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Marshall Islands Poet to U.N. Climate Summit: At 2 Degrees, My Islands Will Already Be Under Water

StoryNovember 18, 2016
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Among the poets from around the world who came to the U.N. climate summit in Morocco to highlight the impacts of climate change and inspire climate action was Marshall Islands poet and climate activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. She reads her poem, “2 Degrees.” Climatologists say that the best-case scenario of immediate and dramatic curbs on carbon emissions is that planetary surface temperatures will increase by at least 2 degrees Celsius in the coming decades. “At a climate change conference, a colleague tells me 2 degrees is just a benchmark for climate negotiations. I tell him 2 degrees is a gamble,” says Jetnil-Kijiner. “At 2 degrees, my islands, the Marshall Islands, is already under water. This is why our leaders push for 1.5.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We end today with a poet and activist from the Marshall Islands sharing a poem about climate change.

KATHY JETNIL-KIJINER: My name is Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. I’m from the Marshall Islands. And I’m about to perform my piece, my poem, called “2 Degrees.”

The other night my
1-year-old was a fever
pressed against my chest
Together we wrestled with a thermometer
that read
99.8 degrees
the doctor says
is a fever
but I can see her flushed face
how she drapes
across my lap, listless
LiPeinam is usually a
wobbly walking
toddler all chunks and
duck footed shaky knees
stomping squeaky yellow
light up shoes across
the edge of the reef
And I think
what a difference
a few degrees
can make
Scientists say
if humans warm the world
more than 2 degrees
then catastrophe will hit
Imagine North American wildfires increasing by 400%
fresh water declining by 30%
animal extinction rising by 20%
thousands, millions
left wandering
At a climate change conference
a colleague tells me 2 degrees
is a just a benchmark for climate negotiations
I tell him 2 degrees
is a gamble
at 2 degrees my islands, the Marshall Islands
is already under water
this is why our leaders push
for 1.5
Seems small
like 0.5 degrees
shouldn’t matter
like 0.5 degrees
are just crumbs
like the Marshall Islands
must look
on a map
just crumbs you
dust off the table, wipe
your hands clean of
Today LiPeinam is feeling better
she bobs around our backyard
drops pebbles and leaves
into a plastic bucket
before emptying them out
and dropping them in again
As I watch her I think about futility
I think about the world
making the same mistakes again and again
since the industrial revolution
since 1977
when a scientist said 2 degrees
was just an estimate
On Kili island
the tides were underestimated
patients sleeping in a clinic with a nuclear history threaded
into their bloodlines, woke
to a wild water world
a rushing rapid of salt
a sewage of syringes and gauze
they wheeled their hospital beds out
left them resting in the sun
they must be
stained rusted our people
creaking brackish from
salt spray and nuclear radiation blasts
so so tired, wandering wondering
if the world will
leave us out to dry in the sun
will they just
dust their hands of us, wipe
them clean
My father tells me that idik
—the Marhallese word for when the tide is nearest an equilibrium
is the best time for fishing
Maybe that’s what I’m doing
fishing for recognition
writing the world
willing the world
to find its balance
So that people
that beyond
the discussions
beyond the policy, the statistics
there are faces
all the way out here
there is
a baby
stomping squeaky
yellow light up shoes
across the edge of a reef
not yet
under water.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, that was Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner of the Marshall Islands. And that does it for our broadcast. A very special thanks to our local crew here in Marrakech: Rania Khadr, Danya Nadar, Phil Hastie, Mohammed Shama, Sean Russell, Ahmed Galal, Amr Yassin and Fatima Zahra. Happy birthday, Fatima!

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