the world over, but some of the very least immune people on the planet are those that live in the coral atoll nations of the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Maldives. These coral atolls lie only a few feet above the sea, rendering them acutely vulnerable to intensifying storm surges, spoiled or depleted fresh water reserves, food security stresses, ocean acidification, water-level rise, and the other disastrous impacts of climate change. Other countries around the world, including low-lying coastal or riverside communities in the Arctic, Caribbean, Pacific and in Bangladesh, face similar dire circumstances. Each of these communities face similar impossible questions: how do we cope with the intensifying impacts of flooding and erosion? Who pays for the increasing weather-related disasters? Where do we move if we are left with no choice but to leave our homes? Why does climate change deal its toughest blows to those that contribute to it the least?
The expert community has few answers for these novel questions. At a 2011 conference entitled "Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate" held at Columbia Law School, researchers and academics addressed these novel issues. They discussed where islanders would move, whether or not they would lose statehood status after relocation and the political turmoil that would surely follow when these Diasporas scattered around the globe. At the end of the conference, co-sponsoring representatives from the markedly vulnerable Republic of the Marshall Islands gave a rather alarming, heartfelt and sincere speech of clarification. In essence, the speech went like this: I am sorry if you have misunderstood, but we have not given up yet. We are staying on our islands and will fight for our home until the bitter end.
We have watched in horror and offered support to those that have suffered in recent tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods. These are appropriate human responses to events that humans ostensibly have done nothing to bring about. Yet we seem to care very little for those around the globe that are threatened with what some call the "slow moving tsunami," despite the fact that our action and inaction tragically hasten the submersion of land mass, societies and culture. I have had the incredible good fortune to walk among many of these people on their drowning islands, and I am continually struck by their lack of blame and their sense of hope. They do not point fingers at Westerners, asking why we continue emitting while we have been told that we are warming the earth and hastening sea level rise. They do not talk of relocation funds or lawsuits. Instead, they simply want to share their stories and the appreciation they have for the land they inherited. They gently remind me that this is not just an island problem, but a global issue, as nothing is immune to the ocean.