Climate Change in the Marshall Islands

>>Jennifer Newell (assistant curator, Division of Anthropology): The culture of the Marshall Islands is a very community based, supportive, warm kind of culture. When there's a disaster or a long-term drought, you know that your neighbors will look after you, you know that your family, wherever they are, will look after you. And there's also a lot of pride in history of being the finest navigators in the world, in being the people who are able to navigate things of all sorts. The sorts of disasters we can't even imagine. The nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands was something that is hard to imagine any community having to deal with, and then now the new adversity that they're having to deal with is climate change. Climate change is an important topic for island communities because it is an existential problem for Pacific Islanders. Many islanders are going to be losing their homes. They've only got small islands a lot of the time.

For the 2016 Niarchos expedition that I was able to work on, I really wanted to look into a place where there was very obvious effects of climate change, where people are responding to it in really effective ways, at all levels, and use it as an example of how a Pacific Island is responding to climate change. The Marshall Islands were selected because I had already been learning about the Marshall Islands a lot for a number of years through my work with one of my research collaborators here in New York, Tina Stege, who's a Marshall Islander, who's worked a lot on all these issues, both in the Marshalls and here. >>Tina Stege (International Liason, Marshallese Educational Initiative): There's this narrative about the Pacific, that climate change, is like this huge wave, it's coming, it's crashing down on us – and people there are just unable to do anything. And that wasn't the story that I knew. And I wanted to make sure that that story, that people were out there, active, trying to find solutions – there's that story.

And that's why we went to the Marshall Islands. We went to the capital, which is Majuro, and then we also went to a more rural environment, and that place was called Namdrik. >>Newell: We were interviewing people using semi-structured interviews, so we had a list of questions which each of us who was interviewing would be using. When we're asking people, "Do the fish come at the same time they always used to? Are you getting as many fish as before?" and people would always have something they'd notice, like "Oh yes, there's a certain type of fish that doesn't come anymore, at all," or "these ones come a bit later," and everything's becoming a little bit more unpredictable. >>Stege: Nearly everyone had seen the effects of a changing climate. Houses that used to be ten feet from the shore are literally right next to the water.

They would mention flooding, and how it just didn't used to happen with that kind of frequency. They literally had just finished coming out a drought, so that was uppermost on everyone's minds. One of the main things that came across when we were asking people questions like, "How did you get through the drought?" They'd say "Well when I didn't have any more water in my catchment, I went to my neighbor, and they provided water for me." There's a Marshallese concept that we call "lale doon" – to take care of one another. It's one of the most important aspects of our culture, and we need to continue to nurture that if we're going to be able to be resilient in the way we've been for so many generations. >>Newell: The hub of Marshallese culture, which is this togetherness, looking after each other, is what gives them their greatest resilience.

I see resilience as being the capacity to adjust in the face of challenges, and it's things like their capacity to travel well, to migrate effectively, to be able to stay in touch with family and their land. The extent to which a particular community is able to work together is what really determined their capacity to deal with climate change. That's a factor that we all need to really think through, and make sure that you do build those networks with your immediate community, with your, with your neighbors. We need to have at all those different levels – local level, national level, international level – much more understanding about what people need and how to get support to the people who need it. >>Stege: What does the future look like? I'm not sure. We're wondering if we'll be able to stay, and if so how long. We're wondering if we have to leave, where we would go. To know where you want to go, you have to come from a place of strength and of being centered.

And the islands have done that for us..