Climate Change in the Marshall Islands
The camera races over the surface of the water. A modern Marshallese canoe with a blue sail moves across the waters of the Marshall Islands. A wild pig roots around the understory of palm trees.
JENNIFER NEWELL (Assistant Curator, Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History): The culture of the Marshall Islands is a very community based, supportive, warm kind of culture.
[Four Marshallese men sit around a checkers board, smoking and playing checkers. Then we see six older women in brightly patterned dresses sitting on a beach, singing the song that is playing in the video. One of them is playing the ukulele.]
NEWELL: When there's a disaster or a long-term drought, you know that your neighbors will look after you, you know that your family, wherever they are, will look after you.
[A few more scenes of people in the Marshall Islands appear: two young adults drifting on a modern-looking canoe; an older woman laughing and wrapping dried leaves with younger family members behind. Dr. Newell, the speaker, appears.]
NEWELL: And there's also a lot of pride in history of being the finest navigators in the world, in being the people who are able to navigate things of all sorts.
[A fleet of Marshallese canoes with bright blue sails sail away from the shore.]
NEWELL: The sorts of disasters we can't even imagine.
[Archival footage of a military pilot and of a bomb dropping. A red nuclear explosion fills the screen.]
NEWELL: The nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands was something that is hard to imagine any community having to deal with, and then now the new adversity that they're having to deal with is climate change.
[A sun sets over the water, as seen from a boat. The American Museum of Natural History logo appears on top of it, followed by a title screen that reads: Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition 2016 – Climate Change in the Marshall Islands. Scenes from the Marshall Islands continue: a man surrounded by coconut shells splits coconuts in half with a machete; a child on the beach lunges for something in the water. A sea wall made of tires filled with rocks protects a busy street from the water on the other side of it.]
NEWELL: Climate change is an important topic for island communities because it is an existential problem for Pacific Islanders. Many islanders are going to be losing their homes. They've only got small islands a lot of the time.
[A small house in the understory of a palm forest appears. We see the view from the window of a plane flying over a small island and it’s surrounding reefs. Dr. Newell appears on screen again.]
NEWELL: For the 2016 Niarchos expedition that I was able to work on, I really wanted to look into a place where there was very obvious effects of climate change, where people are responding to it in really effective ways, at all levels, and use it as an example of how a Pacific Island is responding to climate change.
[The camera pans over a lagoon of the Marshall Islands in Majuro, the capital. Two boys walk among canoes at the water with a canopied restaurant or cantina on land above them.]
NEWELL: The Marshall Islands were selected because I had already been learning about the Marshall Islands a lot for a number of years-
[A map of the world shows a plane departing from New York and landing in the Marshall Islands, which are west of Hawaii and northeast of Australia and Papua New Guinea.]
NEWELL: -through my work with one of my research collaborators here in New York, Tina Stege, who's a Marshall Islander, who's worked a lot on all these issues, both in the Marshalls and here.
[Footage of Tina Stege and Dr. Newell giving a lecture together, Stege laughing while playing a ukulele, Stege chatting with a Marshallese woman. Stege appears on screen, speaking.]
TINA STEGE (International Liason, Marshallese Educational Initiative): There's this narrative about the Pacific, that climate change, is like this huge wave, it's coming, it's crashing down on us - and people there are just unable to do anything. And that wasn't the story that I knew.
[Two young women are speaking at a podium.]
STEGE: And I wanted to make sure that that story, that people were out there, active, trying to find solutions - there's that story. And that's why we went to the Marshall Islands.
[The view from a plane as it lands on an island, followed by the expedition crew walking with their bags onto the island. A map of the Marshall Islands appears, with expedition locations highlighted.]
STEGE: We went to the capital, which is Majuro, and then we also went to a more rural environment, and that place was called Namdrik.
[Stege is sitting and speaking Marshallese to a woman weaving dried palm or Pandanus leaves. Dr. Newell sits next to and interviews a different woman, who is rolling Pandanus leaves.]
NEWELL: We were interviewing people using semi-structured interviews, so we had a list of questions which each of us who was interviewing would be using.
[Stege speaks to a very old Marshallese woman.]
NEWELL: When we're asking people, ‘Do the fish come at the same time they always used to? Are you getting as many fish as before?’ and people would always have something they'd notice, like ‘Oh yes, there's a certain type of fish that doesn't come anymore, at all,’ or ‘these ones come a bit later,’ and everything's becoming a little bit more unpredictable.
[The expedition crew walks across a flat beach. A shot of a boarded up house appears.]
STEGE: Nearly everyone had seen the effects of a changing climate. Houses that used to be 10 feet from the shore are literally right next to the water.
[A shot of the ocean pans back to reveal houses and sea walls jutting into the water, with a beach littered with stones and rubble nearby. Then a shot of a flooded area beneath overhanging trees appears.]
STEGE: They would mention flooding, and how it just didn't used to happen with that kind of frequency. They literally had just finished coming out a drought, so that was uppermost on everyone's minds.
[Some shots of the village in Namdrik, with many corrugated metal houses and wooden houses with water catchment tanks surrounded by Pandanus and palm trees.]
STEGE: One of the main things that came across when we were asking people questions like, “How did you get through the drought?” They'd say “Well when I didn't have any more water in my catchment, I went to my neighbor, and they provided water for me.”
[A woman hauling a cart behind her walks past a catchment tank and a pile of coconut shells.]
STEGE: There's a Marshallese concept that we call ‘lale doon’ - to take care of one another. It's one of the most important aspects of our culture, and we need to continue to nurture that if we're going to be able to be resilient in the way we've been for so many generations.
[A group of women who are drying and rolling Pandanus leaves, followed by a shot of a boy smiling and laughing at the camera, followed by an older woman smiling and holding a ukulele. A modern canoe with a bright white sail glides across the water.]
NEWELL: The hub of Marshallese culture, which is this togetherness, looking after each other, is what gives them their greatest resilience.
[Two young girls roll Pandanus leaves together. A young boy and an older man carry a crate together.]
NEWELL: I see resilience as being the capacity to adjust in the face of challenges, and it's things like their capacity to travel well, to migrate effectively, to be able to stay in touch with family and their land.
[A boy brings luggage onto a small boat. We see a view of water racing by from the side of a boat.]
NEWELL: The extent to which a particular community is able to work together is what really determined their capacity to deal with climate change.
[A group of women work on intricate weaving patterns, with one showing a weaving pattern on a computer screen. A large group of people get together in the community center on Namdrik.]
NEWELL: That's a factor that we all need to really think through, and make sure that you do build those networks with your immediate community, with your, with your neighbors.
[A group of children play a game in the middle of a path. A group of villagers sing together in the community center.]
NEWELL: We need to have at all those different levels— local level, national level, international level—much more understanding about what people need and how to get support to the people who need it.
[A young woman speaks at a podium. A child sits on top of a bicycle with a corrugated metal house behind her. Stege shows something on her phone to a woman and a group of children. The camera pans across the reef, viewed from the beach.]
STEGE: What does the future look like? I'm not sure.
[Expedition members and villagers ride on a motorboat together. A group of canoes with blue sails glide across the water.]
STEGE: We're wondering if we'll be able to stay, and if so how long. We're wondering if we have to leave, where we would go.
[A woman walks down a dirt road surrounded by palm trees. A group of men play checkers. Three children play in tide pools on a rocky beach.]
STEGE: To know where you want to go, you have to come from a place of strength and of being centered. And the islands have done that for us.
[The same group of singing women from the beginning are shown again, smiling and singing along to the ukulele on a beach.]
The Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition featured here was generously supported by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.
AMNH / L. Stevens
Sergio Jarillo de la Torre
Images / Archive
United States Department of Energy
WUTMI Group of Namdrik (recorded by Sergio Jarillo de la Torre)
“Ice and Wind” Ben Howells (PRS) & Oliver Adam Spink (PRS) / Warner/Chappell Production Music
“Bleak Outlook” Peter John Nickalls (PRS) & Ben Howells (PRS) / Warner/Chappell Production Music
Suz Soundcreations / FreeSound.Org
With thanks to:
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, Republic of the Marshall Islands
The Mayor and people of Namdrik,
The Mayor and people of Majuro
Senator Mattlan Zacchras
The Stege Family
Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI)
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, College of the Marshall Islands
Kristina Stege, MarTina Foundation
Mark Stege, Marshall Islands Conservation Society
Eleanor Sterling, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, AMNH
Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, Division of Anthropology, AMNH
© American Museum of Natural History]
Climate change may seem far away in some parts of the world, but for Pacific Islanders, its effects are very real. In August 2016, anthropologist Jennifer Newell led a Constantine S. Niarchos Expedition to the Marshall Islands to study how communities there are reacting to flooding, drought, and other effects of climate change, and how they are navigating an uncertain future.