Some places are, geographically, really unlucky.
The Marshall Islands, a Micronesian nation of 30 low atolls in the South Pacific, scattered half way between Hawaii and Australia, is such a place.
The islands were colonized unsuccessfully by Germany in the late 1800s. Japan claimed them in 1914, prepared them for war, then defended and lost them in the famous and horrible battle for the largest atoll, Kwajalein, in 1944. Though the UN made them part of a trust US territory in 1947, life did not get much easier.
Two of the atolls, Bikini and Eniwetok became the famous sites of US tests of both atomic and hydrogen bombs, and iconic footage of the tests are well known. Bikini inhabitants were ‘translocated’, and both atolls have remained uninhabited because of residual radioactive contamination.
The bomb testing ceased in 1958, but Kwajalein has remained a US military base, and the US has continued to test missiles there – for a long time, lobbing them over from California into the Kwajalein lagoon.
Though the Marshall Islands became sort of independent in 1986, it remains reliant on the US for economic aid, and the US military have certainly not lost interest. Colonization, war, bomb tests, relocation, missile testing. Not an attractive picture, but apparently the cost of being sparsely populated and as far from the curious eyes of the rest of the world as one can get.
And now a new problem has arisen. Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of the atolls. Tidal surges known a King Tides inundate shorelines, saltwater intrudes into the very limited cropland, shortages of potable water occur, coastal erosion increases, coral reefs deteriorate, and tourist sites are lost, while dependence on US aid, including processed food imports, continues to grow.
The leaders of the Marshall Islands have begun asking some critical questions. They recognize that global carbon emissions will not be stabilized any time soon, and that the warming seas will continue to rise, a result of thermal expansion. If they have to abandon their islands, is that the end of it? Do they still have rights as citizens of an abandoned country? Will they lose their rights to the fisheries and other resources granted them by the UN Law of the Sea? Who do they become?
They have asked their questions of Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University Law School. His remarkable response has been to organize a conference to be held in May, 2011. This is an excellent move. It should raise the legal issues, give them context, perhaps suggest some solutions. At the least it will focus world attention on a problem that is going to grow relentlessly over the next century.
But who among the global powers really care about disappearing island nations – Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Maldives, Vanuatu, Fiji, Kiribati, the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands? We shall see. But then there are the threatened Bangladesh lowlands, the Florida Keys and Everglades, 11 of the world’s 15 largest cities, and all the other estuaries on the planet.
Environmental migrants, within and between nations, are a certainty of our global future. As we appear increasingly to be incapable of preventing such catastrophes, adaptation is all we have left. Some of us will migrate, others of us will absorb the migrants, and we will struggle on, dealing with a mess that never should have happened.
Still, we must prepare, and seek a humane way through this. The conference at Columbia is a start, and the Marshall Island leaders are doing their job.