Lisa Visentin The UN Climate Summit has been graced by the likes of actor Leonardi DiCaprio and US President Barack Obama, but the haunting words of a young mother from a tiny Pacific Island nation have made the most lasting impression.
Spoken-word poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, 26, from the Marshall Islands, was just one of four people chosen from 544 nominees to address the opening of the UN Climate Summit in New York.
In front of an audience of 120 state dignitaries, Jetnil-Kijiner performed a poem she wrote for her seven-month-old daughter, in which she promises to protect the child from the threat of climate change, which she says world leaders are ignoring.
In her impassioned performance, Jetnil-Kijner used the metaphor of a “lagoon that will devour you” to depict the sea levels that are threatening to swallow her island home.
“We deserved to do more than just survive,” she told the audience, “We deserve to thrive.”
Aware that the capacity for action was concentrated in the hands of those in her audience, she admonished “those hidden behind platinum titles who like to pretend we don’t exist” and the “backwater bullying of business with broken morals”.
“No one is drowning, baby,” she assures her daughter, “no one’s moving, no one’s losing their homeland.
“We won’t let you down. You’ll see.”
The Marshall Islands is a tiny Pacific nation comprising low-lying coral atolls and is at the forefront of climate change.
In recent years, the nation has grappled with the dual humanitarian threat of severe droughts and rising seas, and is ranked as the nation most endangered due to flooding and from climate change.
On her blog, Jetnil-Kijiner says her poetry aims to raise awareness about the “issues and threats faced by my people”.
She is also a co-founder of an environmental NGO called Jo-JiKuM, which educates the youth of the Marshall Islands about issues related to environmentalism and climate change.
The performance drew a standing ovation and, according to the United Nations official Twitter account, left few dry eyes among those in the audience.
What remains to be seen, however, is whether these tears will be converted to action.