If any country understands the urgency of acting on climate change, it’s the Marshall Islands. The small island nation has become the poster child of climate change’s real, visible impacts — it sits, on average, just about 6 feet above sea level, and has already had to battle with extreme drought and flooding that has come close to destroying its capital city.
So it comes as no surprise that the United Nations chose 26-year-old Marshall Islands poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner to be among the keynote speakers at the U.N.’s climate summit in New York Tuesday. Jetnil-Kijiner was chosen from 544 applicants who answered a U.N. call for a woman under 30 who hails from a developing country and has a history of climate change work to speak at the summit’s opening session.
Jetnil-Kijiner called on world leaders to act on climate change for the benefit of future generations, reciting a poem to her infant daughter that assures her that the world would fix climate change before the Marshall Islands was swallowed up by the sea. She also spoke of the climate change impacts she’s seen in the Marshall Islands first-hand.
“We’ve seen waves crashing into our homes and our breadfruit trees wither from salt and droughts,” she said. “We look at our children and wonder how they will know themselves or their culture should they lose our islands.”
Watch her speech:
But these problems aren’t unique to the Marshall Islands — drought and sea level rise affects countries all over the world, and Jetnil-Kijiner called for a “radical change of course” to tackle climate change.
“It means ending carbon pollution within my lifetime. It means supporting those of us most affected to prepare for unavoidable climate impacts. And it means taking responsibility for irreversible loss and damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.
Jetnil-Kijiner was confident in her speech that, no matter how difficult, climate change would be solved, and her daughter would be able to go on living in the Marshall Islands.
“No one’s drowning, baby,” she said. “No one’s moving. No one’s losing their homeland. No one’s becoming a climate change refugee…We are drawing the line here.”
Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak made a similar call for action before the summit, saying in a speech that some of the nation’s islands “have already completely disappeared, gone forever under the ever-rising waves,” that the beaches where he once fished when he was young were underwater, and that the nation’s freshwater “gets saltier every day.”
The Marshall Islands isn’t the only island nation to be feeling the impacts of climate change particularly hard, however. As Jetnil-Kijiner pointed out in her speech, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji are all struggling to adapt to rising seas and damaging storms. In August, a small town on Taro Island in the Solomon Islands decided to relocate due to the increasing threat of tsunamis and sea level rise. About eight years ago, the leaders of the Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea decided to leave their homes due to predictions that their island could be underwater by 2015.
The point of Tuesday’s climate summit in New York wasn’t to come up with a new international agreement on climate change — that’s supposed to happen at the U.N. climate conference in Paris next year. The summit’s goal was to “galvanize and catalyze climate action,” and was preceded by what organizers are calling the largest march on climate change in history.