By Renee Lewis / Al Jazeera America / Sept. 27, 2013
When the leaders of the Marshall Islands headed to the United Nations to convince the world’s heavyweights to sign on for climate-change action, they did so from a runway surrounded by sandbags.
Such is the plight of the tiny island nation at threat from rising sea levels.
On Friday the president of the Marshall Islands is taking his case — and that of other low-lying nations — to the U.N. Secretary-General. The Pacific Island Forum (PIF), a group of 15 Pacific nations, created an initiative that aims to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that threaten the existence of many islands.
Marshall Islands President Christopher J. Loeak is submitting the Majuro Declaration to Ban Ki-moon in New York, where world leaders gathered for the U.N. General Assembly to work on a post-2015 global sustainable-developmentagenda.
The Majuro Declaration encourages climate leaders —including countries, cities, the private sector and civil society — to scale up their action by listing new and more ambitious commitments over time.
The United States said it supported the initiative, Marshall Islands Vice President Tony DeBrum told Al Jazeera in an interview in New York.
“I couldn’t be happier,” DeBrum said, adding that the European Union and several Asian countries also expressed support for the declaration. “It is gathering momentum a lot faster than anyone expected.”
The United States said it has made a commitment to reduce emissions and highlighted President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan as additional actions.
DeBrum admits it’s ambitious to think an island nation with a population of just over 60,000 could convince the “big guys” to sign on.
But for the Marshalls and other low-lying nations, climate action can’t wait. While climate change remains an abstract concept for many living in the world’s top emitters, the Marshalls are already seeing the effects of rising sea levels, declaring a drought disaster in the north earlier this year.
That’s why DeBrum said it was important for the Marshall Islands to invite world leaders to attend the PIF and see it for themselves, saying, “When you land on a runway with sandbags lining it to block the onslaught of the ocean, it brings a different reality.”
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists predict a rise in sea levels of up to six-feet by 2100 with current emission levels. A report on Friday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raised its projections of the rise in sea levels to an increase of 10 to 32 inches by the end of the century.
The average elevation of most of the PIF nations is about six feet.
“Kiribati is investing in land in Fiji, so if they have to move … at least they will be self-reliant,” DeBrum said.
When asked if it was too late for the Marshalls, DeBrum said that “would be admitting defeat before we’re actually defeated.”
The country has a painful history of displacement. From 1946 to 1958, the United States conducted some 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands, causing nuclear fallout and leading to evacuations from some of the atolls.
“The notion of displacement is not acceptable. If we can keep sea-level rise going up slowly, keep it at three feet … then we can deal with it,” DeBrum said.
The Marshall Islands is doing its part to reduce emissions. It has solarized its outer islands — remote areas that used to be dependent on kerosene and oil. Now lights, computers, appliances and schools run on cheaper, cleaner power.
And the country has plans to use its balmy ocean waters to start a hydrogen energy project that could be in place in five years and completely replace oil in 10 to 20 years.
Ocean thermal-energy conversion uses the temperature difference between the ocean’s warm surface and cold depths to produce renewable energy. Some experts believe this process could produce enough hydrogen to completely replace global fossil-fuel consumption.
“We already have people lining up to fund our first hydrogen energy project,” DeBrum said. “This project can repeat itself in other vulnerable areas, or they can import hydrogen from us.”
If Marshall Islands becomes an exporter of hydrogen, it will make the nation more self-sufficient and possibly even help other nations wean themselves off fossil fuels.
“The biggest emitters will one day be the biggest consumers of hydrogen,” DeBrum told Al Jazeera.