'We only have 11 years left'

SPEAKER: Selina Neirok Leem gave the keynote address for the Fall 2019 Economic Forum at the Dusit Thani Guam Resort on Friday morning. Leem, a native of Majuro in the Marshall Islands, is an advocate for stronger action to stem global climate change. Norman M. Taruc/The Guam Daily Post

Eleven years.

That’s all the time that’s left before the Marshall Islands will be uninhabitable, said Selina Neirok Leem, 22, an environmental activist and a climate change warrior, at the Bank of Guam Economic Outlook Forum at the Dusit Thani Guam Resort on Friday.

She said scientists had previously predicted that by 2050 the Marshall Islands and many other small island nations in the Pacific, vulnerable to climate change, would be gone. But with global warming bringing king tides and extreme droughts, that time frame has shortened considerably, and the future looks bleak.

“If we continue business as usual and the emissions as we are, we only have 11 years left,” she told forum attendees.

But Leem isn’t giving up hope. Since 2015 when she accompanied then Marshall Islands Foreign Minister Tony deBrum to the Paris Climate Conference, Leem has made passionate pleas to global leaders for stronger action on climate change and shared her country’s story countless times.

“The Marshall Islands can no longer afford to focus on mitigation but needs to focus its zeal on adaptation. We are looking at expanding and raising the land, but how do we go about that?” Leem asked.

She said her country has neither the funds nor the expertise to take on such a “daunting” task.

Growing up in the Marshall Islands, Leem and her fellow islanders have watched in horror as the sea levels have risen, the burial grounds of their loved ones have been disturbed by the rising water, and the government has had to ration water.

The effects of global warming on the islands that contribute least to climate change, Leem said, has made them much more vulnerable and many of the 52,000 residents are worried they will have no choice but to leave their homelands and migrate elsewhere.

“This is our common ground that all of us in this room one way or another had seen grave change in their environment and however way we rationalize it, we all know that something, anything must be done to minimize the effects,” she said.

During her time on Guam, Leem has seen the impacts of climate change on Guam as well during her visit to Malesso and Talofofo Bay, where coastlines have been eroded by the water.

“What’s happening in my backyard is also happening in your backyard,” stated Leem.

With more than 90% of food being imported to the island, she warned that typhoons could be more frequent, more coastlines would be eroded and things such as dengue fever could impact tourism.

“Guam will suffer, and businesses will suffer,” she warned.

Leem urged local business leaders to invest in energy-efficient products, focus on sustainability, and invest in initiatives that support the climate crisis.

“The job is tedious, but we do not have the luxury and privilege of time to be catering to conveniences. You reap what you sow,” she stated. “It is your moral and ethical responsibility to do so.”

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