Climate Change | Selected Article

Six Feet Above Sea Level

David Wei | October 2014


Marshall Islands and Climate Diplomacy

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is a five-hour flight southwest of Hawaii, deep in the Pacific Ocean. With over a thousand islands spread out across 24 coral atolls, the country averages 2 meters, or 6 feet, above sea level. This June, officials from the US Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived to assist the northern atolls with a prolonged drought, only to be stranded when storms flooded the airport in Majuro, the capital.

Foreign Minister Tony de Brum’s response was, “Welcome to climate change.”

As one of the four lowest-lying atoll nations in the world, the Marshall Islands, not surprisingly, has made climate change a top diplomatic priority. Through two decades of United Nations negotiations on climate change, it has stood shoulder to shoulder with 40 other states in the Alliance of Small Island States to champion the ambition the world needs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the climate impacts we all face. Over these two decades, the small island states have remained negligible emitters and among the most vulnerable to climate impacts. What has changed is the rapid carbon-fueled industrialization of the emerging economies. We must decarbonize further growth to hold global warming down.

Leaping Forward Together

The need for climate diplomacy is a recognition that the international system is failing to adequately address climate change. Although the science becomes ever more clear and ever more dire, international interest in climate change ebbs and flows, culminating in political moments when countries can leap forward together. The last such moment, at the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009, failed to produce a new global climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol. The next such moment, at the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, may be our last chance to do so.

We urgently need collective climate action. Last year, global greenhouse emissions jumped 2.3 percent, to a record 40 billion tons. Although every country has a seat at the UN table, in practice, some countries carry more weight than others. China and the United States alone account for 45 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. If you treat the European Union as a single emitter, the top 15 emitters account for roughly 75 percent of global emissions. Many of the climate impacts caused largely by these 15 emitters are hardest felt in the other 150 countries of the world.

Putting Climate Change at the Center

As a result, climate diplomacy is bilateral and plurilateral as much as it is multilateral. The United States and China established a Climate Change Working Group last year that exchanges information and fosters cooperation on national climate action. The Major Economies Forum, composed of the 17 biggest emitters and a mere handful of observers, meets several times a year to hash out difficult issues. The Marshall Islands is committed to ensuring that climate change is a central message of every diplomatic encounter, whether bilateral, plurilateral, or multilateral, and to taking this message into every forum possible.

The great risk in Paris is that the big emitters will reach an unambitious agreement that everyone else cannot live with. For the lowest-lying states this is literal. The Marshall Islands risks becoming uninhabitable from sea-level rise unless the Paris agreement shifts the world from our current path toward over 4°C (7.2°F) of warming to far less than 2°C (3.6°F) of warming. This will require global carbon neutrality by the middle of the century. The Paris agreement must put in place the ladder on which we can climb toward this goal, rung by rung, with countries returning to the table frequently to add to their commitments.

Leadership From All

This September, the government of the Marshall Islands held the first National Climate Change Dialogue, which included town hall-style meetings. Everyday Marshallese reported witnessing climate impacts in their own communities. They understood the existential threat that climate change posed to their land and their country. And in spite of their own negligible emissions, they felt responsible and motivated to reduce them.

This astonishing leadership by those least responsible for the climate crisis is mirrored in the messages Marshall Islands diplomats are carrying into the international climate negotiations. Small island states are far from expensive fossil fuels but rich in renewable energy resources like solar, ocean, and wind. This is what makes them natural leaders of the global energy transformation needed to halt climate change. In 2008, the Marshall Islands government was forced to declare a national economic emergency when the price of oil spiked while 90 percent of energy was generated from imported diesel. Since then, the country has chosen a different path, solarizing 95 percent of its vast outer island communities and feeding solar energy into the grid in major population centers.

The UN climate negotiations have long been stalled by “you go first” posturing from the big emitters, each fearful of economic disadvantage. Leading by example, small island states like the Marshall Islands aim to break this deadlock and to call for more ambition wherever they have a seat at the table. From the Port Victoria wind farm in the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, to the new waste-to-energy plant in Barbados in the Caribbean, small island states are prepared to show the way to a safe climate future.


David Wei is the associate director for climate change at Business for Social Responsibility. At the time of writing this article he was the UN representative for climate change and sustainable development at Independent Diplomat. Wei’s work focused on diplomatic and legal advice to the Republic of the Marshall Islands and other small island states in the international climate negotiations.

This article was written for the Stanley Center and we encourage others to share its important message, with attribution.