Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

a basket of writing from author Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

A Moment of Clarity – Why I’m going to Paris COP21


If you’ve been following this blog you might have seen my past posts struggling with this new role I inherited as a “climate change poet” since my performance at the United Nations Climate Summit last September. All last year I fought with myself as I considered what this role, what these responsibilities, would now mean. I’ve always embraced my role as a poet – a Marshallese poet, who touched on various forms of activism – but a poet first and foremost. I used words and writing to understand the world around me, to make sense of my relationships and people – and sometimes this crossed into territories of social justice. But not always. Sometimes I just wanted to capture a feeling on the page.

Last year however, I was suddenly thrust into global conversations on climate change. I attended conferences, retreats, took interview after interview with journalists, cutting myself open raw each time to discuss broken sea walls, flooded homes, shriveled breadfruits, an impending future of rootless generations.


Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

Performing at the United Nations opening of the Climate Summit 2014

I’m not sure how many would understand this struggle. I discussed it a little with my mother – she encouraged me to use the networking platform I was getting to establish a Climate Justice Institute at the College of the Marshall Islands where I teach. While sniffing around for grants to fund this dream, I continued to incorporate climate change into the curriculum for my students, push them to understand the connections with our nuclear legacy, globalization, colonization, get them talking, thinking. And between classes I envisioned organizing a monsoon of activist environmentalist youth with my co-director and fellow Pacific Climate Warrior Milañ Loeak.

And yet. I resented the requests for the interviews. I resented the tunnel vision stories sought out by journalists visiting the islands. I resented the salt in the raw wound of discussing climate change, over and over. I resented the photos of each high tide, of each flooding. I found myself stuck during another king tide, during another flooding a few months ago. I was going to go outside to take the picture, post it to social media. But I didn’t want to. I was tired of begging. I was tired of the constant reminder that, to the world, we are just a drowning nation. And nothing more.

I asked myself, more than once: Why was I doing this? Why was I stressing myself out, adding even more of a workload onto my schedule? Isn’t it enough to just sit at home with my desk, my laptop, and write and play with my daughter in the sun?

Then – the wake-up call. This summer. A conversation with a fellow radical disrupter focusing on the 2 degrees versus 1.5 degrees debate. Scientists and climate change specialists have been advocating that we need to lower our carbon emissions so that the world’s temperature doesn’t rise above 2 degrees or catastrophe of the worst kind will hit – think “super droughts, rising seas, mass extinctions.” http://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/21/opinions/sutter-climate-two-degrees/index.html

Here’s the thing with this very important number. According to those same scientists and reports, while the rest of the world might be safe at 2 degrees, the Marshall Islands and all low-lying atolls will be under water.  The fact that 1.5 is always the afterthought in discussions regarding this simple number, instead of being the bottom line, is the problem. Doesn’t every life matter? And every country? Why is 2 degrees even considered an option if that would mean low-lying atolls drowning?

This – this is why our island leaders have been pushing for 1.5. Most of the negotiators from larger nations have so far ignored this plea. Even in a room full of brilliant organizers, I heard 2 degrees thrown around like it was the priority, like the science that has clearly stated that 1.5 would mean the end of all atoll nations meant nothing. A colleague later tried to convince me that 2 degrees would still be good for our islands. They assured me that the world will “most likely” meet that requirement, and will “most likely” fall “way below” those two degrees.

“But don’t you see that you’re gambling with our islands?”

A few months later, and there I was again discussing this simple number over tea and muffins. And my friend tells me, with their experience and research in climate work and the backing of various other reports, that 1.5 is, at this point, un-achievable. That 2 degrees is as good as it will get. That the science has been calculated and that there is no way we can lower our temperature to 1.5. “It’s not going to stop,” they said. “It’s just going to get worse.”

I was in shock. Perhaps I had been operating under the delusion that things were going to get better, that the work will one day end. Perhaps no one else had ever been so blunt with me. Either way, I spent the rest of that afternoon in a daze, processing this. I valued my friend’s opinion, and I took it at face value that this meant our islands were as good as gone – that there was nothing we could do to save them.

This was when I reached rock bottom. I’ve never allowed myself, even when I wrote “Tell Them” even after “Dear Matafele Peinam,” – I never really allowed myself to feel the full emotion of what losing our islands would mean. I skirted around the edge. I dipped in my toes. But I never dove into it. I feared that if I did, that I would drown. That I would never come up.

And I did drown. I sat outside in the sun and I wept. My cries were more than my own cries – I felt my ancestors sitting beside me, weeping with me. I heard their echoes, reverberating in my sorrow. I felt their/our anguish over our islands, over the next few generations. I felt the shuffling feet of our future generations –  floating adrift, the hopelessness and inability to go on.

This. This was my bottom.

But I dug myself out.

My friend, feeling my loss and agony, opened up a space following our conversation that gave everyone in the room time to breathe, to process the emotional effects that usually accompanies rigorous climate work. Thanks to them I came to understand that my fears, my questions, my doubts weren’t just mine. They were all of ours. And that it was not too late. That there was still time. That I had to believe.

And so I did. I chose. To believe.

This is why I will be traveling to Paris for COP21, despite the horrific recent attacks. Despite the fact that it means real danger. I will be going to perform alongside four other spoken word artists, each representing the communities of the Philippines, Guam, Samoa, Australia, to perform our poetry and share the stories of our people, to share what has already happened, what’s at stake. This is also why I’ve prioritized working with our youth, the next generation, as we plan a massive march in the Marshall Islands http://act.350.org/event/global-climate-march_attend/11844

As Nicolas Haeringer, France’s 350 organizer, recently stated, “This movement for climate justice has always also been a movement for peace–a way for people around the world to come together, no matter their background or religion, and fight to protect our common home.” http://350.org/press-release/350-org-on-cop21-plans-the-tragedy-in-paris-has-only-strengthened-our-resolve/?utm_content=bufferf518e&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

I’m going because I’m fighting for our home. I’m going because I have foreseen the loss and the sorrow that awaits our children and grandchildren, because I have fallen into that abyss. I’m going because others will not go into that abyss – they skirt around it. They refuse to feel it. Perhaps, understandably, they have more immediate things to worry about. And that’s ok. I will feel it. Over and over. For them. I will drown the wound in salt. I will do anything to save my islands.




Author: Kathy

Kathy Jetnil Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and activist. Her writing highlights the traumas of colonialism, racism, forced migration, the legacy of American nuclear testing, and the impending threats of climate change. Bearing witness at the front lines of various activist movements inspires her work and has propelled her poetry onto international stages. She has performed her poetry in front of audiences ranging from elementary school students to most recently over a hundred world leaders at the United Nations Climate Summit, where she performed a poem to her daughter, "Dear Matafele Peinam". Currently she lives and works in the Marshall Islands, where she teaches Pacific studies courses full time at the College of the Marshall Islands. She is also Co-Director of the youth environmentalist non-profit Jo-Jikum, which empowers youth by educating them on the importance of environmentalism and mobilizing them to work toward solutions for environmentalist issues. Check out their website: www.jojikum.org

11 thoughts on “A Moment of Clarity – Why I’m going to Paris COP21

  1. I wish you well in your journey Kathy. Just remember the delegates dance and bow in elaborate prescribed and preordained movements almost all the deciding for this cycle of negotiations has finished. But that is not to say you have nothing to do.

    Connect with the people, especially those who face the same threat (Bangladesh, lowlands of China, the south of Florida in the United States etc.) and begin to help focus and strengthen their voice. That voice is still scattered and weak, but as these peoples unite, the message will grow clearer and louder. Many millions face the same fate as your country. A force of reconning if conjoined.

    Remember also that it is not enough for the world to promise change that does not come until other political administrations get elected. We need many concrete actions today and every day for the rest of our lives.

    Also, and this is very important, it is not enough to choke off the supply of fossil fuel. How will the Marshall Islands receive essential supplies without a carbon free alternative to the oil which powers the ships and the planes that bring those supplies today, for instance? It is not enough to stop sea rise, if this means starving your country to death instead, that to me is a worse fate and a hidden agenda of many on the ecological far left. To the best of my ability to understand these things, the euphemism “degrowth” would probably mean a return to a preindustrial Stone Age for your people. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I expect that is not a goal you have for the Marshall Islands.

    We must call for the *displacement* of fossil fuels with many new alternatives, some we know and some only imagined. That is the hopeful and positive path, a mobilization of the human spirit and every best effort of ingenuity to ensure a stable climate and continued access to the resources of modernity which allow communications like this blog, and health care, and so much more we have created to keep life safe and secure in our every day.

    It can be done if we know of what to ask, and when we ask, to do it with the voice of all the earth.


    BT Hathaway

    Rhode Island, United States — Another threatened coastal place. I/we are with you!

  2. I admire your courage and passion to make a difference. blessings to you and yours, Brad

  3. “Tell Them”, because if you don’t no one else will. I truly feel the emotions and spirits of our ancestors in your words. I appreciate you and believe that you’re selected more than just yourself. Like you say, the ancestors are crying and speaking out to you, and it is up to you to represent our islands, ancestors, warriors of then and now, young Matafele Peinam and their future. Think like a low hanging limbs. To reach out and grow the fire so high that you can eventually bring forth balance to stewardship! Ejjelok men en ebin none elane konaj likit am kojatdrikdrik ion eo ej ri-komanman. Jerammon im kommol tata!

  4. Thank you. Thank you for pioneering where most people are hesitant to go. Thank you for shouldering the burden that most of us aren’t willing to carry. Most Pacific Islanders don’t realize that this issue will affect them first and foremost. The island of Yap, has locals living completely off the grid, cut off from the outside world, save for a radio for emergency communication. To this day…I don’t think anyone has told them…that they might not have an island to call home soon. That they might lose everything they hold dear because some big corporation thinks its okay that they are expendable. I don’t think anyone knows that the reality of being a Climate Change Refugee…is creeping behind the next Pacific sunset. #PacificIslandClimateWarriors #NotARefugee

  5. Pingback: A Moment of Clarity – Why I’m going to Paris COP21 | IEP JELTOK « Makere's Blog

  6. Thanks Kathy. Some days it’s hard to maintain hope. With the marches cancelled and the world’s attention draw to war, I was becoming despondent. But if you and other Pacific Islanders are able to maintain hope (and rage), we should all follow. A new world is possible – we just have to stop buying the stories of consumption, of greed, of fear, of war and instead listen to stories like yours – of hope, of generosity, of love.

  7. Komol kin am beran im jutak kin ilju im jeklaj eo an ajiri ro nejidik im jibwid.

  8. I breathe with you. My heart beats with your heart. Let us fight for our islands. Thank you for your inspiration.

  9. Pingback: Les femmes, icônes d’environnement, icônes du climat | L'eau qui communique

  10. Mourning words on behalf of the people of the Marshall Islands and our ancestors. Thank you for opening the eyes of the world.

  11. Kathy, I watched your presentation to the UN summit and cried. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!
    I was a teacher at Ka’u High school for 8 years and was honored to work with children from the Marshallese community in Ocean View, although I moved to Kentucky this year, am still in touch with some of my students.
    I’m also a poet, and teach creative writing to Middle Schoolers here in Kentucky. They are getting ready to do Spoken Word and Slam Poetry to prepare for Open Mic. Today, I am using you as an example of a powerful presentation. Thank you so much for all you are doing through your art form. Beautiful.
    Karen K. L. Espaniola.

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