Uncertain Over Paris Climate Talks, Marshall Islanders Prepare For The Worst

BIKIRAN ISLAND, Marshall Islands — Candice Guavis stepped out of the turquoise lagoon onto the beach of this remote and pristine island, home only to a caretaker who tends to the forest and the coastline.

“We’ve started calling him Wilson,” Guavis said, smiling. “Like in ‘Cast Away.’ Once when we came he was listening to the radio and dancing by himself.” She strode inland under the shade of coconut palms. Gesturing at a plastic bottle dangling from a string tied to a branch, she said, “He’s been leaving scraps of Bible verses in these bottles all over the island. It must get lonely out here sometimes.”

This tiny island sits on Majuro Atoll, halfway between Hawaii and Australia. But it faces an uncertain future. As the world enters the age of climate change, Bikiran is on the front lines. Sea level rise and other effects of climate change threaten the Marshall Islands more than almost any other country on Earth.

Guavis works for the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, and Bikiran is one of the protected areas MIMRA staff and caretakers watch over. They’ve built rudimentary seawalls — piles of coconut palms and other organic debris — to stop the wind and waves and the rising sea from crumbling the island back into the ocean.

“It’s the traditional method,” Guavis said. “Our elders say it’s the most effective way. We plant pandanus trees on top — they can withstand the salt and their roots hold everything together.”

Preparing for climate change in the Marshall Islands involves a lot of this kind of traditional knowledge melded with modern science. These islands were colonized thousands of years ago, and over time the Marshallese have achieved a deep understanding of their precarious and sensitive environment — the crashing waves of the Pacific, the ceaseless wind, the scarce —> Read More