In 2014, poet and climate justice activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner stood in front of the UN Climate Summit, pleading with world leaders to help her country. She spoke of the rising water that threatens the Marshall Islands, engulfing the land and literally ripping bodies from the earth, and recited a poem, directed to her infant daughter, which received a standing ovation:

“No one’s drowning, baby. No one’s moving.”

Four years, and a notable US administration change later, things aren’t quite so definitive. “I don’t have a message to politicians, specifically, because they’re probably not going to read things from me,” she tells Crikey.

“There’s different ways to look at it… [Trump’s] made our work so much harder. So many of us are fighting so hard for them to just admit climate change is real. We’re backpedaling with a lot of our work. In some other ways, it’s given us a lot of momentum. We’re banding together, we’re seeing what needs to be done: raising awareness, getting the policies in place that need to happen on the local level instead of the national.

“It’s given us the fire that we need to continue to fight.”

Jetnil-Kijiner has been fighting this particular battle since noticing the effects climate change was having on her home nation in 2010, after returning from college in Hawaii. “I saw how flat the islands are, how big the ocean is, then I experienced one of my first floodings,” she says. “Whenever there’s a high tide all this water rushed over the land… I started doing some research and I noticed that all the articles that talked about the Marshalls assumed we’d have to get up and leave, that there was nothing that could be done. They never really talked to Marshallese people, they talked around us. It disturbed me a lot.”

The Marshall Islands — located halfway between Australia and Hawaii — are fertile ground for poetry, if little else. US nuclear experiments in the 1940s and ’50s left large atolls uninhabitable, and exposure to radiation has been a persisting health concern. Infants born without bones were termed “jellyfish babies”; those born with bulging defects on the skull were said to have “grapes”. Runit Island (on Enewetak Atoll) is cloaked with a concrete dome containing 85,000 cubic metres of toxic material. Locals reportedly refer to it as “The Tomb”, and there are concerns it’s now leaking — some argue one big storm could cause its radioactive contents to spill into the Pacific Ocean. 

Climate change, Jetnil-Kijiner says, compounds the area’s historic and ongoing problems. As many of the region’s 1200 small islands sit just five metres above sea level, the Marshallese are hit by a number of floods each year. “All this water washes over the island and destroys homes, the salt dries out our crops, and then people are left homeless,” she says. “This is a country, you have to remember, where the minimum wage is like $2.50. It’s already really hard to get by in the Marshalls… Then the drought happened, and it was the worst we’d seen in years. People were literally fighting over water.” 

These problems disproportionately affect women too; the traditional role of homemaker takes on a new meaning when your home is being destroyed. Women, Jetnil-Kijiner says, are often left to pick up the pieces, raise funds, and “figure out ways to survive”. “They [also, anecdotally] experience more abuse or more attempts at abuse because they get blamed for things that are happening, even though they have no control over it.”

Jetnil-Kijiner’s work as both a poet and spokesperson balances this darkness with a sense of hope. The poem she read at the UN, Tell Them, extols the beauty of the Marshalls and envisions a future in which her daughter can be proud of what remains: “papaya golden sunsets bleeding / into a glittering open sea”, “a proud people / toasted dark brown as the carved ribs / of a tree stump”, “descendants of the finest navigators in the world”. 

She also runs a non-profit for Marshallese youth called Jo Jikum, which translates to “your home” or “your place”.

“What’s supposed to happen to our culture when we’re so rooted in the land?” she tells Crikey. “So many of our stories and so much of who we are comes from the land. That’s a main concern for us. What happens to our culture and identities and our people if our land were to disappear?”

“Tell them we don’t want to leave

we’ve never wanted to leave

and that we 

are nothing without islands.”

Though Jetnil-Kijiner feels a need to “continuously show up at the table and speak to this issue as much as [she] can]”, she’s not the only one doing the talking. Her mother, Hilda Heine, is president of the Marshall Islands — the first woman leader of a Pacific Islands nation — and also works to bring the issue to the world stage. It’s not easy, though, when representing a country of just 53,000, and contending with the governments of neighbours like Australia who have been openly dismissive to such plights.

“At the end of the day, it’s poetry, right?” Jetnil-Kijiner says. “It’s not exactly going to change everything. I just hope to move to people, and that’s as much as I can hope to do.” 

“I haven’t heard very many good things [about Australia],” she goes on, citing the government’s support of Queensland’s Adani coal mine. “I definitely support the Stop Adani campaign because I don’t believe that opening another coal mine would be good for the Pacific, for Oceania. It would be disastrous, to be honest.”

“What we need now is strong policies — strong policies about keeping the fossil fuels in the ground, not opening up any more coal mines, transitioning to 100% renewable energy… You think just our ocean and islands depend on it, but it’s our entire world. I think that’s what I want people to remember: I’m campaigning for the survival of our island, but the survival of our islands means we save the rest of the world.”

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will be speaking at All About Women at Sydney Opera House on March 4, the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne on March 6 and WOMADelaide on March 11.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey