Have you ever heard of the Marshall Islands? They are 1156 islands that constitute a republic in the South Pacific. Major battles during World War II were contested on those islands and, following the war, nuclear tests were conducted on there, too, from which there was significant radioactive fallout. The capital city is only three feet above sea level.
I have never been to the Marshall Islands, but during the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., on April 29, I met and interviewed a woman from that republic. She is a student in the United States. She and I spoke on the air (WPFW-FM, part of the Pacifica Network) about what the climate crisis means for her people.
Climate change has a direct impact on the future of the Marshall Islands. At three feet above sea level, the Marshall Islands do not have much room to maneuver. With extreme environmental changes, particularly with damaging storms, the islands have faced severe floods. She described roads cut off as a result of high water and the inability of the people to leave their homes.
My co-anchor—the great sports writer Dave Zirin—and I asked, almost at the same time, what did she think would happen as sea levels rose? What would the people do?
In some respects, our question may have seemed odd or simplistic. The people of the Marshall Islands would do what they needed to do to survive. And one route to survival will inevitably be migration unless there is some sort of creative infrastructure work that can preserve life in the Marshall Islands.
And it is this matter of climate migration that is rarely discussed in mainstream circles. Certainly, the environmental movement is addressing it, but in the 2016 U.S. elections, for instance, in all of the xenophobic discussions concerning immigration, there was no discussion about the fact that island nations across the planet will be disappearing and that their populations will need to migrate somewhere.
The woman from the Marshall Islands that Dave and I interviewed wants to return to her home. She is trying to be optimistic about the future of that island republic, but she was clearly frightened by the possibility that those islands and their history will disappear beneath the ocean waves forever.
The debate concerning the environment and the debates around immigration must be joined together. There is a global necessity to address the future of islands that may become submerged. Many of these islands were once—or continue to be—possessions/colonies of Europe, Japan and/or the United States. In that sense, there is a historic obligation that is owed to these islanders by the so-called “Global North.” The Global North left many of these territories “underdeveloped”—to borrow a phrase from the late Walter Rodney—and now the bill has come due. That means that, in addition to assisting in preventive measures, and in addition to addressing climate change, immigration policies must be changed, so that space is created for these climate refugees.