- By J. Dana StusterJ. Dana Stuster is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. He has studied at the American University of Beirut and graduated in 2010 with degrees in English and International Relations from the University of California, Davis. Before coming to FP, his work appeared in the Atlantic and the National Interest, among other publications.
The Marshall Islands are a leading advocate of international action on climate change. If you ever needed an illustration for why, this is it.
This week an unusually high tide, sometimes called a king tide, swept through the island nation’s capital city, Majuro. Even something as modest as a swelling tide can have an outsize effect in the Marshalls, which is comprised of low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean — the highest elevation in the entire island chain is just 10 meters.
“Around 1,000 people were displaced as a result of the king tide, and a number of family homes were completely wiped out by the encroaching seas,” Marshall Islands Minister for Foreign Affairs Phillip Muller told FP by email, who said it was the worst king tide to hit the Marshalls in decades. “On Tuesday, the cabinet declared a state of emergency, and government agencies are now in high gear to help the communities in Majuro to deal with the situation. But the cleanup has only just begun, and many of the Marshallese affected will never fully recover.”
The tide washed through a landfill, picking up trash and sewage, and a cemetery, jostling gravesites. It also damaged buildings and homes. “We are hopeful that those houses that are far away enough from the shoreline that they may be able to be repaired in such a way that a similar tide within the next five to 10 years can be staved off,” Marshall Islands Climate Change Minister Tony de Brum said, but he stressed that the king tide will have lingering effects. “When the king tides come, the salt inundates, it doesn’t go away…. The salt remains in the soil and in the groundwater.”
The Marshall Islands are periodically inundated by high tides like this. The country last suffered severe tidal flooding in June 2013, when tides washed over storm walls and flooded the Majuro airport and the home of the president. “The president tells me that he has since added another foot to the height of his protective sea wall,” Muller says. “Such is the new reality of climate change in the Pacific.”
The tide this week “is a combination of a little bit of everything,” Steven Gill, a senior scientist at NOAA National Ocean Service’s Center for Operational Oceanographic Products and Services, told FP. The highest tides, like this one, are associated with the alignment of the sun and moon during perigee — the point at which the moon’s orbit passes closest to Earth.
That’s also being exacerbated by changes in sea level. “What we’re noticing is that it really depends on what’s going on with the sea levels,” Gill said. He noted that “it can’t be said it is entirely a matter of global warming,” citing variations in sea level around the Pacific and seasonal variation, but said that “over the long term, there’s an increasing sea level trend in that area.”
“It just depends on how low-lying your land is, and what season it is — sea levels will vary by season,” Gill said.
That’s apparent to the Marshallese. “While king tides are not new to the Marshall Islands, their frequency and ferocity are clearly intensifying,” Muller said. “There is no question that these events are increasing in their seriousness and regularity, consistent with the clear scientific information that sea levels are rising faster in the Central-West Pacific than anywhere else in the world.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that, on average, sea levels could rise between 28 and 98 centimeters over the next century, which would put much of the Marshall Islands underwater. “While we are doing what we can,” Muller says, “even the most conservative estimates of sea-level rise, including from the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, suggest that RMI [the Republic of the Marshall Islands] will literally be wiped off the map some time before the end of the century, given the appalling lack of effort by big emitters to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.”
“It would mean that the Marshall Islands, its people and its culture would be lost forever. This is not a future we are prepared to contemplate.”
Instead of taking to the lifeboats, the Marshall Islands has become an outsize advocate for climate change initiatives. In September 2013, the Pacific Islands Forum — which also includes Australia, New Zealand, and 14 other nations — issued the Majuro Declaration, calling for increased measures to limit greenhouse gas pollution and new, innovative technologies to curb emissions. Muller says he sees the declaration as a “call to arms” for climate leadership. In April, the Marshall Islands will host a meeting of the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, an organization of countries pressing for an international climate agreement that coalesced after the 2009 summit in Copenhagen.
“There is no better way to energize the world’s climate diplomats than to have them see for themselves the urgency of our struggle,” Muller told FP. “Last month, Secretary Kerry said climate change was like a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ — well, here in the Marshall Islands, lying at an average of just six feet above sea level, we are at ground zero.”