Bikini Nuclear Refugees Seek U.S. Homes to Flee Rising Seas

Villagers on the island of Abaiang have had to relocate their village due to rising seas and erosion.

Photographer: The AGE/Fairfax Media via Getty Images
  • Islanders' home in Marshall Islands hit by rising seas
  • Marshall Islands seek new rules for nuclear resettlement fund

Bikini Atoll islanders who were relocated before the U.S. began nuclear tests in the 1940s are now seeking refuge in the U.S., saying the rising seas and stronger storms brought on by climate change are making their new homes in the Marshall Islands uninhabitable.

Battering waves increasingly encroach on the airstrip on the island of Kili, where many of the Pacific islanders were resettled, while seawater is making the soil more saline, Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony de Brum told reporters in London. The republic has asked the U.S. to change the rules governing a fund set up in 1982 to help the islanders and their descendants resettle within the Pacific islands, he said.

“Now they want to be able to use that money to resettle in the United States,” de Brum said, pointing out that Marshall Islanders already have the right to settle in the U.S., so there are no citizenship hurdles. “The request that went in was on the basis of Kili being uninhabitable because of climate change.”

Pacific nations are increasingly beset by rising seas and stronger storms as the planet warms, and in the Marshall Islands, which lie mainly less than three meters (10 feet) above sea level, inhabitants have limited scope to retreat. Sea levels have risen 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) since 1901, and NASA scientists say a rise of at least a meter is probably “unavoidable” as warmer temperatures expand ocean water and ice sheets melt.

A graphic from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrating projections of sea level rise at the end of this century for different scenarios of greenhouse gas concentration pathways. Diagram D represents the worst-case or business-as-usual scenario.
A graphic from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change illustrating projections of sea level rise at the end of this century for different scenarios of greenhouse gas concentration pathways. Diagram D represents the worst-case or business-as-usual scenario.

The plight of islands and other nations vulnerable to the effects of climate change has become a contentious topic at United Nations talks that aim to strike a new deal on global warming in Paris in December. That’s because the islands are seeking funding for what they call “loss and damage,” to help them cope with the effects they’re already seeing from a warming planet. Developed nations responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions have balked at any aid that my be interpreted as compensation.

De Brum said he traveled to the U.S. a couple of months ago to petition the Department of the Interior to amend the rules governing the fund. Last week, U.S. Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia’aina wrote to lawmakers in the Senate and House proposing draft legislation to make the necessary alterations. De Brum said he’ll travel on Wednesday to Washington to meet with members of the House and discuss the proposal.

“It’s a little miracle in my opinion the quickness with which they are responding,” de Brum said. He spoke to reporters at a conference on climate change at the policy analyst Chatham House.

While fewer than 200 Bikini inhabitants were originally relocated in the 1940s, the request from the Marshall Islands would mean about 2,500 islanders and their descendants would be able to use the already-allocated funds to buy or build homes in the U.S. While de Brum didn’t immediately have a figure for the value of the fund, the website www.bikiniatoll.com, which tracks lawsuits between the U.S. and Bikini islanders, put its total at $79 million in February.

“I’ve been to the U.S. many times, but I don’t think I’ll move there,” said de Brum’s aide, Obet Kilon, himself a descendant of Bikini islanders.

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