Today we hear sad news from the Marshall Islands, as Tony de Brum has passed away. Two years ago, I hosted Minister de Brum at the American Security Project to talk about how climate change threatened his islands, and threatened us all. That was the only time I met him, but was struck by his clarity of mission and the magnetism of his personality. He was a leader and a role model for all of us.
De Brum was a champion of fighting the two great causes of the 21st century: nuclear weapons and climate change. He was a champion of these because of how they directly affected his life, and the lives of his countrymen in the Marshall Islands. He told me the story of how, as a child, he saw a nuclear test in the distance, turning the whole sky purple. He told of how American nuclear testing had irrevocably changed his Islands. And yet, even after the American military forced thousands of islanders from their homes permanently, he also knew that the Marshall Islands future was entwined with America, helping to negotiate the compact of Free Association with the United States. That association has allowed a continued American military presence on Kwajalein, where key parts of America’s ballistic missile defense system are based.
I came to know Tony through his work on addressing climate change. We met at ASP’s event in Washington, just two months before the Paris Climate Conference – the fulfillment of his vision of how to address climate change. While here at the American Security Project, he spoke about how the United States is bound by treaty to protect the Marshall Islands from threats to their national security. He very clearly stated that climate change threatens the very existence of his island home – and therefor, the United States had a responsibility to protect the islands.
In Paris, two months later, his long work to address the challenge of climate change was culminated with the agreement of the Paris Accord. He understood that the path to an agreement came from “High Ambition,” not in moderating pledges to meet some least-common denominator. He knew that only by calling the world to come together and achieve something difficult would it make the sacrifices necessary to meet the challenge.
He had set the tone for the 2015 Paris Accord by organizing the 2013 Pacific Island Forum in the Marshall Islands capital of Majuro. There, the assembled heads of state signed the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership which called for climate change “the greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific and one of the greatest challenges for the entire world.” Most importantly, the Majuro Declaration included concrete, but voluntary, pledges of climate action from every signatory – ranging from wealthy countries like Australia to impoverished countries like Papua New Guinea. This model, of asking all nations to voluntarily commit to climate action, would be replicated on a larger scale two years later in Paris.
Both our nations – the United States and the Marshall Islands – owe de Brum a debt of gratitude. Indeed, the whole world should morn his loss.
In the culture of the Polynesians, there is a heritage of a “wayfinder” who leads his people across the seas to safety, and on voyages of discovery to new islands. Tony was a wayfinder for all of us. His vision showed us how to bring the world together to address the most significant threats we face. He was a statesman and a leader, and the clarity of his vision will be missed. When we met, he gave me a gift of a traditional necklace, made from shells found in his island’s lagoon. I treasure that gift, and wear it in his honor today. Rest in Peace, Tony de Brum; we will miss you.