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We Are On The Front Line Of Climate Change, Marshall Islands President Says

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

World leaders are gathered in New York City right now for the United Nations General Assembly. And yesterday, they heard passionate words from the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRETA THUNBERG: You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet, I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction.

GREENE: Those words rang true to the president of the Marshall Islands, a group of volcanic islands in the Pacific. President Hilda Heine spoke to our colleague Rachel Martin.

PRESIDENT HILDA HEINE: Prolonged and unseasonal droughts are hitting us real hard, and salt water is creeping into our freshwater lands. We are on the very front line of climate change. We are seeking the approval of our Parliament to declare a national climate crisis to spare no effort in mobilizing our response to this fight.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: When you talk about mobilizing a response to this fight, what do you need?

HEINE: We need resources. We need support. We are currently working on our national adaptation plan. And when we get that plan finished, we need resources to implement it. It would include possibly raising some islands so that we can ensure our culture and our people live into the future, that we'll remain a viable country.

MARTIN: The citizens of the Marshall Islands have a unique relationship with the United States. They can live and work here in the U.S. as legal residents for as long as they want. Have you talked with American officials about some kind of plan to possibly absorb climate refugees, people who would end up needing to flee the Marshall Islands?

HEINE: I think that's a very important question, and it is one that we're looking at very closely. We know what's happening with immigration issues and, you know, refugee issues in the U.S. But there is the open door for our people to come. And as long as they can live and support themselves and live in the U.S., there is no legal way for the U.S. to deny that entry into the U.S.

MARTIN: I want to play a bit of tape here of the U.S. secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, from a policy speech back in May that the secretary gave as it relates to the Arctic. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West.

MARTIN: What's your reaction to that?

HEINE: Well, I mean, there is one way of looking at it. We're disappointed that they're on a different - very different perspective than the Marshall Islands. But we live the crisis and we know what it's like.

MARTIN: I understand you met with Secretary Pompeo last month. Isn't that right?

HEINE: Yes, we met, and we brought up the issue of climate crisis and the fact that when we are finished with our national survival plan, we would need the support of the United States to also make that happen.

MARTIN: Were you in the room when youth activist Greta Thunberg addressed the U.N. Climate Summit?

HEINE: Actually, yes, I was, yeah, and, you know, very sobering and I understand why she's angry at world leaders because I think we haven't done what we need to do as adults. We need to step up to the plate and take this issue seriously.

MARTIN: Do you think that your fellow world leaders - presidents, prime ministers - is there an urgency around climate change that's new? Do you sense that, that something is changing?

HEINE: Well, I sense that something is happening. I was at the luncheon where a lot of the European countries have expressed that they've doubled their contributions through the Green Climate Fund. And so that's one action that is indicating to me that some of the world leaders are taking action more than they did before.

MARTIN: Are you satisfied with those commitments?

HEINE: I would like to see more. Obviously, for, you know, a country like the Marshall Islands, we need everyone on board, and not everyone is on board at this point. And that's part of the reason for these climate summit. It's really to motivate and to encourage our colleagues to get on board.

MARTIN: Hilda Heine is the president of the Marshall Islands. Thank you so much for your time.

HEINE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.