It’s ‘inescapable’: Pacific Islanders have tried to flee the climate crisis, only to face new threats

More than 200 people fled their homes in Majuro, the capital city of the Marshall Islands, during a tropical storm in 2019.
CNN  — 

Selina Neirok Leem grew up listening to the Pacific Ocean at her home in the Marshall Islands. She watched high tides wash over the islands’ seawalls, and her family trekked inland when the storm surge from tropical cyclones destroyed homes close to the shore.

It was during those storms that Leem’s grandfather would force her family to retreat to higher ground, even as he insisted on staying behind to protect their home from the rising seas.

“I would always be so mad and terrified, because in my mind as a kid, I imagine all these horrible things happening,” Leem told CNN of those moments, “that I might not even see him tomorrow.”

The climate crisis has been thrashing the Pacific Islands, causing drought, coral reef bleaching, more powerful storms and sea level rise. Super Typhoon Yutu in 2018 left thousands in the US territories of Saipan and Tinian without homes, power and running water for months. At least 57 percent of the infrastructure in the Pacific Islands will be threatened by rising sea levels during this century, according to a United Nations report.

With climate disasters increasing in frequency and intensity, many Pacific Islanders have chosen to leave their home islands to escape climate-related economic issues and health hazards. But where they’ve settled, climate change is appearing in different — though just as devastating — ways.

Around 30,000 people have moved to the US from the Marshall Islands, an independent nation about halfway between Australia and Hawaii. Washington, Oregon, and California are among the top destinations for Marshallese, according to researchers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The Western US isn’t threatened by tropical cyclones, and its risk to sea level rise is comparatively lower than other parts of the United States. But climate change is exacting a toll there in the form of a devastating drought, a water crisis, deadly heat and the worst wildfires in millennia.

As record-breaking heat engulfed the Pacific Northwest in late June, Marshallese migrants faced the challenges of working outdoor jobs and living in crowded, multi-generational homes, many of which don’t have air conditioning.

Steven Mana’oakamai Johnson grew up in Saipan but now lives in Corvallis, Oregon, where the temperature spiked to 109 degrees in late June. Johnson described himself as a climate refugee of-sorts during the heat wave, fleeing to the coast where it was more than 30 degrees cooler.

“Climate change is not new for us Pacific Islanders,” he told CNN. “We’ve unfortunately been dealing with this longer than many of our mainland counterparts.”

The Pacific Northwest heat wave “would have been virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change, according to an analysis published Wednesday in which more than two dozen scientists concluded the burning of fossil fuels made the heat wave at least 150 times more likely.

With at least 116 heat-related deaths in Oregon and 57 more in Washington state, officials are calling it a “mass casualty event.”

“The most vulnerable to climate change will always be the most vulnerable, no matter if they can migrate or not,” Johnson said. “When a storm flattens your island and you have to take a job farming in Oregon, you are not any less vulnerable, since climate change is inescapable.”