“We have to put a Human Face to this.”

I am in New York at an incredible conference – the first of its kind – where the very issues in this blog are being discussed. The conference is entitled: “Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate.” At the conference, scholars, scientists, attorneys, politicians, and people from the “drowning islands” across the world have gathered to discuss not only what is happening to these individuals and their homeland, but also what to do about it.

A few hours ago, John Silk, the Foreign Minister for the Republic of the Marshall Islands, leveled with conference-attenders in a very real, candid, and evocative manner. I would love to quote him, but I don’t write quite that fast, so the below words are as close to verbatim as I could get but at moments probably border on paraphrasing.

Foreign Minister Silk started by speaking about the experience of his people when dealing with the nuclear waste from WWII testing sites that the US established in his country. The devastation from what our country did during this testing has been well documented and lingers. On one particular occasion, when Minister Silk was working with professionals involved in the legal process that ensued, they were standing near a crater that was created by a nuclear weapon that had been capped with cement. It obviously needed to be sectioned off, and the Americans there asked something along the lines of “what do you want to put as a warning sign to prevent people from coming to this island?” The Foreign Minister’s response was compelling – Don’t ask us. You dumped this here. You need to come up with the words to warn people.

Mr. Silk then went on to compare this to the international response to small threatened islands and coastal communities. He conveyed the fact that they express knowledge as to the fact that these communities and countries are sinking, and that they realize that they have caused this (in large part), but then they ask: “What do you want to do? You’re losing your country. You’re going to have to swim, but where will you swim to?” His response: You tell us when to swim; but don’t tell us how to swim or where we can swim to… It seems to me that the emitting world is unwilling to allow us to swim to their shores.”

In closing, Foreign Minister Silk discussed the importance of putting a human face to this story- this crisis. He commented on (good and worthwhile) stories in National Geographic and similar publications that highlight climate change as it relates to erasing a species, like a bear. But what about losing a human species? Where are those stories? Foreign Minister Silk and I share our desire to identify this tragic dilemma by highlighting the beautiful people that are in peril.

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