Road to Paris 2015: A Poet and Her Island Nation

OCEONIA, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas, Austin Marshall Islands in the top right corner.
OCEONIA, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas, Austin

OCEANIA:Courtesy of University of Texas Libraries,University of Texas, Austin.

The other day, enthused by my experiments with  global warming themed haiku, I looked for other poetry on the topic and discovered many environmental poets.  One author who writes about climate change, as well as other topics, is Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, an accomplished Marshallese poet, writer, spoken word artist, journalist, WordPress blogger, college teacher, and mother.  As I looked into her work, two separate but connected stories emerged that I decided to feature as part of this  “Road to Paris 2015” blog post:  Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s spoken word performances of climate change poems and the  courageous climate change strategy of her homeland, the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The Republic of the Marshall Islands,  in the North Pacific,  along with other Pacific Island nations, is in a particularly vulnerable position.  With rising seas and tropical storms unleashed by the global warming process, it has already experienced flooding and damaging winds.  If sea levels continue to rise, their homes could be engulfed and destroyed.  The Marshall Islands consists of over 1100 islands spread over 24 coral atolls as depicted by the orange dots in the  map below.  For those, such as myself, who are unfamiliar with ocean geology, a coral atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef encircling, a lagoon–reefs can be submerged or  above water as islands or islets.

A closer look at the Marshall Islands, spread over 24 coral atolls, with the capital residing on Majuro.   Section of larger Oceania map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.
A closer look at the Marshall Islands, spread over 24 coral atolls, with the capital residing on Majuro. Section of larger Oceania map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

A closer look at the Marshall Islands, spread over 24 coral atolls, with the capital residing on Majuro. (Section of larger Oceania map courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.)

As a developing nation that produces less than .00001% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the Marshall Islands might be expected to focus on pressuring major GHG emitters to clean up their act or on shoring up their own defences. However, this is not this nation’s approach.  Citing the Marshall Islands moto: “Accomplishment through joint effort” (English translation) they have chosen to take part “in the global effort to combat climate change, demonstrating that even with its limited means it will undertake the most ambitious action possible”.  They expressed this intention in their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) document submitted  to the UNFCCC, the UN climate treaty organization–a document which outlines their commitment and strategy for reducing GHG emissions.  All nations participating in the UN climate talks have been asked to submit an INDC as soon as possible prior to the December talks.  To date,  only 47 out of 196 participants have done so.

The Marshall Islands  INDC plan is ambitious:  They will reduce GHG emissions to 32% below 2010 levels by 2025 and by 2050, or earlier, they will achieve net zero emissions.  Their key strategies include energy efficiency and ongoing uptake of renewable energies–particularly solar energy, biofuels and ocean thermal energy conversion.  Given the vulnerablility of their location (in the middle of the Pacific Ocean) and their limited resources, this nation could have chosen to focus entirely on adaptation and survival, but instead,  they are standing as world citizens, pledging to do the best they can to eliminate their contribution to human-induced global warming.

The Second Story:  Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a  Marshallese writer, whose work has often highlighted social, political, and environmental issues, received global attention in September 2014 when she was selected from hundreds of applicants to participate in the opening of  the UN Climate Summit in New York.  At this event she performed “Dear Matafele Peinam”, a poem dedicated to her daughter promising that she will not stand by and let the ocean take their home.  There are a few videos of her performance of this poem, but I have chosen this one as it includes her introductory speech at the UN Summit:

You can read the full text of “Dear Matafele Peinam” on her blog site.

In June of this year Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner posted another climate change poem called “Two Degrees“.  In this piece she talks about why we should aim to keep global temperatures from rising less than 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, rather than less than 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels.  The 2 degree warming limit may prevent some disasters, but there is no assurance that it will be sufficient to prevent ocean flooding and storms that are sure to devastate Pacific island and coastal nations.  Indeed, I would expect that coastal peoples worldwide would prefer the more conservative target.  You can read the  text of the Two Degree poem  on her blog and take a look at the  CNN video of her spoken word performance. Or perhaps you would just like to visit Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s blog to browse her posts.  Her blog is called:  IEP JELTOK, a basket of poetry and writing, as explained on her “About” page“.

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