De Brum, whose tireless advocacy pricked the world’s conscience over the fate of low-lying Pacific island nations threatened by rising seas, passed away Tuesday in the Marshalls’ capital Majuro after a long battle with cancer.
“He was a giant of history, a legend in every meaning of the word, and a custodian of our shared future,” President Hilda Heine said.
Over a career in politics spanning more than 30 years, de Brum helped negotiate the Marshall Islands’ independence from the United States and also served as a minister in portfolios ranging from health to foreign affairs.
As a child in the 1950s, he witnessed US nuclear bombs being tested in the Marshalls and campaigned throughout his life for justice for affected islanders.
As the impact of climate change became apparent, he gave voice to the remote, sparsely populated islands on the frontline of the threat, criss-crossing the globe to address international forums and push for action.
He was the driving force behind the “High Ambition Coalition” of more than 100 nations, which successfully pushed for strong aspirational goals at the UN climate talks in Paris in 2015.
“I refuse to go home from Paris without an agreement that allows me to look my grandchildren in their eyes and say: ‘Papa’s home, I’ve got a good deal for you’,” he had said.
Heine said De Brum died at home surrounded by his family, including 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.