Images by Tina Grandinetti & Karl Fellenius
“Tell them about the water / how we have seen it rising / flooding across our cemeteries / and crashing against our homes / tell them what it’s like / to see the entire ocean level with the land.” -Excerpt from “Tell Them” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
An estimated 15,000 to 18,000 people from the Oceanic region of Micronesia, which includes the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau, and the Marshall Islands, currently reside in Hawai‘i. They are the most recent additions to Hawai‘i’s diverse population, adding such ethnicities as Kosraen, Chuukese, Marshallese, and Palauan to an already mixed plate of cultures. Despite Hawai‘i’s aloha spirit, the Micronesian community living in the isles face daily discrimination and institutional racism—painted on the faces of ignorant passersby, eruditely written into state legislation, scrawled in mean, spray-painted letters on the walls of Micronesian-owned businesses. It is likely that over time, the Micronesian community will follow a familiar arc traced by many other migrant groups in Hawai‘i: discrimination cracking under empowerment, eventually giving way to acceptance. But as climate change intensifies and makes life in Micronesia’s low-lying atolls exceedingly difficult and uncertain, the Micronesian community, both at home and in the diaspora, are engaged in an even greater struggle to protect their homelands and culture from being engulfed in an ever-rising sea.
To understand Micronesian migration to Hawai‘i, we must begin in February 1946, when U.S. military governor Commodore Ben H. Wyatt asked the people of Bikini Atoll, a chain of islands within the Marshall Islands, to temporarily leave their island so that the United States government could test atomic bombs, “for the good of mankind and to end all wars.” After much deliberation, the Bikinians reluctantly agreed to relocate to Rongelap Atoll. Upon their departure, the United States Armed Forces unleashed nuclear hell on Bikini Atoll, 67 times. The most powerful of these bombs was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and it left an underwater crater a mile wide and 200 feet deep where parts of the palm-tree laden atoll, including three islands, had previously been.
Although Bikini Atoll had been cleared of human life, clouds of irradiated coral dust drifted far across the Marshall Islands, leaving islanders poisoned, their skin burned and blistered, their blood contaminated by radiation, and their people exiled. Years later, women birthed stillborn “jelly babies,” and pristine white sand left radioactive burns on bare feet. When questioned about the debacle in 1969, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reportedly replied, “There are only 90,000 of them out there. Who gives a damn?”
This legacy defined the United States’ relationship with its Micronesian territories, then defined as the U.S. Pacific Trust Territories. In the 1960s, as calls for liberation roared throughout the colonized world, the United States government drafted the Solomon Report, a document which outlined a political strategy to ensure that Micronesian island nations would remain politically and economically dependent upon the United States, even after the trust was dissolved. Unwilling to give up such a strategic swatch of land, the United States poured food and monetary aid into the region, but invested little in its sustainable governance and development.
Eventually, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau became independent nations. But the United States was able to retain military control of more than 2 million square miles of the Pacific through the international agreement known as the Compact of Free Association, or COFA. In exchange for this military jurisdiction, the United States promised economic support to the three signatory nations, and gave COFA citizens an open door to enter into the United States.
Today, nearly one-third of the population of COFA nations live abroad, mostly in pursuit of healthcare, jobs, and education. This massive migration represents opportunity, but is also deeply entwined in a complex web of aid dependence that has been spun by the United States in order to maintain control over this strategic region. Sizeable communities of COFA migrants have formed on the U.S. mainland, including in Arkansas and Oregon. Unsurprisingly, given Hawai‘i’s geographic proximity and shared island culture, many Micronesians have chosen to make it their home away from home.
Now, experts are predicting an even larger exodus from Micronesia, as rising seas threaten to force people from their paradisiacal but vulnerable homes. For the second time in less than 100 years, powerful global actors are being questioned about their roles in Micronesia and are responding with a metaphorical “Who gives a damn?” This time, the issue is not a debate over the devastating effects of nuclear testing—though Micronesians still suffer elevated rates of thyroid, colon, and other cancers—but rather those of climate change.
In order to avoid catastrophic impacts, the maximum temperature rise accepted by the international community is a two-degree Celsius global average. This threshold, however, could be a near death sentence for the low-lying islands and atolls of Micronesia. Scientists predict that at the current rate of global warming, sea levels will rise between one to four feet by the end of the century, a terrifying projection for the people of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, where most atolls are only about seven feet above sea level and are rarely wider than a football field. Already, king tides and storm surges have destroyed homes, drowned crops, and rendered agricultural lands salt-ridden and unsuitable for food production. Even if Micronesian atolls resist sinking via the accumulation of coral, more frequent, violent storms induced by climate change will still render shorelines and lifestyles unstable.
The most dangerous impact of sea level rise, however, according to Lowell Alik, director of the Republic of Marshall Islands’ Office of Environmental Planning and Policy Coordination, is that saltwater “will eventually infiltrate underground water resources.” In the worst-case scenario, it is the loss of freshwater that will render low-lying atolls uninhabitable.
Alik’s department is the Marshall Islands’ first point of contact for multilateral environmental agreements. The office is part of a growing effort by Micronesian nations to pressure the international community to act swiftly against the devastating progression of climate change. Leaders like Anote Tong, president of Kiribati, and Tony de Brum, former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, have rejected the idea that their nations should be the world’s proverbial canary in the coalmine. De Brum stirred controversy in a 2015 interview with Radio New Zealand, when he likened climate change-induced migration to cultural genocide, saying, “Displacement of populations and destruction of language and culture is equivalent in our minds to genocide.” Reminding industrialized nations that they would be accountable for this crime, de Brum continued, “People must know that climate change can be reversed if we do it now.” Similarly, at a 2015 address in France, Tong told world leaders, “Your emissions don’t remain your emissions; they become mine, and I have the right to determine my emissions, which you create.”
Already accustomed to delivering emotive speeches about the rising tides affecting their islands, in the months ahead of the COP21 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, Micronesian leaders campaigned tirelessly to lower the globally accepted temperature rise from 2 degrees to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Short of ratifying this new target, the signatories to the final Paris deal committed to keep global temperature rise “well under” 2 degrees, and to “pursue” efforts to keep that figure below 1.5 degrees. After years of seeing little progress, this was a minor victory for Micronesians, yet it was also a sign that the world may finally be ready to listen to those on the front lines of climate change.
Global efforts have not kept pace with the growing pressures placed on already vulnerable populations. In the Marshall Islands, the exiled Bikinian community has recently petitioned Congress to allow it to use a $69 million relocation fund—first granted by the U.S. government for use in relocating within the Republic of the Marshall Islands—to instead be utilized to move to the United States. Though this is a last resort, frequent flooding of Bikinian lands on Kili and Ejit islands have made preparation for this worst-case scenario a tragic necessity.
Fed up with a global discourse that seems resigned to the destruction of low-lying nations, people like Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner have also stood up to tell the world that low-lying nations will not concede to a future identity as climate change refugees. Jetnil-Kijiner, a Marshallese poet who spent much of her life in Hawai‘i, addressed the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014 with a poem that defiantly announced to her young daughter that their home will not be swallowed by the sea, because, she wrote, “We are going to fight.”
As the impacts of climate change also intensify in the Hawaiian Islands, our collective concerns will inevitably begin to align with those of our Micronesian neighbors. Thankfully, the Micronesian community in Hawai‘i has proven to value solidarity, even as they have faced hardship and discrimination head-on in our islands.
This story is part of our Migration Issue.