It couldn’t be more appropriate — inviting a poet and climate activist from a country being swallowed by rising seas, to a bigger country with one of the worst carbon footprints per capita in the world.
But for the Marshall Islands’ Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, who shot to fame after her performance at the 2014 UN Climate Summit, accepting an invitation to speak at Womadelaide 2018 was all about getting her story heard.
“I understand not just Australia’s carbon footprint, but their colonial history as that big brother in the Pacific, and the ways in which they’ve supported and not really supported Pacific countries,” she said.
“I’m just really there to make sure the Marshall Islands, our country’s voices are heard, and that those little low-lying atoll nations are heard.”
The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a series of coral atolls with around 1,200 islands about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
On average, they are just two metres above sea level and considered among the world’s most susceptible populations to rising seas levels caused by climate change.
In 2014, unusually high tides combined with five-metre swells to flood much of the islands. It was the worst flooding the Marshallese had experienced in 30 years and the third time the capital Majuro had been flooded in one year.
“What we’ve experienced in the past four to five years especially is an increase in tidal flooding,” Ms Jetnil Kijiner said.
“All this water rushes over these sea walls we’ve made to protect ourselves and it washes away graves, it crashes into homes, the salt dries up our crops, and people are left homeless in certain situations.”
A poem to drive change
When Ms Jetnil-Kijiner told this story at the UN summit, finishing with her evocative poem Dear Matafele Peinem, it resulted in a standing ovation from world leaders.
The media and others began publishing and broadcasting Ms Jetnil-Kijiner’s writings and performances, and in early 2017 the University of Arizona Press published her first collection of poetry.
She is now scheduled to appear at Womadelaide’s Planet Talks, joining Carteret Islands climate campaigner Ursula Rakova, human rights barrister Julian Burnside, and former World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello, for a talk entitled Climate Justice and the Human Face of Climate Change.
But the real point of Ms Jetnil-Kijiner’s work is to inspire world leaders to help her country “win the most important race of all — the race to save humanity”.
She said the slow speed of change, or a lack of definitive action from larger, more polluting countries, was a source of “super frustration”.
“They’re not recognising how their own actions affect the rest of the world,” Ms Jetnil-Kijiner said.
“Sometimes in a lot of cases, they’re [governments] not recognising the needs of their own people because even their own people and their own citizens are fighting for climate change action.
“The Adani coal mine, for example, has been an issue that I’ve learnt about from my friends in Australia who are trying to shut down that coal mine.”
She even found it hard to point to a large country where she was genuinely impressed by its efforts to reduce carbon emissions.
“Every time I think one country is doing great, then I hear something else about what rollbacks and cutbacks [to emissions reduction policy] they’re doing, so it’s sort of difficult,” Ms Jetnil-Kijiner said.
The World Bank’s Data Catalogue lists Australia’s CO2 emissions per capita in 2014 as 15.4 tonnes; this is similar to the US (16.5) and Canada (15.1) but above Russia (11.9) and China (7.5).
Australia’s total emissions that year was 361,262 kilotons, while China produced 10.29 million kt, the US 5.25 million kt, Russia 1.7 million kt and Canada 537,193kt.
By comparison, the Marshall Islands produced just 1.9 tonnes per capita, or 103 kilotons of emissions in total.
Just landed home. Majuro like a war zone. Roofs torn off, huge blackout, ships ashore. On alert for more tonight. TdB pic.twitter.com/nFpi1je6LH
— Tony de Brum (@TonydeBrum) July 3, 2015
Empowering youth to find solutions
Ms Jetnil-Kijiner co-founded the non-profit group Jo-Jikum which aims to “empower Marshallese youth to seek solutions to environmental impacts on our islands”.
Asked if a mass migration may become necessary due to rising seas, and by when that may occur, Ms Jetnil-Kijiner said she met a climate scientist last year and wanted to know: “Do we have a chance?”
“He wasn’t really able to give me a conclusive answer. I’ve read articles that claim the worst of climate change impacts will hit the Pacific in as little as 10 years; some people say we have 50 years.
“I’m willing to bet we have less than 50 though, considering how fast climate impacts are changing the world.”
Drawing inspiration from past battlers
Ms Jetnil-Kijiner said she drew inspiration from Marshallese elders who had been fighting for climate change to be recognised as a serious threat for years.
This included long-time political leader Tony de Brum who helped negotiate independence from the US in the 1970s, and campaigned regularly about the negative impacts of climate change and American nuclear testing on the islands from 1946 to 1958.
He died last year aged 72.
“If my elders could have fought for as long as they did, then I should be able to continue to fight as well,” Ms Jetnil-Kijiner said.
“And I look at the younger generation, my daughter, the youth that I work with back home with the non-profit Jo-Jikum.
“They also give me hope because they’re the ones that will continue the work after I pass on.”
She said she’d been “overwhelmed” by the reaction to her UN speech and considered it a tribute to the power of poetry and arts, particularly in a subject so often spoken of in figures and percentages.
“I think that art and poetry tend to not really be considered in this fight, and I’ve seen it really transform people and get people to be motivated. It basically humanises the issue.
Ms Jetnil-Kijiner talks at Woamdelaide in Botanic Park on March 11 at 3:00pm.