For The Marshall Islands, The Climate Goal Is '1.5 To Stay Alive'

Dec 9, 2015
Originally published on December 9, 2015 4:22 pm

Nearly 200 countries are attending the Paris climate summit and nearly every one has something at stake. Yet it's hard to find anyone with more on the line than Tony de Brum, the foreign minister for the Marshall Islands.

"The Marshall Islands covers an area of approximately a million square miles of ocean. Many people call us a small island state. I prefer to be called a large ocean state," de Brum says.

The islands sit in the Pacific, far west of Hawaii, with a population of more than 70,000 spread over 29 atolls. I wanted to experience a day in the life of this United Nations summit through his eyes.

We're in the back seat of a car, rolling from his hotel through the dark and empty streets of Paris. It's before dawn and de Brum is getting his first briefing of the day.

"Every day has been like a 6:45 to midnight run," he says.

An aide continues the briefing, preparing the minister for a breakfast featuring former Vice President Al Gore.

"For us, it's 1.5 to stay alive," the aide says.

That phrase comes up a lot when you talk to people from small island states. Here's what it means:

The world's countries have agreed that if the global temperature increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it will have disastrous impacts.

But in places like the Marshall Islands, de Brum says, even 2 degrees is a calamity. So the target it advocates is 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit).

"We cannot be expected to sign off on a small island death warrant here in Paris," says de Brum. "Anything over 2 degrees is a death warrant for us. It means the sea level will rise above ... our level of the islands. It means the islands go under."

An 18-year-old named Selina Leem is riding in the car with us.
She's part of the Marshall Islands delegation, and she says things have already changed on the islands since she was a kid.

"The area that I'm living in, it's one of the most affected areas in the Marshall Islands," she says.

Coconut trees she used to climb have washed away. Sea walls have been demolished.

"Graves of grandparents, people who lived in my town, are just gone," she says. She worries that her family may have to leave their home.

"We live close to the water. Last year there was an inundation, and for the first time the water actually washed into our house," she says.

The sky is just starting to turn pink by the time we arrive at the conference center. The minister wears a bright red scarf over his dark suit and silver hair. His skin has the wear of a man who's spent much of his life in the sun.

De Brum ducks into the breakfast with Al Gore and other delegates. Reporters are not allowed in. The next event on his schedule is a bit ... creamier.

"We're about to go to a launching of a new flavor of Ben & Jerry's ice cream," he says.

The flavor is called Save Our Swirled.

De Brum breaks into song, to the tune of Duke of Earl. "Scoop, scoop scoop, scoop of swirl, swirl, swirl ..."

This will not be the last time today he sings the song.

At the event, there's a giant ice cream cone with a melting globe on top of it. A scrum of reporters with cameras crowds around the ice cream stand. The CEO of Ben & Jerry's, Jostein Solheim, welcomes de Brum.

It's a strange thing about these climate summits. The fate of humanity might hang in the balance, but there can also be a kind of circus atmosphere.

From the ice cream photo-op, the foreign minister walks to one meeting after another. A round of closed-door deliberations takes up his entire afternoon, and into the evening.

The U.S. has a complicated history with the Marshall Islands. The American military tested nuclear weapons there. Today, Marshallese people who want to relocate to the U.S. are allowed to do so.

De Brum says it's not so simple though.

"To move people from their islands, it's not like New York to California," he says. "It's a serious, traumatic, heart-wrenching separation of a man from his soul."

De Brum, who is 70, has 10 grandkids and four great-grandchildren, most of whom live on the islands.

As he walks from one meeting to another, I ask him if the younger generations will be able to remain.

"I'm hoping that what I do here will result in them not having to move anywhere. That's the whole purpose of the exercise, isn't it?" he says. "I Skyped with them last night. 'How's it going? Do we have to move anywhere?' I said, 'No, not yet.'"

And with that, the foreign minister for the Marshall Islands heads into one more meeting.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People from nearly 200 countries are attending this meeting, and nearly every one of them has something at stake. This summit could shape how countries produce energy and how quickly people emerge from poverty. Yet, it's hard to find anyone here with more on the line than Tony de Brum.

TONY DE BRUM: OK. Hello.

SHAPIRO: Hello.

He's the Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands.

DE BRUM: The Marshall Islands cover an area of approximately a million square miles of ocean. Many people call us a small island state. I prefer to be called a large ocean state.

SHAPIRO: It sits in the Pacific, far west of Hawaii. I wanted to experience a day in the life of this U.N. summit through Minister De Brum's eyes. We're in the backseat of a car rolling from his hotel through the dark and empty streets of Paris.

It's before dawn now. You're getting your first briefing of the day. What did time did your last event last night end?

DE BRUM: Almost midnight.

SHAPIRO: And is that pretty much every day here?

DE BRUM: Every day's been like this - 6:45 to midnight run.

SHAPIRO: An aid continues the briefing, preparing the minister for a breakfast featuring former vice president Al Gore.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Paris headline is the long term goal. For us, that's 1.5 to stay alive.

SHAPIRO: That phrase - 1.5 to stay alive - comes up a lot when you talk with people from small island states. Here's what it means. The world's countries have agreed that if the global temperature increases by more than 2 degrees Celsius, it will have disastrous impacts for human life. But in places like the Marshall Islands, De Brum says even 2 degrees is a calamity.

DE BRUM: We cannot be expected to sign off on a small island death warrant here in Paris.

SHAPIRO: Small island death warrant - that's a strong term.

DE BRUM: It is because anything over 2 degrees is a death warrant for us. It means that sea level will rise above our - the level of the islands. It means the islands go under.

SHAPIRO: An 18-year-old named Selina Leem is riding in the car with us. She's part of the Marshall Islands delegation, and she tells me things have already changed on the island since she was a kid.

SELINA LEEM: The area that I'm living in - it's one of the most affected areas in the Marshall Islands.

SHAPIRO: Coconut trees she used to climb have washed away, seawalls demolished.

LEEM: Graves of grandparents of people who live in my town are just gone.

SHAPIRO: Do you worry that your family might have to leave your family home if this continues?

LEEM: Yes 'cause we live, like, close to the water. And so just last year, there was an inundation, and then for the first time water actually washed into our house.

SHAPIRO: The sky is just starting to turn pink by the time we arrive at the conference center. We walk past empty meeting rooms and big signs that are supposed to be motivational.

So these signs say, below 2 degrees Celsius, together we'll make it. But 2 degrees Celsius for your people - you said it's a death sentence.

DE BRUM: That's why it says below.

SHAPIRO: The minister wears a bright, red scarf over his dark suit and silver hair. His skin has the wear of a man who has spent much of his life in the sun. De Brum ducks into breakfast with Al Gore and other delegates. Reporters are not allowed in. The next event on his schedule is a bit creamier.

DE BRUM: We're about to go to a launching of a new flavor of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

SHAPIRO: The flavor is called Save Our Swirled. De Brum breaks into song.

DE BRUM: (Singing) It's a scoop of swirl, swirl, swirl, scoop, scoop, scoop of swirls...

SHAPIRO: I don't know that song.

DE BRUM: You know "Duke of Earl?"

SHAPIRO: Oh, "Duke of Earl" - yeah, yeah, yeah.

DE BRUM: "Scoop a Swirl."

SHAPIRO: That will not be the last time today he sings the song.

DE BRUM: (Singing) Scoop, scoop, scoop of swirl, swirl, swirl...

SHAPIRO: So there's a giant ice cream cone here with a melting globe on top of it. A scrub of reporters with cameras crowds around the ice cream stand. The CEO of Ben & Jerry's welcomes Minister De Brum.

JOSTEIN SOLHEIM: Thank you for coming.

DE BRUM: Hey. Well, I wouldn't miss it for the world.

SHAPIRO: It's a strange thing about these climate summits. The fate of humanity might hang in the balance, but there can also be a kind of circus atmosphere. From the ice cream photo-op, the foreign minister walks to one high-level meeting and then another.

How was the meeting?

DE BRUM: Good. Where are we going next?

SHAPIRO: These closed-door deliberations take up his entire afternoon and into the evening. The U.S. has a complicated history with the Marshall Islands. The American military tested nuclear weapons there. Today, Marshallese people who want to relocate to the U.S. are allowed to do so. De Brum says it's not so simple though.

DE BRUM: You move people away from their islands, and it's not like moving from New York to California. It's a very serious, traumatic, heart-wrenching separation of a man from his son.

SHAPIRO: De Brum is 70 years old. He has 10 grandkids, most of whom live on the Marshall Islands, four great-grandchildren. Walking from one meeting to another I asked him, do you think that your grandchildren will all be able to remain, or do you think some of them will have to find homes elsewhere?

DE BRUM: I'm hoping that what I do here is going to result in them not having to move anywhere. That's the whole purpose of the exercise, isn't it?

SHAPIRO: Do they ask you, Grandpa?

DE BRUM: Yes, they do. I Skyped with them last night. Yeah, how's it going? Do we have to move anywhere?

SHAPIRO: And what do you say?

DE BRUM: I say, no, not yet.

SHAPIRO: And with that, the foreign minister for the Marshall Islands heads into one more meeting. Adieu in climate summit in Paris. I'm Ari Shapiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.