Coleen and Kim are standing on the Cactus Dome, a nuclear waste site in the northern atoll of Enewetak in the Marshall Islands.

Journalists Coleen Jose and Kim Wall recently returned from a two-month long GroundTruth Project reporting trip to the Marshall Islands. Never heard of them? Don’t worry, we hadn’t either. But these interruptors are about to school us on one of climate change’s most visible victims.  

Coleen Jose is an award-winning journalist and documentary photographer based in New York. She writes on foreign affairs, climate change and development in the context of armed conflict and natural disaster aftermath. Her work has taken her to India, the Philippines, Guatemala and the Marshall Islands for publications including the GroundTruth Project, GlobalPost, Scientific American and news outlets in the Philippines. 

Kim Wall is a Swedish multimedia journalist based in New York. She writes about environment, politics and society in Asia-Pacific and elsewhere, with a particular interest in the nexus of popular culture and policy. With a background in foreign affairs and diplomacy, Kim has reported from destinations including North Korea, China, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Myanmar, Hong Kong and India. Her work has appeared in New York Times, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and South China Morning Post, among others. 

Fun-fact: “One of the most memorable experiences (hopefully a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing) was our bizarre plutonium bioassay quarantine. Upon our return from Enewetak, the world’s only resettled nuclear ground zero, we sought to find out if we had been exposed to the atoll’s lingering contamination — by locking ourselves up in the Marshall Islands’ only resort for 24 hours to pee in bottles. Our dispatch from this surreal experience can be read here, via PRI. Also, this project was reported in a team of three, so here’s a shoutout to our indispensable colleague Hendrik Hinzel who lived through it all with us.”

FPI: Where and what are the Marshall Islands? And why should people care about those answers?

marshallislandmapA vast collection of islands dispersed across the Pacific, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) is one out of the world’s four coral atolls nations (the others: Kiribati, Tuvalu and Maldives). Given its strategic location, it also became an unlikely battlefield during World War II as well as the Cold War, giving rise to a peculiar U.S. colonial legacy manifest in 67 atomic bomb tests in the islands.

Today the pivotal role this tiny country played in world history and in the U.S. rise as superpower has slipped into oblivion, with the Marshallese people left fending for themselves amidst lingering contamination, health crises and rising sea levels. As one of the most vulnerable nations in the world to climate change, we’re seeking to show the inherent interconnectedness between the U.S. and the RMI in this global challenge, as powerfully illustrated by a mass exodus from the Pacific Ocean.

FPI: And why are you now reporting in Arkansas?

Our reporting on the remote atolls took us to a rural town nestled in the Ozarks of Northwest Arkansas. Over three decades, Springdale has become an unlikely home to an estimated 5,000 Marshallese, according to the 2010 census. The population is now pegged between 7,000 to 10,000, representing the largest diaspora outside of Hawaii.

This continuing chain migration can be traced to one person: John Moody. Moody, who migrated in the 1980s to work in a Tyson Foods plant, opened the door for thousands of Marshallese searching for employment in the region’s poultry industry. In addition to higher wages, education is increasingly a draw.

As “non-immigrants” under the Compact of Free Association negotiated between the RMI and U.S., Marshallese can indefinitely live, study and work in the U.S. Paths to naturalization are costly and tedious. Migration to the U.S. for its economic opportunities comes with many caveats including lack of access to Medicare or Medicaid in some states. Though Marshallese make up a significant part of the workforce and pay taxes, they cannot reap the benefits of Social Security. Another basic right, voting in local and national elections, is also denied for Marshallese.

As we seek to tell a story hinged on migration in the context of climate change and a U.S. nuclear legacy, the diaspora living in the Bible Belt, insulated from the recession because of the poultry industry and Wal-Mart, seemed a natural bridge between history and the current American experience.

FPI: Through reporting this story, what did you learn about climate change? Were any of your assumptions proven wrong?

Climate change is — of course! — not a black-or-white issue. As a concept — and term — it only seeped into Marshallese language a few years ago (pragmatically translating to “changing weather”) and it remains ill-understood while universally experienced. For us, its complexity in real life and on the ground was sometimes surprising.

Atolls can — and do — become uninhabitable before climate-induced sea level rise and coastal erosion take place. This is already happening across the Marshall Islands; sometimes attributed to climate change, other times to black magic, development or identified as natural occurrences — floods and tides are nothing new, even as their severity and frequency have increased dramatically. 

We didn’t meet anyone who identified themselves as a climate refugee. People leave their islands for a multitude of reasons, all traceable to a lack of opportunity at home and the hope for a better future for themselves and their families elsewhere. That doesn’t mean climate change and migration aren’t intimately connected for the Marshallese: while people may not (yet) move directly because of rising sea levels, climate change projections may keep some from going back as initially planned or from investing in enterprise and infrastructure back home.

Among young people, awareness was generally far higher, however a realistic understanding of the future was often lacking. While the severity of climate change should not be downplayed, we frequently encountered heartbreaking end-of-the-world attitudes (mis)informed by international media — that the island’s would disappear in just 10 or 20 years, way ahead of any predictions of rising sea levels — according to some, stifling entrepreneurship and innovation among the next generation.

FPI: What needs to be done? After weeks in the field, what’s your prognosis?

The Marshall Islands is desperately underreported. Despite the nation’s centrality in modern U.S. history, its nuclear legacy is not in textbooks or taught in schools. A great starting point would be publicity and awareness-raising on the many challenges Marshallese face today. From our observations on the ground, capacity-building seems another urgent priority as many of the Marshall Islands’ basic institutions — including schools, hospitals and businesses– are run by outsiders. The medical field is dominated by Filipino doctors and nurses while many enterprises are owned by naturalized Chinese, a result of dependency cultivated by a colonial past.

As we reported during king tides and typhoons that battered the region, we observed the lack of disaster preparation in the most vulnerable communities of Majuro. It’s encouraging that a conversation around climate mitigation and adaptation is emerging in the capital: an illustrated book on climate impacts and preparation, a collaborative study on storm surges led by the Red Cross, local universities, Hawaii University’s Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System and other partners.

FPI: If you could receive more grant money to report on climate change, where and what would you report on? Where/what needs the most spotlight?

It’s important to show how the places directly affected by global warming relate to other geographical spaces — climate change is an inherently global issue. Much reporting has taken an insular approach, zooming in on a place without connecting it to the bigger picture – it’s about “us” over here just as much as about “them” over there. The global dimension is often left out of the reporting by spotlighting individual cases – even though that’s important, too.

Our project sought to emphasize this interconnectedness by tracing migration across the globe from the Pacific to Northwest Arkansas: how does rising sea levels relate to a Marshallese understanding of the American Dream? Using innovative media like Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s poetry, drone footage and data visualization, we aimed for an empowering and immersive narrative with local voices in the spotlight. If given the financial opportunity, we would love to pursue this holistic approach also to other destinations vulnerable to climate change.


FPI: Any books or films you recommend for people interested in learning more about these issues?

A quick Google search of the country shows recent news of Iran seizing a Marshall Islands-flagged ship in the Strait of Hormuz. To the extent the nation is covered by mainstream media at all, it is generally in the context of nuclear issues and –increasingly– climate change. In our research, we found an information void online and sought published literature and documentaries on the topic. A few recommendations:

  • Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World by Holly Barker
  • The Rongelap Report: The Consequential Damages of Nuclear War by Barbara Rose Johnston and Holly Barker
  • Threatened Island Nations: Legal Implications of Rising Seas and a Changing Climate, Michael Gerrard & Gregory E. Wannier (Co-Editors) (Cambridge University Press, 2013)
  • Nuclear Savage, a film by Adam Jonas Horowitz documenting the aftermath of human radiation experiments conducted by the U.S.
  • Radio Bikini, an Academy Award-nominated documentary film by Robert Stone documenting the effects of nuclear fallout on Marshallese and U.S. military personnel