"Climate Change is a 'Matter of Life and Death' for The Marshall Islands
by Jon Letman
Among the many urgent tasks her administration faces is the immediate need to fortify her nation of 29 atolls scattered across 750,000 square miles of the northern Pacific against the impacts of climate change. What’s more, this young nation with a centuries-old history, is challenged by major demographic shifts stemming from the days when the United States used the northernmost atolls to test 67 atomic and hydrogen bombs.
Not only did the nuclear tests create giant radioactive craters rendering dozens of islands uninhabitable, they triggered the forced relocation (and re-relocation) of many Marshallese.
The ensuing changes transformed a sparsely populated Micronesian paradise into a highly urbanized country where a young population was dogged by faltering infrastructure, crowded living conditions, high unemployment, low wages and illnesses including cancers and diseases like diabetes. These conditions necessitated outside help and fueled both the need and appeal to emigrate to Hawaii and other parts of the U.S. under the Compact of Free Association.
Add to this environmental and climate threats like destructive tropical storms, sea level rise, coastal inundation and flooding, coral bleaching and crippling droughts and you have one seriously daunting situation.
Under the Marshallese parliamentary system, Heine serves concurrently as president and as a senator (one of just three women in the 33 member Nitijela). Heine, who has degrees from the Universities of Oregon, Hawaii and Southern California, previously served as the RMI’s education minister (2012-2015) as well as a program and policy director, college president, administrator, school counselor and classroom teacher.
Guam-based human rights lawyer Julian Aguon calls Heine “truly formidable,” remarking that besides being the first female Pacific Islander and indigenous woman president, she exhibits a “fierceness with which she loves her people that is truly moving.”
While in Hawaii en route to attend the inauguration of another first female president, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, President Heine spoke to Civil Beat about the challenges her country faces. Her remarks were edited for length and clarity.
Civil Beat: What are the most meaningful actions your administration is taking to protect people from climate change in the Marshall Islands?
Heine: The approach we’re taking is trying to integrate risk reduction and resilience with disaster preparedness response and recovery. We feel that building resilient communities is foremost in this battle against climate impact and that starts with awareness about actions that contribute to climate change as well as actions that can be taken to help impede impacts such as erosion. I’m talking about actions like planting indigenous trees along shorelines or recycling programs and other activities like that.
The remoteness of Pacific communities like the Marshall Islands means that capacity at the local level needs to be really strengthened to build resilience. So we’re taking significant steps in local as well as regional and global initiatives to proactively manage risk rather than reactively always managing crises. Our efforts and leadership role in climate change is well known and it’s reflective of the seriousness which we take the need to protect our people from climate change.
On April 22 you signed the Paris Climate agreement. Do you think it goes far enough and what is important for people around the world to do now?
The Marshall Islands is very proud of its role in the lead up to Paris. We were one of the first countries to ratify the Paris Agreement, our parliament actually ratified it even before April 22 when we went to New York to sign with the other countries. We know it is a work in progress — it’s not perfect — but I think it is something that we can live with and we can try to improve on as we go forward.
The Paris agreement itself provides a provision for countries to be able to review on a regular basis what’s happening in country. How are they living up to their commitments? We are hopeful that countries will come together and honor their commitment or improve on their commitments because that is the right thing to do and that’s what the world needs.
If climate change isn’t adequately addressed, what will happen to low-lying island nations like yours?
It’s a matter of life and death for the Marshallese people as an example of low-island countries that are threatened by sea level rise. We’re talking about not only people and their culture will be extinct because other people in the world are not living up to their commitment. We’re hoping that even though we’re a very small island country and the number of people are not that many, countries will live up to their commitment and they’ll be a little bit more sensitive to the plight of small island countries.
Marshallese people, culture and land have a symbiotic relationship — one can’t exist without the other. That’s why moving from our islands is not a viable option. As a nation facing cultural extinction due to climate change, we plead to stronger and major polluting countries to spare us the eminent fate of being climate refugees.
What are the impacts of outbound migration from the Marshall Islands?
Migration does provide a safety valve for what we’re not able to provide and in the meantime allowing our small economy to grow to a level that is able to sustain services to its growing population. Currently we are seeing some positive impact from out migration with monetary assistance provided to family members and relatives still staying in the Marshall Islands from overseas relatives. We’re always hopeful that Marshallese will want to return home to make a difference after they have become educated and skillful overseas. That’s our hope and we’re currently looking at ways to come up with incentives to attract back our best and brightest.
What do you offer your nation as its first female president or do you think gender is irrelevant when discussing politics and leadership?
I cannot say gender is irrelevant when discussing politics and leadership because Pacific women struggle to increase their voices in leadership and decision making. It’s an ongoing struggle. I believe worldwide the Pacific island region holds the lowest female participation in parliament. So certainly women would like to see that change so that their voices increase and included in decision making. The fact that I’m elected first female president, I think it’s seen as a role model for many other bright, young Pacific island women. So in that respect I’m glad that I’m in this role.
But the fact of the matter is I was in the right place at the right time. Of course in Marshallese culture, it’s a matrilineal society, so there are times when the role of women in a leadership position is needed and it’s called for and maybe this is one such time, I don’t know (laughs). But while I’m here I’d like to use this opportunity to show that women can be just as serious and committed to issues facing a country and that they can make a difference.
Last question — what’s your message to countries that have not elected a female head of state?
Well I think they should give them a chance because I think women are really concerned. You know, we are very much concerned about families and a country is all about what happens to family livelihood. We’re the first people to go to when it comes to family issues. Families build a country so if we have strong families, we have strong countries, and I think women can make a difference.