NEW YORK – From an international competition that drew 544 candidates, the United Nations chose a young woman from the Marshall Islands to keynote the 2014 Climate Summit at the United Nations in New York City this month, hoping her speech will replicate the success of a Pakistani schoolgirl who addressed a U.N. education conference last year.
The U.N.’s choice for the Sept. 23 event is Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 25-year poet, journalist and climate-change activist who has a story the global agency hopes will have the emotional impact of then-16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani woman shot in the head by the Taliban because she dared attend school.
In her keynote July 12, 2013, at a U.N. meeting to endorse the secretary-general’s Global Education First Initiative, Yousafzi declared women have a right to seek an education.
After an 18-year absence, Jetnil-Kijiner, returned to the land of her birth in the Marshall Islands after growing up in Hawaii and receiving a Master of Arts degree in Pacific Island Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa this year.
In an interview published Sept. 6, 2013, by the climate change activist website TckTckTck.org, Jetnil-Kijiner explained how her views were shaped by seeing island graveyards disappear after record tidal wades inundated the Marshall Island’s capital, Majuro, earlier that year.
“These are graveyards that have been washed into the sea, and they have been washed away. Right now you can see them because it is completely low tide but usually the tide it right up to the shore line,” she explained to TckTckTck.org.
“I was inspired by the concept that the ocean is almost eating, or swallowing our dead in a sense. There is profound sadness and a profound helplessness about that. It is so sad, we have no control over it; it is the ocean that is taking it over. That is what inspired me; that is what moved me deeply.”
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Jetnil-Kijiner produced a YouTube video, submitted to the United Nations with her application, in which she recites a climate change poem she composed titled “Tell Them.”
“I wrote that after I moved back here to the Marshall Islands,” she explained.
“I had been gone for around 18 years and I had heard about climate change, but it was always something that wasn’t really a focus for me – it was in the back of my mind. It wasn’t until I moved back home and I saw how vulnerable we were and how close the ocean was to us and how huge the ocean was compared to these islands. It scared me, it really scared me and I think it scares most people too who I talk to about it.”
She explained the experience of watching graves being washed into the sea motivated her to begin reading and conducting research.
“One day this poem just came out,” she said.
“I thought about the things that I wanted people to know about our islands. The beauty of it; I wanted people to know about the history behind it. And this would be a good chance to do it.
See Jetnil-Kijiner recite her poem:
The competition, organized by Susan Alzner at the U.N. Non-Governmental Liaison Service, was advertised as an effort to select a speaker to open the 2014 Climate Summit “on behalf of civil society at large.”
For the competition, the U.N. published the following criteria:
For this speaking role, the CCST is seeking a young woman (under the age of 30) from a developing country. Candidates must have a proven track record of effective advocacy or implementation of community based solutions for climate change mitigation or adaptation, as well as proven strong communication and public speaking skills. This speaker will collaborate with a diverse civil society Selection and Drafting Committee for the development of this statement.
Alzner did not return a WND phone call asking for comment.
Tom Armbruster, U.S. ambassador to the Marshall Islands, wrote the following in endorsing Jetnil-Kijiner’s candidacy:
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is an ideal candidate to speak at the Opening of the 2014 Climate Summit. Her home country, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, is at the front line of climate change with most of the country just a few meters above sea level. Kathy is an outspoken young Marshallese leader whose poems on rising seas and forced migration inspire dialogue. Her poetry is smart, passionate, and powerfully captures the humanity of climate change, transforming it from abstract concept into a threat involving real people and places.
Having competed in slam poetry and performed at conferences, Kathy has excellent public stage experience. She is a published journalist and founder of Jo-Jikum, an NGO empowering young Marshallese with environmental education and the impacts of climate change on their lives. With her Masters in Pacific Island Studies, and her new role as a teacher at the College of the Marshall Islands, Kathy is in a unique position to speak for her generation and country.
Alzner explained to the BBC that the decision to include only women in the candidate pool reflects the U.N. conclusion that women are the ones who suffer the most from climate change because they form a disproportionate share of the poor in many countries.
“Fully combating climate change is going to require women’s full empowerment everywhere,” Alzner told the BBC.
“It is essential that we give women the space to speak on this critical topic that is an existential threat to humanity.”
The White House made news Aug. 24 by announcing President Obama will attend the climate summit in New York City.
On Aug. 26, the New York Times reported the Obama administration plans to bypass Congress by signing at the U.N. 2015 Climate Summit in Paris a U.N. carbon-emissions-control treaty designed to supplement the 1997 Kyoto Treaty, which the U.S. has not ratified. It would reverse the defeat suffered at the U.N. 2009 climate meeting in Copenhagen, which failed to produce a new legally binding international climate agreement.