Wednesday 22 July 2015

Marshall Isles pay the price: From atom tests to rising seas

Tony de Brum
Tony De Brum thought he had seen the worst that could happen to his Pacific island home at nine years of age, when he witnessed an atomic bomb test.

He was wrong. With an altitude of just two metres, the Marshall Islands are expected to disappear under the ocean in the near future because of climate change.

The only thing that can prevent this is immediate and comprehensive action on a global scale.
Tony De Brum is not a happy man.

Speaking to New Europe in Brussels, in his capacity as the islands equivalent of Vice-President, he praised the support Europe has given to their struggle for survival and argues that the islanders are doing all they can, by working internationally and trying to switch to green energy, but says the world is not acting swiftly enough and sometimes appears callously indifferent to their fate.

This indifference is not new notes De Brum, “The fact that things have gotten to this point almost certainly reflects a lack of vision, a failure of diplomacy, and a failure of leadership.”

As a child De Brum watched as the Castle Bravo test unleashed a 14 megaton explosion, more than double the expected amount, leaving a kilometer wide crater. The island politician remarks that the total yield of all the tests in the Marshall Islands is the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs going off every day, for twelve years.

De Brum, like many islanders, is part of a large extended family, saying that he has almost a hundred nieces and nephews, but “it’s getting increasingly difficult for me to explain to them what we are doing. It’s happening now. We are seeing islands disappear as we speak. We are seeing 17 of our 24 isles in severe drought conditions that even people of my generation have not seen before.”

They are doing what they can, trying to engage with global leaders and regional partners and advocating a rapid switch to green energy.

But what is very real to him is not to others, “What is difficult to understand is the slowness and reluctance of our development partners to understand this is an issue for now and the ways of preventing it must be undertaken now.” He adds, “We are trying to get the word out that this is a clear and present danger.”

He is clearly uncomfortable with their only option, abandoning their home. De Brum says, “The Marshall Islanders have been displaced and moved around a lot over the last 150 years, for one reason or another, whaling, arguments between the powers, world war one, world war two, the Korean war, the nuclear testing programme. All of these have resulted in our people being moved around.

“Displacing people is not a pleasant option for us to consider. We try to work as hard as we can to avoid that eventuality but we have to prepare and prepare our people for that eventuality.

“Part of the issue with displacement, is when you’re talking about moving people from the Marshalls, many of our friends in America will say ‘pick up those 60,000 and put them in Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona or something and the problem is solved.’”

This approach is offensive to the Pacific politician, “There is no attachment to the country, the tradition and culture, the language of the people. There is this very cold, steely approach that says ‘why are we concerned about spending billions of dollars to adapt and mitigate when we can spend a few hundred millions on displacement of the people and put them somewhere else?”

Displacement, an innocuous sounding word, means something different to the islanders, it means the end of their independence and sovereignty. “There is some buying of land in the mountains of Fiji, thinking we can move there. It’s all fine and dandy, but who’s going to be responsible for your economy, for your constitutionally mandated healthcare and education? Nobody is thinking about this. Everyone is thinking on what is easiest for the metropolitan powers to do, rather than what is the right thing to do for the existence of a people.”

It’s clear that this is a grave concern for the island’s leaders, “During the time of the nuclear tests, people were just picked up and put on a navy ship, sometimes before the tests, sometimes afterwards. They seem to think they can still do that now. I’m sorry but we are an independent sovereign country, we are members of the United Nations, we can partner up with anyone we please, including the EU.”
Asked if this brings back colonial memories, De Brum replies, “It is just as colonial as thinking they can come and take over our country. It’s the same thing in reverse.”

He continues by comparing past and current danger, “There is a parallel with the atomic testing. We had nothing to do with the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb. These people came to tell us that we should be part of the security of the world, we should allow testing of these ‘weapons of peace and security’ so the world can be a safer place, so we did.

“Now they’re saying ‘Well in order for us to survive we need to pollute to make the seas go higher, but we’re not taking responsibility for it, they won’t even talk about ‘loss and damage’ we will do what we please.”

Europe, however, has been a strong and reliable ally, “Many people raise their eyebrows and say that why is the pacific so engaged with the European Union? We’re engaged in projects, we’ve been engaged with them far more than our American partners.”

There’s a reason for this engagement with Europe, “The Americans have so much to learn about climate change. There are a lot of problems with getting the American leadership to acknowledge there is a problem. The EU can do a lot. Many of us have European, not just in the Marshalls, but all over the Pacific and we work with those other islands and we will go wherever to find solutions. We have had some good successes partnering with Europe and we will continue to work together.”

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