Continuing my series of Material I Stole From My Students, I’m going to reflect a bit on Narayan Subramanian’s When the Sky Was Red: America’s Nuclear Legacy in the Marshall Islands, which was recently published in the Columbia Political Review. In the post, Narayan tells the tragic story of the long-term effects of American nuclear tests between 1946-1958 around Marshall Islands, a tiny nation of about 70,000 people. In addition to direct radiation damage, the tests contaminated both food and drinking water. Over time, the island’s inhabitants suffered have also suffered from contamination of fisheries, which are critical to the nation’s economy. Any student of power politics will be unsurprised to learn that the compensation paid by the United States for this damage is woefully insufficient.

Today, Marshall Islands suffers from a different existential threat. As one of the low-lying islands, the country faces a risk of disappearing during this century. A recent dynamic model of sea level rise suggests that even if Marshall Islands and other Pacific islands remain nominally above sea level, storm winds and the resulting waves will inundate large areas and make them largely inhabitable.

These two threats to the Marshall Islands have much in common. In both cases, the governments that are causing them — first the United States alone, and then major emitters collectively — behave irresponsibly because someone else will foot the bill. Although climate change poses a major threat to human well-being everywhere, Pacific islands and other vulnerable countries will suffer more and earlier than the industrialized and rapidly growing countries that are mostly responsible for global warming.

Ethical issues aside, there is little hope for change, at least in the short run. To a much greater extent than any domestic legal code, international law is based on the idea that “sovereign” countries are free to do whatever they want, provided they have the guns and bombs to defend themselves. The system is difficult to change because the most powerful countries value it. I find this state of affairs rather bizarre, given what the consequences of governance by power have been for the vast majority of mankind. But then again, I am not government.

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