top of page
  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Race against time: On the front line of climate change, the Republic of Marshall Islands sets a dead

Selina Neirok Leem, an environmental activist from Marshall Islands, speaks at the Bank of Guam’s forum held Nov. 22 at Dusit Thani Resort in Tumon. Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

The Republic of Marshall Islands is likely to disappear from the map sooner than originally predicted. Eleven years from now.

“This is a deadline that has been burdening my 22-year-old shoulder since I learned of it during a conference in New York a few months ago,” said Selina Neirok Leem, an environmental activist from Marshall Islands.

One of the lowest lying island nations in the world, Marshall Islands is threatened with climate apocalypse by the accelerating sea level rise between 1 and 4 feet, resulting from a global average temperature rise between 1 and 3 degrees Celsius.

In a report published in October last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) drew different scenarios from a temperature rise of 1.5°C versus 2°C, identifying small-island developing states that are disproportionately at higher risk of adverse consequences of global warming. Besides RMI, also at greater risk are Kiribati, Tuvalu and Maldives.

As climate experts and activists monitor the global temperature, “1.5 to stay alive” has become the chant of survival.

“We are at 1.3 degree Celsius now,” Leem said, keynoting the Bank of Guam’s forum themed “Purpose Beyond Profit; The Greater Good of Business” held Nov. 22 at Dusit Thani Resort in Tumon.

“I hope and I pray it will be your agenda, as well. 1.5 degree Celsius threshold, the number that the Marshall Islands, along with other Pacific nations who are at the forefront of climate change despite contributing the least to this climate crisis, fought valiantly for to be in the Paris Climate agreement.”

The 22-year-old Leem, dubbed as RMI’s own Greta Thunberg, was among the global faces of climate change at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference (COP21). She represented her country as the summit’s youngest delegate and made a plea to global leaders for stronger action on climate change.

“(The) late Marshallese Ambassador for Climate Change Tony deBrum shared with me in the premises of the COP21 in Paris back in 2015 that while 1.5 degree was a victory for communities like ours, climate impact on us will remain,” Leem said at the Bank of Guam forum. “The scientist shared that if we continue business as usual, emitting emissions as we are, we only have 11 years left. 2050 which was the lifeline of my home, predicted to be uninhabitable and under water, has now become 20 years shorter and 11 years sooner.”

On Oct. 11, the RMI Parliament declared a national emergency over climate change, which the country’s president, Hilda Heine, laid at the international community’s door. “As one of only four low-lying coral atoll nations in the world, the failure of the international community to adequately respond to the global climate crisis of its own making holds particularly grave consequences,” she tweeted.

The RMI Parliament has adopted a resolution, expressing the government’s decision to “unite fully and equivocally behind the science” and directing “the current and future governments of the Marshall Islands to ensure the fight against climate change remains the country’s top priority."

Australia's Pacific Climate Change Science Program developed climate change projections for RMI. Highlights are as follows:

*Projections for all emissions scenarios indicate that the annual average air temperature and sea surface temperature will increase in the future in the Marshall Islands (Table 1). By 2030, under a high emissions scenario, this increase in temperature is projected to be in the range of 0.8–1.8ºF (0.4–1.0°C). *Sea level is expected to continue to rise in the Marshall Islands (Table 2 and Figure 6). By 2030, under a high emissions scenario, this rise in sea level is projected to be in the range of 1.2–6.3 inches (3-16 cm). The sea-level rise combined with natural year-to-year changes will increase the impact of storm surges and coastal flooding. As there is still much to learn, particularly how large ice sheets such as Antarctica and Greenland contribute to sea-level rise, scientists warn larger rises than currently predicted could be possible. *Ocean acidification will continue Under all three emissions scenarios (low, medium and high) the acidity level of sea waters in the Marshall Islands region will continue to increase over the 21st century, with the greatest change under the high emissions scenario. The impact of increased acidification on the health of reef ecosystems is likely to be compounded by other stressors including coral bleaching, storm damage and fishing pressure.

The Republic of Marshall Islands, which has a population of 58,791, is made up of 29 coral atolls with over 1,100 islands and islets. The country’s total area is just over 70 square miles.

In February 2019, the Marshall Islands Journal reported Heine’s plans to elevate the country’s islands to keep them habitable. “Raising our islands is a daunting task but one that must be done,” the Marshall Islands Journal quoted Heine as saying. “We need the political will, and especially traditional leaders’ commitment, to see this through. That is why a national dialogue is planned to bring all the parties together.”

But Leem is skeptical. “We are looking to expand and raise the land. How we go about that?” she asked. “I am unsure as we have neither the funds nor the expertise, to undertake such a daunting but necessary task.”


She noted that grassroot initiatives, such as greenhouse gardening and using green energy. “The scale might be small but it is a start,” Leem said.

That scale needs to expand for farther and stronger reach, she added. “And you in this room, as captains in business, local governments, private sectors, this is where you step in,” Leem told the crowd at the Guam forum. “Because the capital and established connections lie with you and these initiatives need that capital and established connections.”

She urged businesses and policy makers to invest in NGOs that equip the youth with tools to be seasoned survivors and warriors, to invest in renewable energy, reforestation, energy-efficient products. “The job is tedious but we do not have the luxury and privilege of time to be catering to inconveniences. You reap what you sow,” Leem said. “As a whole, you will be saving money which you can then use for more ambitious plans for initiatives you would like to act upon to be more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Aim for carbon neutrality.”

RMI is racing against time. Eleven years “That is the deadline that I burden onto you as respective leaders in your professional field of work and as respective members of your local communities to partake in your responsibilities on this fight for global justice.”


bottom of page