Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, United Nations Climate Summit opening ceremony

Q&A | Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner on experiencing the effects of climate change

If you followed the UN Climate Summit in New York last month it’s likely you will have heard of Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a poet and activist from the Marshall Islands who spoke at the Summit opening ceremony on September 23. As part of her speech, Kathy delivered a powerful poem, ‘Dear Matafele Peinem‘, about the impact climate change is already having on the Marshalls. In it she calls for the world to take action so her daughter’s generation and those subsequent will be able to continue to live in the islands that are their home.

She talks to Sarah about the experience.

How did you come to speak at the Climate Summit? What was it like to do it?
The US Ambassador to the Marshall [Islands] called me and asked if it would be ok to nominate me for a speaking position at the UN Climate Summit in New York. I had no idea what it was, but it sounded like something interesting that I wanted to be a part of, especially because of the writing I’ve done on climate change. So I said sure. Then I got an email saying I was one of over 500 candidates nominated for a role in the Summit, and that I had to send a video explaining why I should be chosen for a speaking role. I was really surprised at how competitive it was, but I sent in a video. Then I got a call saying I was one of the three chosen to speak at the Summit, and then I thought, wow ok at least I have a speaking role. The next day I got a call saying I was chosen to speak at the opening, which just blew me away.

Speaking at the UN was absolutely terrifying. I couldn’t sleep or eat the whole night and day before, and the whole week up to it was a whirlwind. But at the same time, I just focused on performing my poem the best way I could. I told myself over and over that it was just another audience, and that I needed to focus on performing to the best of my ability. Luckily it worked out for the most part.

Can you paint a bit of a picture around life in the Marshall Islands, and your people’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change?
Our islands are so small and the ocean is so big out here that it always reminds you of how vulnerable you are. Some parts are so narrow and so thin that you can see the ocean on either side of you, and you can feel the salt spray on either side of you.

What are some of your key frustrations around the lack of action around climate change at an international level? Do you feel they were heard at the Summit?
My key frustration is that a lot of dialogue is all about where we will move to, whether we would still have a seat at the UN, and it all includes a lot of numbers and data. The human face, the fact that our culture and our history will completely disappear – none of this seems to be important. People just assume that climate change is inevitable, and that we will have to move sooner or later. But I want the world to know that we shouldn’t have to move. The countries who are responsible for most of the carbon emissions need to take responsibility for their actions and take steps to create the changes necessary.

To be honest, I’m not sure if [these frustrations] were heard at the Summit. I’m hoping that having an islander voice at the opening somehow put these issues in the spotlight.

What are your thoughts around the relationship between inequality and poverty, and climate change vulnerability?
I think the communities that are struggling the most are the ones who are hit the hardest in regards to climate change. As far as the Marshalls go, there are many families who have lost their homes because of high tides, king tides and flooding, and they struggle to find ways to pay for fixing their home or for having to build a completely new home. My cousin and her family lost their home in the last king tides, their home they’ve lived in for all her life, and they’ve moved from rental to rental and had to take out loans, struggling to find ways to build a new home, and it’s stressing them out financially and emotionally.

Can you talk about the most recent flooding in the Marshall Islands and its impact on the community?
The flooding [in early October] occurred because of a high tide and a number of other factors. What should have been a simple high tide, turned into flooding in certain parts of the Marshalls, once again damaging homes and leaving our roads and yards littered with rocks and trash. This is the second time already this year that we’ve had flooding from the water. I spoke to Reginald White, our Meteorologist in Charge, and he said that they have over 50 years of data on the ocean and weather, and yet they’ve never seen flooding this frequent. It was scary to see it happen again, when it isn’t even king tides season yet.

You’re a long-time poet. What are your thoughts around using poetry – and the arts in general – to express concerns around social issues?
I think poetry and art are necessary parts of social movements. Poetry and art bring the humanity of social issues to the forefront, and they connect people.

How has becoming a mother affected your sense of urgency around addressing climate issues?
Ever since I became a mother, climate change became that much more real and urgent. Seeing how vulnerable [my daughter] is, reminded me of how vulnerable we are.

Can you talk a bit about Jo-Jikum and the work you do?
Jo-Jikum is an NGO that me and my cousins created and it focuses on empowering and mobilizing the youth of the Marshalls to raise awareness on environmentalism and climate change.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet, writer, performance artist and journalist. She is also a founder of the climate NGO Jo-JiKuM and teaches Issues in Pacific Studies at the College of the Marshall Islands. Find her at Jkijiner.wordpress.com.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. Read more by Sarah. Find her on Twitter.