California Forum

We’re on the front lines of climate change. How you can save my homeland and our people

Iakwe. My name is Ngyolani Henry. I moved to Sacramento from the Marshall Islands 12 years ago when I was 8.

The Marshall Islands is a nation consisting of two chains of low-lying atolls located in the southern region of the Pacific Ocean, half-way between Australia and Hawai’i. Atolls are relatively flat, ring-shaped islands surrounded by a coral reef with a lagoon. We’re only 2 meters above sea level. This automatically places us on the front line of climate change.

With waters rising, floods have become more frequent in the islands. They have destroyed many homes, leaving people with nothing, washing away the graves of our loved ones and eating up pieces of the land.

With global warming, we also face more frequent droughts, which makes daily life more difficult because we rely heavily on rain as a source to maintain drinking water and to water crops.

If average global temperatures rise above 1.5 degrees Celsius, our islands will face worse problems than they already do — so, it’s literally “1.5 to stay alive.” In the words of Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, “Our front line is our last line. There is no fallback. If the line falls, that’s it for us.”

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That’s why my friends Viviana Briand, Risko Hanerg and I started a group called Wavement, a name that combines the words “wave” and “movement.” We had been talking about how we missed our homeland. Eventually, we started discussing more deeply the struggles of our people back home. Growing up, our families often talked about the issue of climate change.

Wanting to do more, we decided to raise awareness about how the climate crisis is affecting the Pacific Islands. We joined the climate strike in Sacramento on Sept. 20. We also use social media as a platform to reach out to youth, especially in the Marshallese youth community, to tell them to rise and let their voices be heard.

We tell our stories not to be pitied, but to be taken more seriously for the sake of the Pacific Islands and our home, the Marshall Islands.

Scientists predict a portion of our islands could become uninhabitable as soon as 2030. Our country is fighting with everything it has because we have everything to lose. We don’t want to be forced to leave our homeland behind.

Ngyolani Henry
Ngyolani Henry Akira Kumamoto
severe illness and birth defects

With the sea level rising, we fear radiation will spread further into the ocean, potentially killing coral reefs that protect the coastlines. If this happens, it will leave our homes more vulnerable to wave action and tropical storms.

Time is running out. We are the last generation with a chance to prevent the land from being submerged. The land, along with our culture, keeps us all connected to past and future generations. One day, we want to be able to introduce our future generations to the land where we were born and raised, where our identity will forever be rooted.

To stop digging ourselves deeper into a hole, we need to first stop digging ⁠— literally — for fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies are the main culprit of the carbon emissions that are responsible for global warming. We need to end the use of fossil fuels now.

Reducing the impact of carbon is doable by choosing eco-friendly options, such as driving energy-efficient vehicles or taking public transit. Voting for government officials who do not give empty hopes and promises about solving climate change, but are bold in action, also plays a vital role in making a difference. Every contribution, no matter how big or small, can counter this global challenge.

You might say that a little action is just a “drop in the ocean,” but the Marshallese have a proverb: “An pilinlin koba, komman lometo.” It translates to, “Many drops make up the ocean.” As long as we all take care of our drops, we can create a better and more livable life for us and future generations to come.

Ngyolani Henry, 20, of Sacramento, co-founded youth climate activism organization Wavement.
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