MEI will host a climate change forum in September 2016 in conjunction with Manit Day festivities. Contact MEI for more information and about sponsorship opportunities.
Today, Climate Change and Nuclear Issues dominate global concerns of the people of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. As an educational initiative, MEI is dedicated to promoting awareness of these two interrelated issues.
Marshallese are the descendants of seafarers who seized the climatic opportunity some 2000 years ago–when sea levels dipped to present position–to entrench a civilization with distinct customs and life skills suited for human habitation in what is now called the Republic of the Marshal Islands (RMI). Looking towards the future with 0.6 – 1.2 meters of sea level rise projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the end of this century, Marshallese face increasingly frequent threats of submergence, coastal flooding, and coastal erosion that will progressively render atoll environments uninhabitable.
This grim reality is quietly but notably alluded to in the United States 3rd National Climate Assessment released last May. It comes in the assessment’s 23rd chapter, in the form of a ‘key message’ to the 100,000 or so atoll inhabitants within the US-affiliated Pacific islands region. As foretold: Mounting threats to food and water security, infrastructure, and public health and safety are expected to lead to increasing human migration from low to high elevation islands and continental sites.
Work is now underway to better understand and anticipate the timing and spatial sequence of climate-induced migration, particularly given the exacerbating impacts of tropical cyclones and drought. This type of information will help not only Marshallese prepare for climate change, but also the host communities that are likeliest to receive them as climate migrants, so that collectively we can confront the tides of climate change with confidence and not with despair.
– Mark Stege, MA in Climate and Society, Columbia University.
In April 2014 the Republic of the Marshall Islands filed suit against 9 nuclear nations at the International Court of Appeals and in US Federal Court. The R.M.I. lawsuits argue that these nations are in violation of their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and/or international law. Nations named in the lawsuit include: the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. The goal: to achieve a nuclear free world.
Though the R.M.I. does not ask for compensation in the lawsuits, the filing does draw attention to the impact U.S. nuclear testing had on the people of the Marshall Islands, the lands which they so closely identify, and their call for redress. The U.S. government identified the people of 4 atolls–Rongelap, Utrōk, Enewetak, and Bikini–as deserving of compensation for damages done to property and life, most notably, by the Castle Bravo test on March 1, 1954. A 15-megaton thermonuclear blast, Bravo sent irradiated coral dust throughout the Marshall Islands.
Jessica Schwartz, an Assistant Professor of Musicology at UCLA and co-founder MEI, describes how children played in the fallout on Rongelap, believing it was snow, and how women rubbed the powdery substance into their hair until their scalps burned and their hair began to fall out.
Neisen Laukon, a Rongelapese woman now living in northwest Arkansas, explained that men (presumably with the US military) arrived on Rongelap to check the island, likely for radioactivity, but left after a few minutes and without any explanation to the inhabitants. Unable to drink the water that had turned a dingy yellow, the Rongelapese had only coconut milk to consume. After suffering from burns, muscle pains, and hair loss due to radiation sickness, the Rongelapese were finally removed by U.S. military personnel, who arrived two full days after Bravo turned the entire sky red.
Laukon explains, “they made the women and children strip naked, and with the men, were made to load onto a ship, where they were hosed down.” The people were taken to a facility to receive medical treatment. Ultimately, the people of Rongelap were unwitting subjects of secret Project 4.1, a classified study of the effects of radiation on a human population. (See Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly Barker’s, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report (2008)
Three years after Bravo they were returned to Rongelap, where they were told it was safe to live, but not to eat the local foods. According to Laukon, they were given sea rations once per year in January when the doctors arrived to examine the population.
When the food ran out, they ate arrowroot, clams, and fish, all which made blisters form in their mouths. Their feet were blistered too, just for walking on the sands. Miscarriages by pregnant women on the atoll were common, and oftentimes those born resembled a “jellyfish” more than they did a human.
The suffering was not confined to the people of Rongelap or Utrōk. Genetic birth defects, and cancers, particularly in the thyroid and lymphatic system was, and still is, all too common among the Marshallese population.
The 67 tests the United States conducted in the Marshall Islands was the equivalent of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being dropped daily for 12 years. Though Bravo was the largest and spread fallout the furthest, other tests codenamed Yankee, Union, and Zebra also sent fallout onto unsuspecting atoll populations.
Despite the obvious links of illnesses to the testing, the United States refuses to recognize or compensate any Marshallese other than those from the 4 aforementioned atolls. Yet, the U.S. military continues to use the Marshall Islands as a testing range, which is a vital component of the US missile defense system.
Today, the Marshallese have taken the moral high-ground in calling an end to nuclear weaponry–the effects of its use they know so well.
In the midst of the recent headlines and legal wrangling, the Marshallese people still suffer, daily, from the impact of nuclear testing. Many are displaced and will never be allowed to return to their lands safely. Now with sea level rise due to climate change, they face a new threat to their homelands.
Yet, the Marshallese people remain steadfast. They want to be heard–to be acknowledged for the sacrifices they made for the United States to become and remain a military superpower. They also want, and deserve, redress.
– Listen to Neisen Laukon speak about the impact of nuclear testing on the people of Rongelap or watch at video of her talk on vimeo.
– Read Dr. Jessica A. Schwartz’s article about nuclear testing and the impact on the women of Rongelap in “A ‘Voice to Sing’: Rongelapese Musical Activism and the Production of Nuclear Knowledge,” Music and Politics, Vol. VI, Issue I (Winter, 2012).
– Visit the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s website, Nuclear Zero, to learn more about the Nuclear Lawsuits.
– Read RMI Foreign Minister Tony de Brum’s “Nuclear Witness” speech at the United Nations on April 28, 2014 or watch Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s video on YouTube.
Visit our vimeo page to watch a speech by Prof. Michael Gerrard, Law Professor at Columbia University and the Director of the Center for Climate Center Law, about climate change and links to our shared nuclear legacy.
Holly Barker & Barbara Rose Johnston, Consequential Damages of Nuclear War: The Rongelap Report (Left Coast Press, 2008).
Jack Neidenthal, For the Good of Mankind: A History of the People of Bikini and their Islands (Micronitor/Bravo Publishers; 2nd ed., 2001).
Giff Johnson, Don’t Ever Whisper: Darlene Keju: Pacific Health Pioneer, Champion for Nuclear Survivors (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013).