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Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner: 'We deserve to do more than just survive, we deserve to thrive'

Ban Ki-moon, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Gore kicked off this morning’s UN Climate Leaders Summit with strong calls for climate action, but it was a mother’s poem to her six-month-old daughter that triggered a standing ovation from the United Nations General Assembly.

The poet—Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner—left the opening ceremony after delivering an address where she said, “We look at our children and wonder how they will know themselves, or their culture, should we lose our islands.

Climate change affects not only us islanders. It threatens the entire world.” Jetnil-Kijiner is a poet, spoken word artist, journalist, professor, mother, and the co-founder of an environmental NGO in the Marshall Islands.

Her emotional plea that “We deserve to do more than just survive; we deserve to thrive,” set the tone for the day’s activities, which are expected to continue building momentum for the global climate deal expected in 2015.

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Iakwe kom aolep. My family and I have travelled a long way to be here today – all the way from the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands encompasses more than two million square kilometers of ocean, and so it makes sense that our culture is one of voyaging and navigation. One of our most beloved legends features a canoe race between ten brothers. Their mother, holding a heavy bundle, begged each of her sons for a ride on their canoe. But only the youngest listened and took her along for the ride, not knowing that his mother was carrying the first sail.

With the sail, he won the race and became chief. The moral of the story is to honor your mother, and the challenges life brings. Climate change is a challenge that few want to take on. But the price of inaction is so high. Those of us from Oceania are already experiencing it firsthand. We’ve seen waves crashing into our homes and our breadfruit trees wither from the salt and drought. We look at our children and wonder how they will know themselves, or their culture, should we lose our islands.

Climate change affects not only us islanders. It threatens the entire world. To tackle it, we need a radical change of course. This isn’t easy, I know. It means ending carbon pollution within my lifetime. It means supporting those of us most affected to prepare for unavoidable climate impacts. And it means taking responsibility for irreversible loss and damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

The people who support this movement are indigenous mothers like me, families like mine, and millions more standing up for the changes needed, and working to make them happen. I ask world leaders to take us all along on your ride. We won’t slow you down. We’ll help you win the most important race of all. The race to save humanity.

I would now like to share with you a poem that I have written for my daughter, Matafele Peinam.

Dear Matefele Peinam
by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner

dear matafele peinam,
you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles
you are bald as an egg and bald as the buddha
you are thunder thighs and lightning shrieks
so excited for bananas, hugs and
our morning walks past the lagoon
dear matafele peinam,
I want to tell you about that lagoon
that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise
some men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you
they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones
they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter, too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home
dear matafele peinam,
don’t cry
mommy promises you
no one
will come and devour you
no greedy whale of a company sharking through
political seas
no backwater bullying of businesses with broken morals no blindfolded
bureaucracies gonna push
this mother ocean over
the edge
no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing
their homeland
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee
or should i say
no one else
to the carteret islanders of papua new guinea
and to the taro islanders of Fiji
I take this moment
to apologize to you
we are drawing the line here
because baby we are going to fight
your mommy daddy
bubu jimma your country and president too
we will all fight
and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the Marshall Islands
Tuvalu
Kiribati
Maldives
and typhoon haiyan in the Philippines
and floods of Pakistan, Algeria, and Colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist
still
there are those
who see us
hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
we are spreading the word
and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW
they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us
because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive
dear matafele peinam,
you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace
because we won’t let you down
you’ll see

Watch the full speech from today’s conference here


*We’d like to thank all of the young #Action4Climate filmmakers for sharing their stories, several of which appear in this video. See more of their work at Connect4Climate.org.

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