I started writing about climate change because of Marshallese foreign minister Tony DeBrum – who passed away on Monday.
The last time I met him was in 2015 at his house in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. He had been telling me during our phone interviews that I had to come see the impacts of climate change on the islands in person. After a couple years of trying to convince my editor, I was in Majuro.
At DeBrum’s family home, his relatives had gathered around a big table on his back patio that looked over the lagoon in the center of the Pacific atoll.
I sat next to his father, chatted with his wife, and watched some relatives mix up some kava before we shared it around the table in coconut shell cups.
DeBrum was a relaxed, informal type – but obviously driven. He was the definition of a “tireless” advocate for his island nation, the Marshall Islands.
Even after his role as minister-in-assistance to the president (kind of like a vice-president / foreign minister) he created a new position – climate ambassador – and continued advocating for strong action on climate change.
The Marshall Islands – dozens of flat atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that are mostly at sea level – are threatened with extinction because of rising seas resulting from climate change.
DeBrum was trying to get the word out about climate change to anyone who would listen.
They were the canary in the coal mine – what happened there would soon happen all over the world. He wasn’t going to sit quietly as his islands went under the rising seas.
“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 told me in one of our interviews.
The United Nations and the developed countries who contributed so much to creating this disaster needed to do more – and make a real effort to save the Marshall Islands.
He advocated for a goal of keeping the average global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius rather than the consensus of 2 C.
That might save the islands, DeBrum said.
His plane to the UN General Assembly meeting in New York City in 2013 took off from an airport landing strip surrounded by sandbags to protect it from rising seas.
DeBrum invited world leaders to the Pacific Island Forum to see for themselves.
“When you land on a runway with sandbags lining it to block the onslaught of the ocean, it brings a different reality,” DeBrum told me at the time in an interview in New York.
He was successful in convincing the world to include a 1.5 C goal in the Paris climate deal – signed by nearly 200 countries. Many said the deal might not have worked out at all without him.
Because of him, I started writing about climate change. DeBrum gave the issue a real sense of urgency that wasn’t there before – when most countries who could really do something about it weren’t experiencing any of climate change’s impacts.
He bridged the divide between the poorer countries who were getting pummelled by climate change and those that had mostly caused it – and forced them to take more responsibility.
Thanks to Tony DeBrum, world leaders and many others were given a new view that otherwise might not have been vocalized.