This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on November 8, 2019. Alex Cohen, Kia Johnson, Talia Fox, Marisa Granados, and Maya O’Loughlin also contributed to the production of this story.
Miko Vergun is a 17-year-old Marshallese climate advocate from Beaverton, Oregon; and a plaintiff with Juliana v. United States. This is Miko’s story:
“I’m Miko. I’m 17 years old and I’m a senior in high school. I’ve lived in Beaverton, Oregon since I was adopted from the Marshall Islands when I was three months old. I fight not only for youth empowerment and representation in the United States, but also for the representation and survival of my people in the Marshall Islands.
During my childhood in Oregon, I was always outdoors with family. I really enjoyed hiking in Multnomah Falls, going to parks and lakes, and camping. I really enjoyed looking at the beautiful bodies of water in Oregon, playing in the water, and kayaking or canoeing with my family. That’s what I like the most about Oregon—the trees and the water.
We already see the effects of climate change here. It has been getting significantly hotter in the summer, and we’re experiencing droughts. That’s significant in Southern Oregon, especially with wildfire season. During the summer, many people can’t go outside because of the wildfire smoke, and because of climate change the amount of wildfires is increasing, preventing people from having fun outside. That’s definitely not a future that I want for my children, or future generations. I want them to be able to experience the outdoors like I did throughout my childhood.
I’m Jewish and a big part of being Jewish is giving back to your community. Before you come of age and have your Bar/Bat Mitzvah, you have to come up with a good deed project. That’s when I started getting really into climate change. I researched, did a fundraiser for a nonprofit working in the Marshall Islands, and gave a presentation to my congregation, P’nai Or. Then me and my brother got involved with Plant for the Planet, an organization that teaches youth how to talk about climate change at city council meetings and to policy-makers. I became an ambassador with them, and people started asking me and my brother to speak and testify against pipelines and other harmful projects.
The more involved I got in climate activism, the more I wanted to find my place. Why was I doing it besides being a youth? Then I realized, every time I talk about being from the Marshall Islands, people are like, ‘Where’s that?’ I’ve actually had someone say to my face that it doesn’t exist because they haven’t heard of it. I’m tired of people not knowing where I’m from, especially since there’s a huge history between the United States and the Marshall Islands.
I’ve noticed that communities of color, such as the Marshallese, are not only faced with the possibility of losing their home, but also are told that they don’t know what they’re talking about even though they are being heavily impacted by the issue of climate change. Dismissing people of color who are impacted by climate change like my own people in the Marshall Islands is a form of environmental racism. People of color are especially marginalized in the climate change movement, even by people who are trying to help us.
The people who are most impacted by climate change don’t have a say. People with money have a better chance of trying to protect themselves. But, people of color and low-income people often don’t have the resources to protect themselves from the droughts or storms caused by climate change. Indigenous cultures have been fighting for survival for the longest time, and now climate change is added to their fight to survive after colonialism.
The U.S. conducted 67 nuclear tests in the Marshall Islands between 1946 & 1958, a yield equivalent to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs detonated every day for 12 years. (Atomic Heritage Foundation)
When the testing ended, the U.S. dumped the debris into a 350-foot crater on Runit Island. Rising sea levels could cause the 111,000 cubic yards of debris to spill into the ocean. (The Guardian)
The Marshall Islands has been fighting for justice for a long, long time. Before colonialism, the Marshall Islands had a lot of natural resources. Our culture is matrilineal so that means women passed down land to women. But a lot of our culture was stripped away. During the Cold War, the United States decided to use the Marshall Islands as a nuclear testing site. The United States did 67 nuclear tests and tested the first hydrogen bomb there. Several of those bombs vaporized islands right off the map. There have been islanders who were unable to return home because of radiation. The United States didn’t want to clean up the mess so they vacuumed all of the nuclear waste onto an island called Runit Island, and then closed it up with cement. Over time, and especially with sea level rise, nuclear waste leaks into the water. Recently, Runit Dome started cracking. Where I live in Oregon is on the West Coast, so, if the dome were to leak all 111 thousand cubic yards of radioactive debris into the Pacific Ocean, it would endanger the people and things that I love here in Beaverton.
Most of the Marshall Islands’ 1,100 atolls sit merely feet above sea level. There's a two-thirds chance of seeing 16 inches of sea-level rise between 2056 to 2083, depending on action against climate change. (National Geographic)
Ocean acidification occurs when excess carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans. This increase of CO2 in the water causes the pH of the water to decrease and become more acidic.(NOAA)
And now, on top of that, the Marshall Islands is on the front lines of climate change. It is a very narrow, flat, small set of islands. It’s in danger of being one of the first countries to go underwater. There are no mountains or anything. There’s literally nowhere to escape to if there is a flood, or a hurricane. Ocean acidification and the rising sea levels are causing erosion, making the islands significantly smaller. King tides are flooding the land. Ocean acidification is making fishing—a huge part of Marshallese culture—challenging. On top of that, when the waters come rushing in, they wash away cemeteries where our grandparents and other ancestors are buried. Our people are tied to the land and our ancestors are on that land.
I went back to the Marshall Islands for the first time in October 2018. I’d seen pictures, but it was way different when I saw them with my own eyes. We were nearing the islands and I saw them out of the corner of my eyes from the plane, and I was like, ‘OMG!’ I was in awe. It’s hot and super humid there. The water is warm and you can play in it. And when the air hits you, you don’t feel cold. It was, like, perfect.
The most impactful part of my trip was meeting my family and talking to the kids my age. I gave speeches at the University of South Pacific, College of the Marshall Islands, and K-12 schools. I told them that I think we should stand up for ourselves. I told them that I was going to wear the Marshallese flag to court, and out of nowhere, the kids just started clapping. I felt so proud to represent them. I was so empowered.
My birth family told me a lot about how climate change has impacted their lives. And I saw, with my own eyes, how close the water is to the land. It’s almost level with it. It would be devastating if the Marshallese have to move away because these are our islands. It’s not fair that the Marshallese would have to move because of something to which they barely contributed.
The Marshallese talk about climate change differently than we do in the United States. Here people say, ‘What can we do to reduce our wasteful ways of living?’ It’s like we think it’s optional to do this, not anything like a responsibility. In the Marshall Islands, there are climate change classes in the schools, and the kids learn that the Marshall Islands is being flooded due to the climate crisis and in danger of going underwater. It was really sad and hard to hear. We are making a mistake in the United States trying to ignore this reality; we’re better off learning about it at a young age and getting to work together to stop it... It was heartbreaking to hear how understandably scared they are. It just made me want to fight harder for these kids.
Being far away from the Marshall Islands has its disadvantages, but also its advantages. It has given me a lot of privilege—to speak my mind and advocate for the issues that I’m passionate about. I want people to know that the Marshallese are not helpless. We’ve been fighting for the longest time for social justice in terms of nuclear waste and for climate justice. The Marshallese are fighters and we can speak for ourselves. And even if I’m far away, I’m Marshallese and I fight for my people.
Youth standing up to the government and the fossil fuel industry is the most beautiful thing. I’m a plaintiff in the the Juliana v. United States lawsuit because my home in Oregon is being impacted by climate change. It’s important for me to be a part of this lawsuit so that I can represent the Marshall Islands, too. This isn’t my only hope of getting justice for my people, but it’s a start. We could do so much if we got the United States government to take responsibility for its contributions to climate change. When I see government officials make decisions that impact my people, that’s what really gets me hyped up—hyped up to stand up and go testify and use my voice. I fight to make sure that the actions of the country that I live in don’t negatively affect other places, like the place I was born.”
Now it’s your turn to take action! Here’s how you can support Miko:
1) Share Miko’s story to amplify her voice!
2) Sign up for Our Children’s Trust’s newsletter to get updates and to offer your time, skills or resources in support of their historic legal campaign.
4) Join or start up a YouCAN chapter in your own community to advocate for local climate recovery ordinance in your own city.