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March 7, 2018

A voice from the front lines of climate change

At WOMADelaide this year, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner will bring immediacy to the climate change debate with her first-hand experience of its consequences.


Kathy is part of the Planet Talks program at this year’s WOMADelaide. She will be part of the Climate Justice session taking place on Sunday, March 11 at 3pm.

“The US tested over 60 nuclear weapons on the Marshall Islands after WWII,” says poet and activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner.

“The US had kind of shovelled all the nuclear waste into a crater where an island used to be and capped it with a concrete dome. And now because of the rising sea levels that concrete dome is cracking, and radiation and waste is leaking into the ocean.”

Kathy’s home – the Marshall Islands, which are located in the seas north-east of Australia – are at the front line of climate change.

The lives and livelihoods of the 60,000 people who occupy the low-lying islands are threatened by the floods, droughts, and rising sea levels that are early consequences of catastrophic warming.

 “I was actually experiencing the effects of climate change first hand.” 

But it was only after living in Hawaii and mainland USA that Kathy was galvanised to become the climate change activist she is today.

“I moved back and I kind of reconnected to my island, reconnected to the culture,” says Kathy. “And it was also at that time, when I was first connecting to the culture, that I was actually experiencing the effects of climate change first hand.”

Having loved poetry since she was a teenager and studied it at UC Berkeley, Kathy turned to the medium to express her feelings through poems like 2012’s Tell Them and later Dear Matafele Peinem.

Her voice resonated with an immediacy that is often missing from the climate change debate and Kathy has gone from being asked to speak at elementary schools to addressing hundreds of world leaders at the United Nations.

She now travels the world sharing a first-hand experience of climate change through poetry and spoken word, and working for her Marshall Islands-based non-profit Jo-Jikum. This March she’ll appear on a panel discussing climate justice as part of WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks program.

Kathy says appearing at events in countries like Australia and the US – where climate policy is often used more as a political football than as a solution to a global emergency – can be demoralising, but that she’s determined to continue because, for her, there is no other option.

“It’s been really difficult to continue this work and to continue to have hope,” she says. “It’s really all about finding pockets of hope and energy and not giving in and giving up, because once that’s happened there’s nothing left available to me.

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