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The Complicated Truth of Climate Change in the Marshall Islands

Not all islands are sinking. We can fight global warming while acknowledging the wonder of the natural world.

Tidal water in Majuro Atoll

In 2011, as an anxious Republican from Utah, I fly with my husband and nine-month-old son to Majuro Atoll, the capital of the Marshall Islands. We fly D.C. to L.A., L.A. to Honolulu, then Honolulu southwest for 2,300 miles to Majuro. I don’t blink at the carbon footprint of my flights, not yet. I’m just grateful the baby sleeps, log-like, on a questionably hygienic hearth of two airline tray tables. I’m worried about the unknowns ahead, disasters to foresee and forestall: feral dogs, garbage pollution, disease, food insecurity, droughts, floods, typhoons, leftover nuclear radiation, and, of course, sharks. I don’t consider these potential issues in terms of their likelihood, scope, or scale. My mind races.

My new home appears below: a tree-green, beach-beige strip of land shaped like the outline of a woman’s lips, with the town of Laura at the west end and the capital, Delap-Uliga-Djarrit, at the east end. The Laura side of the atoll twists up like a wry smile.

Laura has the highest natural elevation on Majuro, 10 feet above sea level. When the moon hovers above spring tides each February, the king-tide waves will reach over the rocks, enter houses, snatch belongings and garbage and children, and poison freshwater wells, called lenses, with salt water. The Marshallese, for thousands of years, have dealt with these cyclical elements—in addition to the materials they consume—in a way most Americans never do. There’s no place on an atoll where you can disconnect from the weather. Or yourself.

We live somewhere along the curve of Majuro’s smile, in Rairok. In our blue house, on pillars over the lagoon, I take care of the baby and teach him how to count. There is plenty of time to think, as evidenced by the fact that the baby starts counting into the thousands with secondhand foam letters. This is slow time, kairos time, a Greek word meaning the moment when a new state comes into being.

As the tide ebbs and flows underneath the house, my viewpoints erode, shift, resettle, grow, break, and grow again. Some of these shifts are forced by necessity; others I choose to change because, without TV or a smart phone, I finally slow down enough to see where I can improve.

My consumption habits erode. Long boat rides and inconsistent electricity sometimes produce imported meat of questionable quality, and I wean myself off it. I hate how sweat makes makeup run, and I dispense with many bottled beauty products. For the first time, the first real time, I notice that the garbage I personally throw away adds to the landfill I pass—and smell—on my way to Delap-Uliga-Djarrit. It takes a month for packages from the U.S. to arrive, so I subscribe to the motto Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. I learn that I am happier living with less.

My fears also erode, even though I do confront a few of my original disaster scenarios. But on slow time, they are easier to deal with and weather.

I adjust to new routines. I edit science articles and textbooks in physics, engineering, and computer science. I push the stroller around the Lojkar neighborhood, watch the ocean crash against the reef, and listen to podcasts about social justice and women’s rights. I wish my culture could be matrilineal like the Marshallese. I start writing.

I watch all 139 episodes and 2 movies of MacGyver on DVD. MacGyver, I notice, is steady and cheerful as he solves problems with science, engineering, and whatever materials he has on hand. The still-frame smile at the end makes me laugh every time. I decide I want to be like him—minus the mullet.

Despite the isolation, I never feel alone, and the time I spend building relationships with people on Majuro further connects us to each other and the environment we inhabit. At church, I laugh with friends, play hymns on the piano, teach the young women life skills, and learn Marshallese. I meet an American at the U.S. Embassy in Majuro who has brought a reverse osmosis machine to ease water shortages. Drinking water right from the ocean through the machine is unsettling and exhilarating. I meet a man from Taiwan and learn how the Taiwanese government provides solar panels to the outer islands. I meet a Marshallese woman who teaches sexual education with a local nonprofit, and I invite her to talk with my group of young women. This is not something a Republican from Utah normally does, although I first get permission from parents and church leaders. Only later do I find out that the education of girls is a key climate-change initiative.

Since a melon costs twenty dollars in the store, I learn to grow food. I meet a Seventh-Day Adventist couple working at the Wellness Center, and they give me recipes that use local food and dried goods. They teach me to plant and hand-pollinate cucumbers in clever reusable containers. We harvest coconuts from the trees and grow sprouts, tomatoes, lettuce, and a rough, waxy spinach that the baby learns to tolerate.

In 2012, I meet Murray Ford, a coastal geomorphologist working for the University of Hawai‘i Sea Grant program. He asks me to work with him, along with an artist from Australia, on a brochure for landowners about shoreline protection.

From Murray, I learn that atolls are dynamic, flexible, diverse, and complex. They’re the hard geological structures on which reef islands (also called atoll islands) build. The coral I see when I finally dare to snorkel—coral resembling orange antlers or huge brown brains or dainty purple flowers—wants to grow vertically, up to the lowest tide level. This growth builds the atoll over eons.

Reef islands grow vertically too, on a smaller timescale. I learn that beach sand, or sediment, which is usually coral but also other biological material, erodes, shifts, and rebuilds elsewhere—and not always where humans want. During the king-tide season, I see where waves dump bits of coral, shells, coconut husks, pandanus branches, and garbage onto the road. I don’t fully understand, at the time, that this flooding is actually building the island, not sinking it.

This past month, Murray’s research has resurfaced again in U.S. media outlets, providing nuance to the claim that rising sea levels are swallowing the Marshall Islands and other coral atolls in the world. The truth is more complex: Some reef islands are eroding, but most are growing—on slow time, as they normally do. In 2015, Murray and his team found that 83 percent of Marshallese land is actually stable or even growing in size. This in no way releases us from our obligation to reduce emissions and support carbon sinks: it’s a reminder of complexity in the natural world, a world always in flux. Understanding this local science allows leaders and communities to protect shorelines of islands that aren’t growing—and do no harm to those that already are.

I contact Murray on Zoom and smile as we catch up on the last eight years. He’s still the even-keeled, earnest scientist I remember. His intention, as a coastal researcher now at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, is to stick to the scientific method, to observe what is actually going on and report it—even if it doesn’t fit a clean climate-change narrative. He’s the last one who would ever “deny climate change.” But sweeping narratives about sinking islands normalize island loss and undermine efforts to protect shorelines through sustainable and adaptive planning. Defeatism obscures how much can be done right now.

All-or-nothing narratives not only overpower local solutions—they also contribute to global “climate-change fatigue.” I teach my science writing students at Johns Hopkins that they must find new, careful, and accurate ways to write about climate change. Maybe this means questioning their own assumptions about a particular aspect of climate science, or maybe it means helping readers connect to technical material in terms audiences can relate to and act on. My climate anxiety now is that people stop listening to good sense and good science when their emergency button has been pressed too many times without any local, personal, pragmatic, and positive call to action.

This is not to put a cap on expressing how we feel about a warming world, only to promote space for complexity in our narratives. In 2018, a few years after I left the Marshall Islands, I watched Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner’s video poem “Rise: From One Island to Another” in which she speaks, as a sister, with fellow poet Aka Niviâna from Greenland about rising seas and melting glaciers. I wept like a baby.

Even after my original ideologies reshaped and rebuilt themselves, I am still nervous about the unknowns ahead, disasters that might happen to our planet, my Marshallese friends, and my son. My hope for myself, however, is to confront complex challenges with a MacGyver smile; good people are already responding and working toward solutions, and I have joined them.