In the 1940s and 50s, the U.S. military dropped 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands — the equivalent of dropping 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years, according to a three-part multimedia series from Mashable published in February. The nuclear tests forever changed the remote nation, which is spread across 29 coral atolls between Hawaiʻi and Australia. Now, the effects of climate change — higher tides, extreme weather, droughts — threaten the very existence of the Marshall Islands.
Mashable’s multimedia series tells the stories of Marshallese people struggling to survive and live meaningful lives against the backdrop of these tragedies. The first part of the series covers the legacy of U.S. nuclear testing, epitomized by the Runit Dome, a sinister concrete structure the U.S. built on an isolated atoll to seal off nuclear waste, but which is far from secure.
The second part of the series looks at the effects of rising sea levels, which are eating away at land, homes and graveyards and causing Marshallese climate refugees to leave their homeland, usually in search of more reliable work in the U.S.
The U.S. is now home to about a third of all Marshallese. As part three of the series explores, between 10,000 to 15,000 of them work in Arkansas, many working for minimum wage slaughtering chickens. Despite higher wages, life in the U.S. can be difficult. The series shows us a Marshallese family that likes to spend time by the lake in Arkansas, because it reminds them of the ocean and the homeland they miss. They often see Americans there who likely couldn’t find the Marshall Islands on a map, let alone know what the U.S. did to it.
The series is told through writing by Kim Wall, photojournalism by Coleen Jose, and videos by Jan Hendrik Hinzel. The three reported from the Marshall Islands and Arkansas in 2014 and 2015. Wall was working on the series until her death in 2017.
Mashable science editor Andrew Freedman first met Wall when they were both at the Paris Climate Summit. Freedman took the lead in coordinating the series for Mashable, working with editors Brittany Levine Beckman and Kate Sommers-Dawes and photo editor Haley Hamblin to shape the reporting into the three-part multimedia series.
The International Examiner spoke with Mashable science editor Andrew Freedman and photojournalist Coleen Jose about the future of the Marshall Islands, the legacy of U.S. nuclear tests, and the effects of climate change. The following conversations are shortened, and edited for clarity.
Andrew Freedman, Mashable science editor
International Examiner: Two huge themes in the series are the effects of U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands that happened during the 40s and 50s, and the effects of climate change. How are these two issues as connected?
Andrew Freedman: The connections really are that we destroyed a whole bunch of those islands. We made it impossible for people to live in certain places. And now through climate change, we are potentially making it impossible for people to live in certain other places of those islands. The notion of displacement and the notion of the concept of what is home and what does home mean — are we getting closer and closer to the point where your only connection to home is a passport from there? If you were to do a big story about Fiji or about Kiribati or another small island nation that’s also active in the climate negotiations — you wouldn’t have the same sort of emphasis on the meaning of home and the meaning of displacement, perhaps. You would have a story more focused on just the potential for being climate refugees somewhere into the future.
But in the Marshall Islands, people have been refugees internally for quite some time, and they’re already having to leave Majuro, the capital, due to more frequent flooding and lack of economic opportunities as well. But I think some of those themes really run through both things and the tie-in that’s sad and unfortunate, makes me feel guilty, is that the U.S. was responsible for both of these things.
IE: Why is this story important to tell now?
AF: At the Paris Climate Summit, probably one of the most forceful, consequential people turned out to be Tony deBrum, who was then Foreign Minister for the Marshall Islands. He established a coalition that he called the ‘High Ambition Coalition,’ got members of the other small island states on board, but then got the U.S., Canada, most of the major industrialized countries, and many developing countries, on his side as part of this alliance.
The story of the story of the Marshall Islands is one that I became very curious about because of that. Because the fact is that the countries that are being most affected by climate change are countries like a small island nation. And out of sight, out of mind of most Americans, yet what we’re doing to the atmosphere is the reality that they’re living with. And what we did to the atmosphere and the ground in the Marshall Islands through nuclear testing is also something that’s still unresolved. And it’s also relevant to today when you consider how many of the residents of the Marshall Islands are trying to come to the United States to live. And so even though the story was explored in 2014, 2015 through Coleen and Kim and Hendrik’s travel, it’s even more relevant now as climate change continues pretty much unabated and sea levels continue to rise at an accelerated rate there’s still no real resolution to some of these incredibly contaminated sites in the Marshall Islands. And if anything, the issues that are brought up in the story have only become more urgent.
IE: When most Americans think about nuclear weapons being detonated, they probably think of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Why do you think what the U.S. did in the Marshall Islands or the Pacific is not well-known among the general public?
AF: Well, I think the government didn’t mind us forgetting. It was always portrayed in these newsreels and segments as if nobody lived there, and if they did live there, they were compensated handsomely. It’s not tremendously well-known what we did out there, and the fact that we detonated 67 different nuclear weapons in that one country, it’s just mind-boggling. But most young people today grew up in a time when, maybe we were still testing underground, or just after the point where we stopped testing at all. So nuclear testing to them is only North Korea or Pakistan, not the United States.
One of the things that surprised me in the story was just how proud the U.S. military-industrial complex really was and what the culture was like. The fact that there was a beauty pageant associated with nuclear weapons, and the picture of the General cutting into a mushroom bomb cake. Mushroom cloud cake was pretty shocking! But all that stuff did happen. I think that maybe my parents are quite aware of it. I think it’s also just so distant. There’s not a connection for most people.
IE: The piece is also about the future of the Marshall Islands. It seems like an existential story for the entire nation, since the Marshall Islands might cease to exist someday because of climate change. What does the future of the Marshall Islands look like?
AF: The future of the Marshall Islands is unfortunately not up to the Marshall Islands, which is what is so frustrating. The future of the Marshall Islands is up to China and the United States, Europe, Brazil, India, any country that has a large carbon footprint and decisions to make about energy infrastructure that’ll have implications for the next 40 years — because that’s going to play a significant role in determining sea level rise.
There’s a reason why the Paris agreement has a 2-degree C temperature goal, but it’s actually worded as well below 2 degrees C, with an aspirational goal of 1.5 degrees C. And the 1.5 degrees was at the insistence of the small island states. Because they don’t believe that warming of 2 degrees C or above compared to pre-industrial conditions will allow them to survive.
And what happens when they don’t survive? When they do need to move? So there are existential questions being asked about the future of the Marshall Islands, and the series doesn’t really answer those questions. Those questions are going to be answered, I think, in the next several decades. But right now in terms of the path that we’re on, it’s not a particularly encouraging one for countries that are that vulnerable to overall sea level rise. Then again, it’s not that encouraging for areas of the United States that are that vulnerable either. But we have so many other areas and so much wealth that it’s not an existential threat to us.
IE: What does the situation in the Marshall Islands say about how human societies will deal with the effects of climate change? Can it tell us anything about what the future might look like?
AF: I think it tells us that we’re already experiencing more severe impacts than any of us thought we would be. I think what you see in the story is that the relatively small amount of climate change that we’ve seen, which is getting closer and closer to that 1.5 C limit, is already having significant negative impacts. In the Marshall Islands, a couple of inches more of sea level rise means many more people’s homes are flooded. It means something different than it means in the United States. So I think it shows that where we already are is at a more severe place or at a more pessimistic juncture than we thought we would be, or that many people think we are at. Hopefully we can change course. We know we can, but hopefully we will.
IE: What do you hope people can take away from this story?
AF: I hope that people come away with an understanding of what the United States owes the Marshall Islands after what we did there. With an understanding of what the stakes are with climate change, that it’s not a future far-off issue but it’s very much a here and now, present-day thing that people are grappling with and that we have a very large say in. I hope that people read this and see how talented Kim was and understand the value of the type of work that she was doing, and either are inspired to go out and do it, or to support the foundation [an annual memorial fund to support a female journalist who shares Wall’s values], to support people who are doing it. And remember her more for what she did than the way that she died. And I hope that it inspires people at Mashable and people at other organizations to do more ambitious climate reporting and more ambitious reporting in general.
Coleen Jose, photojournalist
International Examiner: Reading this series and seeing your photos, it’s clear the Marshall Islands is such a unique place. What was most striking about spending time on the ground reporting from there?
Coleen Jose: It was beautiful, the beaches are near pristine in some areas, but if you look closer and you stay there long enough, you realize that you don’t have your basic supplies and access to basic needs. Their primary sources of water was from rainwater catchments, and so you have to be resourceful in conserving your resources. The Marshall Islands is about 30 miles long as an atoll, and so it’s one road. If you look left and right in some places, you can see you’re surrounded by ocean. And I remember one of the things we asked about disaster management plans is…what’s the plan? And they said there’s nowhere to go, and sometimes for some instances like tsunamis — that haven’t happened there in a while thankfully, that reach the height of coconut trees — there’s really nowhere to go. You realize how vulnerable you are to the ocean and the king tides that come there seasonally.
IE: The piece focuses on the themes of U.S. nuclear testing and the effects of climate change. When you were reporting, were these sensitive subjects for people?
CJ: For nuclear testing, most of the people we thought to speak to were the ones who experienced that era in the Marshall Islands first-hand, so they were very open to speaking about the bombs lighting up the sky, making it seem as if there were two suns that day — and the sky looking like someone poured blood in a glass bowl, is one image that the Foreign Minister Tony DeBrun related when we interviewed him. We interviewed a lot of survivors from this atoll called Rongelap. It was one of the atolls deemed affected by nuclear fallout, and some of the elderly women, unfortunately one of our sources Lemeyo Abon, passed away last week. But she talked about the fallout that burnt her skin, and all the cultural stigma. The U.S. made them take off their clothes to inspect them, and so there are archival photos of that, but hearing it from them was definitely compelling, and for most of them, like Lemeyo, they are advocates for nuclear justice. She travelled around the world and the U.S. and Japan to advocate for non-proliferation and generally to raise awareness.
For the younger generation that was there, I think they were still learning about what happened, and from our observations, the schools there were trying to make sure that people didn’t forget what happened, because the effects now are invisible, such as with plutonium in Enewetak atoll — you can’t see it, you can’t taste it anymore. And so I think the challenge now is for the new generation to continue that fight.
IE: The effects of nuclear weapons tests and climate change are both kind of intangible or invisible things in themselves. As a photojournalist, what was your approach to capturing them visually?
CJ: I think for a climate type of story, I always want to show what the place is like and what daily life is like, versus what you think climate change is, which is storms that happen. But you don’t want to just capture a storm happening, you want to capture a woman who is living with her family in one home, and they plan for migration outside of the Marshall Islands to escape those types of weather instances that are increasing in frequency and intensity. And so my approach was to tell character-driven stories and human stories of people who are experiencing it and reacting to those changes.
One example of that was a neighborhood called Jenrock. It was created as an airstrip during the U.S. military occupation there first in World War II and into the Cold War. It’s reclaimed land, and there are no natural barriers for storms. But now that seasonal tides are stronger, it floods people’s homes, and so I made a point to profile a lot of the people that live there and not just show destroyed facades of homes, but people quietly experiencing it as well, combined with text. Just showing the vulnerability of the place to the ocean at sea level — there’s nowhere to go, you’re surrounded by ocean at all times. I think the aerial photos help as well as the character-driven approach.
IE: In the first section of the series with the Runit Dome, what was it like reporting there, and what precautions did you take to avoid being exposed to radioactive material?
CJ: We brought Geiger counters to count the levels of cesium around, but we learned before that that plutonium, which is just present in the air, and is also the most dangerous, that a particle of it getting into your lungs could cause a certain cancer, versus cesium, you have to eat a lot of food that has cesium in it for it to actually affect you. So there was no way really, other than wearing masks around our faces when we went to the dome, particularly, because that was among the most contaminated of the islands. We made sure to wear those masks and also to not spend more than three hours on the island at a time. Right after that, the full-body counter was broken in the DOE lab in Enewetak, so we didn’t use that, but a few days after we got back we reached out ot the DOE to take any precautions and monitor our bodies, and so they quarantined us for a urinalysis test, and then I think a few months later they told us that our levels of cesium were normal, basically. They couldn’t give us any type of exposure to any data on whether we were exposed to plutonium.
IE: It seems like a lot of Americans don’t know about the U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands and the Pacific. Why do you think this is, and what would you want people to take away from what you learned about it while reporting?
CJ: That’s a really great point and just made me think of what I learned in public high school and middle school, which is that this was a very minor footnote. And whenever we talk about nuclear nonproliferation now and nuclear testing in testing in North Korea for example, there’s never the genesis of the story, which is hydrogen bombs and these nuclear bombs that were dropped in the Marshall Islands to show who had the biggest weapons, and to win that war in some way.
I think the takeaway that we thought was for people to know that there is still contamination that the general population and a lot of the people who experienced the testing era are dealing with, in terms of illnesses and lack of healthcare support from the U.S. government, one of those groups being the military servicemen, both civilian and contracted military who disposed of the waste in Enewetak and across the Marshall Islands. Their medical history has often been ignored and unanswered from the VA as well as the government itself.
Secondly, the idea of nuclear weapons as a form of power I think is what many Marshallese now are fighting for — not just nuclear justice, but the proliferation of the weapons. And if there were anything, it would be nice to have a few chapters on this in our U.S. history books in school. Because I certainly didn’t learn about it when I was in high school or middle school.
IE: The series touches on the future of the Marshall Islands itself and how climate change is an existential issue for many people there. Is this something that struck you in your reporting or on the minds of people you talked to?
CJ: Yeah, I think what was fundamental to that question — this systemic view of migration because of climate change, not just being a uniquely Marshallese story. One of the things we went back to is the U.N. definition of who is a refugee. And for the most part, the 1950 convention on refugees is about people who are escaping persecution and war, but the definition doesn’t cover people who are escaping drought for example, or lack of water. What we were trying to get at is what that would mean for people like the Marshallese. Would they still have a seat in the U.N. if they were underwater, and would they have the same protections of people escaping from war as sort of climate refugees?
An emerging conversation that’s happening even before we were on the ground reporting is migration with dignity, and I think that is the next wave of a story that isn’t special to the Marshall Islands, but countries that are very vulnerable to climate and these consequences.
IE: I’m sure you did a lot of reporting that didn’t make it into the final story. What were some of the most striking things that you would have wanted to include but had to leave out?
CJ: One of the sections that we had to cut the week before publishing was on the time we spent on this island called Ebeye, and it’s where the U.S. military is also stationed in the Kwajalein Atoll. And the Marshallese who live in Ebai work in the U.S. military site, where they’re building this sort of space fence to monitor space debris. So for defence reasons, when you’re on the island you hear sirens every now and then, and that’s when the U.S. would be testing missiles across the bay or across the atoll.
I think in addition to the nuclear waste site there and the lingering contamination, what’s out of site and out of mind is this important strategic investment that the U.S. has in protecting not just the West coast but having a level of power to contain nations of threat towards the East. Kwajalein being a U.S. military site for all of the non-publicized reasons is a very interesting story, as well as the relationship with Ebeye island, because it’s overcrowded, people work in the Baskin Robbins or the Macy’s on the military site and then go back to the one house that they share with 20 other people. And at the same of time, lack of access to drinking water and high cases of tuberculosis as well as cases of leprosy existing on the island seems inexcusable for having that adjacent military site.
IE: The piece seems to avoid striking a tone of false positivity — it doesn’t shy away from showing devastating and even these issues are, and it doesn’t necessarily end on an optimistic note. As a reporting team, how did you think about the balance of positivity versus capturing the bleak nature of some of the issues the story raises?
CJ: I think for each character and for the series as a whole, our goal was to have it represent the people that we report on and the topics that we report on in the ways that they would see themselves. And for the people who we encountered, there were so many empowered women leaders, with the Marshall Islands being first a matriarchal type of society, a lot of that manifested in women like Abbacca Anjain Madison or Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. Kathy herself stood in front of the U.N. general assembly in 2014 to talk about her island sinking, and the poem itself was addressed to her baby who she said may outlive her nation. We collaborated with Kathy to express both the dire situation and the hope again of migrating with dignity and also fighting to stay. For her and some of the Marshallese women and leaders we spoke to — and men — it’s about fighting to stay and refusing to leave because of nations who wouldn’t want it otherwise because of their own benefit. So we tried to strike that hope. And I don’t think our hope was to have to manifest a sort of positivity, but have the fight represented well, and I think Kathy embodied that hope pretty well, and still does as she continues to fight for justice both climate and nuclear with her group.
Read Mashable’s three-part series: