The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Don’t let rising seas drown the Marshall Islands

An aerial view of an atoll in the Marshall Islands in May 2014. (iStock)

Hilda Heine is president of the Marshall Islands and chairs the Climate Vulnerable Forum. Patrick Verkooijen is chief executive of the Global Center on Adaptation and Managing Partner of the Climate Vulnerable Forum.

The Marshall Islands and other atoll countries in the Pacific will be the first nations to face extinction as a result of global warming. Rising sea levels could wipe them off the map in a matter of decades. Endless floods will make them uninhabitable even sooner. But, for purely selfish reasons, the world should not let them drown; the Marshall Islands have much to teach us about adapting to climate change.

This is not just a crisis affecting a few far-flung coral atolls and reefs. We should care about what happens to the nearly 55,000 Marshallese because a further 800 million people in hundreds of low-lying coastal cities throughout the world are in imminent danger of a similar fate.

If the Marshall Islands cannot be saved, how will others manage? By the year 2050, up to 1 billion people — about 10 percent of the world’s projected population — could become climate-change refugees because of rising ocean levels, according to the United Nations. If only for this reason, the world should not let the Marshall Islands drown.

Just as the Marshall Plan after World War II helped war-ravaged nations rebuild themselves, we need a new Marshall Plan to deliver measures that ensure communities at ground-zero of the global climate crisis can adapt and persevere. With sea level rise projected to accelerate, and with a high likelihood of rising by more than one foot by 2050, if we do not live in coastal communities, we will likely be welcoming migrants from them. We are all Marshallese now.

There is little time to lose. Already, radioactive chemicals such as plutonium are threatening to leak into one of the Marshall Islands’ atolls because rising seawater has penetrated a nuclear-waste cemetery. Water laps the front step of many Marshallese homes. More frequent inundation and flooding events are already occurring. The situation is extraordinarily fragile.

Determined to act before it’s too late, the Marshall Islands are transforming themselves into a real-life laboratory for preparing for the effects of climate change. They are building sea walls, designing large coastal protection systems, integrating adaptation and resilience into national plans, and expanding capacity to store rainwater in both urban and rural communities. Planners are also exploring the possibility of raising new islands to physically increase the landmass above water.

The Marshall Islands and the Netherlands are far apart, but they are both low-lying territories that have learned to live with water. The Dutch have mastered land reclamation over centuries.

But a sustainable plan of flood-risk protection and fresh water supply takes commitment and substantial financial resources that go far beyond what is possible for a country ranked as one of the smallest economies in the world by the International Monetary Fund. The Netherlands, which saw 250,000 people evacuated in the 1990s because of flooding, is spending around 17 billion euros ($19.2 billion) by 2031 to make the country safe for generations to come. Measures include the construction of dikes, permanent sand dunes, water-resistant buildings on stilts and floating structures that rise with water levels.

The rest of the world can also help by accelerating adaptation strategies. Globally, each and every investment must be screened for its climate impact. New infrastructure that is not climate-proofed in its design is a liability. Existing technologies, such as climate-proofing buildings, safeguarding drinkable water through conservation, recycling and building new reservoirs should be scaled up. We must move rapidly to make use of innovations such as new saline-tolerant crop plants and satellites that can spot planet-warming methane leaks.

Once again, the countries that did the least to cause climate change are suffering the most. Even so, and without the resources of the richer world, the Marshall Islands is taking the lead on global adaptation efforts against rising sea levels. In recognition of its endeavors, the small island nation chairs the Climate Vulnerable Forum, a group of 48 countries on the front line of climate change.

The Marshall Islands offer a warning of things to come, but also a beacon of hope for coastal communities all over the world. The actions we take now will determine which of those futures awaits us.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s climate change rhetoric won’t work

James Downie: The fierce urgency of climate change

The Post’s View: More studies show terrible news for the climate. We should be alarmed.