The Marshall Islands — Bullied by Nukes and Sea Level Rise

By Maile Kuyper ‘20 — Taft School

Imagine if your home, your city, or even your entire country ceased to exist. Believe it or not, that could very well become a reality for approximately 50,000 Marshallese residents in the next twenty-five years, who will be considered “climate refugees”(1). Welcome to the Marshall Islands: a country composed of a chain of 29 atolls and 5 islands in the central Pacific and one of the most magnificent tropical destinations in the world. With an average elevation of only two meters above sea level, this country is facing the inevitable consequences of climate disruption. This collection of islands and atolls could be uninhabitable by the year 2030 due to the rising sea levels prompted by global warming.

Because the Marshall Islands are virtually at sea level, rain and small storms easily induce flooding in the main roads. The whole Marshallese economy is based on their close proximity to the ocean, but will the water providing them with essential resources be the same water to cause the nation’s demise? Even before their homes will be underwater, rising sea levels are having a profound effect on the health and wellness of these Marshallese communities. Freshwater sources from groundwater deposits are being contaminated with salt from the ocean, making it undrinkable for humans. As stated in an MSNBC article, “a drought in the northern atolls of the Marshall Islands in 2013 showed how untenable the situation could be. Water had to be rationed, and disease spread”(2).

If the country’s current circumstances are not bad enough, the Marshall Islands also served as a location for multiple nuclear tests during World War II by the US. According to the CIA World Factbook, “the islands of Bikini and Enewetak are former US nuclear test sites,” with over 60 bomb tests on these two islands combined (3). Runit Island is home to the Runit Dome which is a literal concrete dome encapsulating around 73,000 m^3 of radioactive debris left over from the testing on Enewetak island. This dome is located so close to sea level and once it submerges, all of this poisonous nuclear debris will disperse into the surrounding ocean waters. Nuclear disarmament campaigner John Hallam said in an article by an Australia news source that “when the dome was constructed, the US DoD [Department of Defense] almost contemptuously reassured the RMI [Republic of Marshall Islands] government that it would last for the next 200,000 years (4). This is of course nonsense, and it’s now breaking apart.”

Everything seems to be going wrong for the Marshall Islands and these are not issues that this tiny nation can address independently. But what is the international community doing to help this small nation in the middle of the ocean? Well… at the moment… it doesn’t look like much at all. To start, the term “climate refugee” really does not hold much weight legally speaking. Alex Randall from the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) says that “the phrase ‘climate refugees’ isn’t used much within law or research any more, for the very same reason that such people don’t have similar rights to other kinds of refugees”(5). Additionally, there is no established term for a group of people who must leave their homes and flee because of natural disasters or environmental degradation, because forced climate-based immigration is not a form of persecution. Luckily, there are two global compacts regarding climate refugees that are being adopted at the UN General Assembly during the fall of this year. This action is critical because “there's no international agreement on who should qualify as a climate refugee — much less a plan to manage the growing crisis” according to an NPR article titled “The Refugees The World Barely Pays Attention To”(6).

The Marshall Islands has a Compact of Free Association with the US, allowing them to travel freely to and from the US. As this is one of the few escapes these climate refugees have, many have already attempted moving to the United States.  Yet, many do not want to leave their home or culture behind. Even if they did all want to leave, both the residents and government would be totally dependent on the host State willing to allow citizenship. Generations of Marshallese families and traditions have been cultivated on this island and they want to fight for their right to keep their homes. Many are pleading with the international community to push for more sustainable practices in their countries to limit carbon emission and therefore at least slow down the effects of global warming. But, unfortunately, as displayed by the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement on climate disruption mitigation last year, it is not always a priority.

Currently, there does not seem to be much ground being made in terms of regulations on nuclear testing as shown by the recent emphasis on a possible arms race involving North Korea either. Back in 2014, the Marshall Islands filed a lawsuit with the United Nations’ highest court against the world nuclear powers (such as the United States) for violating their disarmament obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Unfortunately, the courts decided that they did not have the jurisdiction to rule on this suit because it was filed so long after the testing during WW2 and many saw it as a ploy to bring back the debate over nuclear disarmament (7).

Overall, the nation of the Marshall Islands has gotten the short end of the stick on most global issues. Large powerful countries will continue their carbon emissions and nuclear testing. As a small island nation, there is not much they can do.

One question remains: what will these nations of great influence do once these climate refugees are in such dire need of aid that they truly cannot fend for themselves any longer?


1) News, BEME. “Their Country Is Disappearing.” YouTube, YouTube, 23 July 2018

2) Sakuma, Amanda. “How Climate Change Is Forcing a Nation to Flee.” MSNBC, NBCUniversal News Group, 23 Aug. 2016

3) “The World Factbook: MARSHALL ISLANDS.” Central Intelligence Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, 18 Oct. 2018

4) Killalea, Debra. “The Dark Legacy behind Picture Perfect Marshall Islands.” NewsComAu, News Corp Australia, 27 Nov. 2017

5) Lewis, Renee. “Marshall Islanders Set To Become Climate Refugees Before International Law Can Catch Up.” The Huffington Post,, 7 July 2016

6) McDonnell, Tim. “The Refugees The World Barely Pays Attention To.” NPR, NPR, 20 June 2018

7) Simons, Marlise. “Marshall Islands Can't Sue the World's Nuclear Powers, U.N. Court Rules.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017