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Tiny Country Battles Rising Tide

Ambassador Phillip Muller has been the representative of the Permanent Mission of the Marshall Islands to the United Nations since 2008.  A former trusteeship territory of the United States, the Marshall Islands constitute one of the smallest nations in the world.  Thanks to diplomats like Muller, however, the tiny Pacific state — most of which rises less than a yard above sea level — is trying to become one of the leading voices in the global debate on climate change.  Muller sat down with the NYCity News Service to discuss climate change and his nation’s unique vulnerability to the consequences of a warming planet.

The Marshall Islands have been among the United Nations’ most vocal proponents of curbing carbon emissions and rising sea levels, and just last month, the capital, Majuro, was flooded by high tides.  How does sea level rise affect life in the Marshall Islands?

There is actually, almost every quarter now, when the tides are high, water comes onto our land, especially in some of the most populated areas.  As you know, for example, Majuro is only three feet above sea level, so when sea level rises — comes onto the land — it affects our drinking water, it gets into our reservoirs, it gets into the runway where we need the airplanes to land, it gets into our dump area, and other places.  So it’s a big concern for us.  It’s a big concern.

How does that feel to you, personally, to almost be helpless to stop this inevitable thing?

Sometimes you feel like it’s a losing cause, but at the same time, we try to do the best we can.  The sea continues to rise.  The effects of that also continues to be seen all over the Marshall Islands, including salt water coming into the soil we use to grow our food crops: taro and breadfruit and bananas and all of that.  So we have a problem with water and also with food security.

How pressing are those food and water concerns?

We need a solution a few years back.  Because now we depend on outside assistance to help us cope with those.  So as a result, more and more people in the Marshall Islands now depend on imported food, because now we can no longer grow our own food, so we don’t have the same self-sufficiency that we had before.

Again, personally, how does it feel to you to have lost that aspect of self-sufficiency?

That’s really – I don’t know how to describe it.  It’s very sad.  Sad, because when we were growing up, people were able to live on their land, grow their own food, and be self-sufficient.  Now all of that has been taken away.

Now, your home, like all homes in the Marshall Islands, is near the water.  Have you been affected by flooding at all?

Oh, yes.  I have several homes.  One of my homes in the Long Island area, we put up a seawall, and now when I went back, the seawall is all broken up, and water has come – sometimes it comes into our living room area.  So the water is right next to the house right now.  It’s getting worse.  It’s getting worse.

How do you feel when you hear people who are skeptical of climate change when you’ve actually seen the evidence of it in your living room?

First of all, I don’t respond to people I don’t know, and I don’t respond to people who I think don’t know what they’re talking about.  We’re there.  We live there.  We see every day what is happening, and for people who are skeptics, I don’t know where they get their information from.  I don’t know what it will take to convince this kind of people, but I think they’re just being naïve, or they just don’t want to see the reality.

The United States is the second largest emitter of carbon in the world, and the Marshall Islands were once a trusteeship of the U.S.  Do you feel as though the United States has somehow let the Marshall Islands hang out to dry?

Well, let me just put it this way.  So far, we have been disappointed.  We would have liked to see the U.S. be on the forefront, and help us try to find the right solutions to the issues.

The Marshall Islands is going to be part of a gathering at Columbia in May to start discussing the international law regarding the rights of states that have been rendered uninhabitable by climate change.  What do you hope the meeting will address?

I hope that does not happen, but we have to be realistic.  The idea came up from our thinking that it’s better to address some of those issues now rather than try to sweep them under the carpet.  The issues of who will own the resources, for example, if the Marshall Islands should go under.  Where do the people go?  Who is responsible to pay for their relocation?

What would it be like to have to leave the Marshall Islands?

In the Marshall Islands, the culture and the land are one. Once you are removed from your land, you don’t really have any roots.  You don’t have an identity.