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  • Marshall Islands
  • David W. Kupferman (bio)

Threatened by impending sea-level rise, internal fraud schemes that reached into the highest levels of government, and potentially damaging changes to its relationship with the United States, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) spent the year under review facing its own mortality. The defining event of the period was the public discussion the country had about its physical and political sustainability as a nation-state, and what to do in the eventuality of its disappearance. It was during this time that the Marshall Islands had to consider not only the real prospect of being an early victim of global climate change, but indeed its very existence within the community of nations; at the same time, it also had to deal with internal strife and external relations that put its governing mechanisms to the test.

In late August, for the first time since 1997, the Marshall Islands made the editorial pages of the New York Times, as an unsigned editorial posed the question: "If a country sinks beneath the sea, is it still a country?" (NYT, 30 Aug 2010). The editorial considered the potential ramifications of the political and diplomatic status of the Marshalls should its actual landmass become uninhabitable, a situation now considered imminent. In response, RMI Ambassador and Permanent Representative of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations Phillip Muller wrote a letter to the editor, seeking to pressure nations in attendance at the 2009 Copenhagen climate change meeting to make good on their promise of us$30 billion in aid (NYT, 5 Sept 2010). In November, Muller again called on the Copenhagen signatories to produce us$20 million for a three-mile-long seawall on the leeward side of Majuro (Johnson 2010). While both the funding and the seawall have yet to appear, the issue of environmental [End Page 150] vulnerability offered the Marshalls the chance to become a focal point in the climate change debate.

This issue was revisited in December at the international climate change meeting in Cancun, Mexico, during which the legal considerations of citizenship, sovereignty, diplomatic standing, and fishing and deep-sea mineral rights were introduced by Michael B Gerrard, the director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University (Hanley 2010); the meeting made headlines around the world, and the potential impact on the Marshalls was the top story on the website. In February 2011, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a report saying that the population of the Marshall Islands were in danger of becoming "environmental refugees" and questioning the political and social effects of wholesale migration on the United States, the presumptive destination of RMI migrants (Huffington Post 2011). Bringing together legal scholars, climate change experts, and government representatives, the Marshall Islands and Columbia's Center for Climate Change Law sponsored a conference in New York for three days at the end of May 2011, during which RMI President Jurelang Zedkaia called on the United Nations to take action as a matter of international security. Noting that the international community had yet to approach climate change in a meaningful way, Zedkaia stated, "There has been enough talk. It is time for action" (MIJ, 3 June 2011). After a year of sobering discussions, however, it remains to be seen what steps the international community, and especially the RMI government, will actually take.

In the midst of the conversation about the impending environmental disaster facing the country, Majuro and several outer atolls and islands experienced some of the highest tides in recent memory. While no storms attended the rising tides on 19 February 2011, sea levels were six inches higher than predicted on Majuro, resulting in the flooding of homes and businesses on various parts of the atoll; a month earlier, on the island of Kili, seawater was knee-deep in some areas that were normally above sea level. While extreme tides like these are part of a normal cycle, affected in this case by La Niña, they nonetheless serve as a stark reminder of the realities of global climate change and its resultant sea-level rise. As Dr Murray Ford, a University of Hawai'i Sea...


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pp. 150-156
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