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‘We are at ground zero’

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 12 Mar 2014 12:53 GMT
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Binata Pinata checks the roof of her home as a storm approaches Bikeman islet, off South Tarawa in the central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, a chain of 33 atolls and islands just metres above sea level. Picture May 25, 2013, REUTERS/David Gray
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Last week, the worst high tide in 30 years surged through the capital of the low-lying Marshall Islands, destroying homes, displacing a thousand people and covering the city in trash swept up from a submerged landfill.

Seasonal “king tides” are nothing new in the Pacific islands. But over the last year Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, has been hit by three serious tidal floods, one of which, last June, closed the airport and swept through the president’s home – even as other atolls in the country were suffering devastating drought.

Why is the country experiencing so many disasters? Phillip Muller, the country’s foreign minister, has no doubt about the cause: The sea level is rising as a result of climate change, and it is rising faster in the Central-West Pacific than anywhere else.

“Here in the Marshall Islands, lying at an average of just six feet above sea level, we are at ground zero” of climate change, he said in a statement. “There is no greater threat and no greater challenge for my country than climate change.”

Across the Pacific, low-lying islands are enduring worsening problems related to sea level rise, including sea water seeping into drinking water wells; king tides carrying salty water into agricultural fields, killing crops and permanently affecting the soil’s ability to support agriculture; and more frequent and severe flooding of homes and businesses.

In the Marshall Islands, “even the most conservative estimates of sea-level rise, including from the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, suggest that 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,” Muller said, after the Cabinet declared a state of emergency.

But the islands, Muller noted, are not “simply waving our arms in distress.” Last year, the country hosted a Pacific Islands Forum meeting and produced a Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership, urging countries in the region and around the world to do more to reduce their climate-changing emissions.

In early April the atoll nation, home to some 52,000 people, will host another gathering, of the Cartagena Dialogue for Progressive Action, aimed at pushing ahead an ambitious new global treaty to curb climate change.

The islands have tried to lead by example as well, pushing forward a switch from fossil fuel power to solar energy and working to extract power from differences in ocean temperatures.

Muller said he hopes the latest disaster in the Marshall Islands could be the sloshing-around-their- ankles wake-up call climate negotiators – some of whom will visit in April – need to push ahead action on a new 2015 treaty to curb climate change.

For now, the cleanup goes on. “Such is the new reality of climate change in the Pacific,” the foreign minister said.

 

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