Iakwe Selina, can you please tell me about yourself and the advocacy work you have been doing regarding the threat of climate change in the Marshall Islands?
Iakwe Harry, my name is Selina Neirok Leem and I am a 19-year-old from the island of Majuro in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. I recently graduated from UWC Robert Bosch College in Freiburg, Germany.
Last year, I was part of the Marshallese delegation at the Cop 21 Paris Agreement talks. I was asked by my government to be part of the delegation because they wanted the youth to experience a conference where global leaders from around the world come together to fight for an issue that is affecting the whole world now. I was very proud to be a delegate for the Marshall Islands.
“this Agreement is for those of us whose identity, whose culture, whose ancestors, whose whole being is bound to their lands…. if this is a story about our islands it is a story for the whole world”
I guess my advocacy work started when I was at school where I was often asked by my teachers and friends to talk about the issues facing my country. My school had a very diverse community, there were 204 of us from 88 different countries and would often have many well-respected guests that were passionate about the environment. It was the perfect platform to talk about what is happening in my country because I felt that if my story really touched people and they truly cared, they would share more about the Marshall Islands and the critical state we were in. My country recognised this and I was put forward to represent my islands at the Paris talks.
Can you please explain a bit more about the Marshall Islands and the various problems your islands are facing from climate change?
The Marshall Islands are located halfway between Hawaii and Australia. We are currently facing a lot of issues that are becoming more extreme due to climate change. We have just recently come out of a drought that lasted for five months. Our country had to make emergency calls to other nations to ask for urgent donations and help. Because of the drought, many of our plants died and the people had to rely on outside help to survive.
We are also facing rising sea levels which are the biggest threat to our islands. Our islands are very low (a large part of the island is only a metre above sea level) and narrow, so when the sea levels rise, it floods our island, salicylates the soil and erodes our island. It is very easy for the water to go through our islands.
Our islands are also suffering from coral bleaching. As the earth heats up, the water also heats up. The coral are very sensitive to temperature change and when ocean temperatures increase they die and the fish also perish. Many areas where people once fished, no longer contain any fish.
We also face other issues including poverty, domestic violence and high teenage pregnancy levels.
What happened in the 1950/60’s regarding nuclear testing?
Yes, there is also the nuclear testing that happened after world war two, when we became a colony for the United States. They used our islands as a nuclear testing site where they dropped the biggest hydrogen nuclear bomb ever made on Bikini Island. The US dropped a total of 67 nuclear bombs in the Marshall Islands, these bombs combined equal to ½ Hiroshima bomb going off every day for 12 years. There are still people that are affected from the radiation today; my family is one of them. My auntie lost two of her children from the effects of radiation, when they were born; they were disfigured and only lived for a few days.
Has this led to a lot of people leaving the Marshall Islands?
Yes, alot of people are leaving but it is mostly because they want to find a better education and healthcare and other benefits that my country cannot provide. A lot of people say they will return at a later date.
A lot of islanders still refuse to accept that we are going to lose our islands from climate change by 2050 as scientists have predicted. We are fighting for 1.5 degrees, but we are already at 1.3 degrees.
How do you think the Paris Agreement will help your islands?
I think right now it is very empowering to see how the Agreement has brought the majority of the countries in the world together, to agree on something that was considered a myth not so long ago. One thing the Marshall Islands were very proud of was that the figure of 1.5 degrees was put into the Agreement. Whilst 1.5 degrees is not where we need to be, it is still considered a big victory for all of us.
Seeing how a lot of countries are now coming forward and emphasising the importance of the Agreement (even considering the current politics and how the USA might pull out) shows that there is still momentum and many countries are now very determined to keep going and address the issues regarding climate change.
In my own country, climate change is an issue people are starting to care more about, but what do you think is the best way to raise awareness about this issue to people?
I think the only advice I can give is just to keep talking about the issues. Social media is a very powerful tool for sharing information and raising awareness. Many of the things I have been doing is giving talks, sharing my own testimony and asking people to research how climate change is affecting their own country.
If you could talk to people and say one thing to those that do not believe in climate change what would you say?
I would ask them come to my islands and see for yourself what is happening. If my words cannot make you believe or the scientists showing you all of the data of how the earth is warming cannot, then I would tell you to come to my island and see for yourself. Come and see how scary it is to live on that tiny strip of land and know that these waves can literally crumble your island to pieces and submerge it underwater.
Interview conducted by Harry Wright and Selina Neirok Leem
Cover Photo credited to Jeff Zebedy
Featured photos credited to Tamara Greenstone Alefaio
Nuclear testing photo credited to Getty Images
Paris Agreement photo credited to COP Paris