CAIRNS, AUSTRALIA // Fearing the destruction of their land and culture, small island nations in the South Pacific have pleaded with developed countries to slash their carbon emissions to stave off the worst effects of climate change. At a regional summit in the Queensland city of Cairns, delegates have called on Australia and New Zealand to almost halve the amount of greenhouse gases they emit by 2020.
Tuvalu, a tiny island north of Fiji with a population of just 12,000, has found itself on the front line of potentially catastrophic environmental upheaval that residents firmly believe is the result of man-made pollution. "We are witnessing the gradual death of our identity as a people," said Tafue Lusama, the chairman of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network. "Tuvalu will be the first country to face the impacts of climate change and my concerns are that we have been ignored for far too long by the industrialised countries and the international community," he said during a visit to Cairns.
Tuvaluans are at the mercy of an ecological cocktail of rising sea levels, warmer temperatures and increasingly unpredictable weather events. "It is very frightening. We literally see the impacts daily. We are living in it and every day we see the islands being eroded by the sea during high tide. We are losing our lands. We've already lost our underground water supply because it has been contaminated by salt water," Mr Lusama said.
"Every time I look at my children and imagine any time anything can happen; a storm surge will just come in suddenly and I won't be able to protect my family." Islanders worry about the fragile health of the coral reefs that protect their homes from large ocean waves and as the earth warms there are growing concerns that the delicate ecosystems will be destroyed, leaving low-lying areas open to inundation.
"If the temperature of the sea increases our coral bleaches and dies. These corals are the houses for the fish. So, our fish stocks either move well into the ocean or they just simply die," Mr Lusama said. Although climate change is widely blamed for such disruption, experts have stressed that other factors could also be at work, including El Nino weather patterns and seismic activity as well as deforestation and the removal of sand for building work.
A sense of panic has spread across the vast South Pacific Ocean. In the Federated States of Micronesia, which sits between Hawaii and the Philippines, the effects of a shifting climate have been blamed for forcing islanders from their homes. "The people who live on those low-lying atolls have experienced extreme weather events such as storm surges, king tides and typhoons in the last five or six years," said Marstella Jack, a lawyer and former attorney general of the Federated States of Micronesia.
"The water washes over the land, seeps into our soil, intrudes into our vegetation and also our fresh water supplies. It fundamentally affects our daily life. King tides are destroying the outer islands. The next 10 to 20 years are critical for the survival of those very small atolls. People are already starting to leave." Increasingly the displaced are compelled to move to other overcrowded parts of the archipelago or take the monumental step of seeking a fresh start in the United States.
"I see the injustice in all of this. We're victimised by factors beyond our control. I think that governments need to start looking at options that are available to do something about this," said Mrs Jack, who also took a swipe at Canberra's response to the climate emergency. "Australia is taking a very weak attitude towards carbon reduction." Officials meeting in Cairns at the Pacific Islands Forum, the region's pre-eminent political body, have urged Australia and New Zealand to take a bolder approach to greenhouse gas pollution and also help vulnerable communities adapt to environmental turmoil.
Scientists have predicted that the sea that surrounds the Pacific islands will rise by about half a metre by the end of the century. Given that half of the islands' population lives within 1.5km of the coast, such gloomy calculations could affect the lives of millions of people. Edward Natapei, the prime minister of Vanuatu, said his corner of the South Pacific was already under siege. "Vanuatu is located on what they call the ring of fire, where we have cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruption and tsunamis. About two years ago we had to relocate an entire village in the northern part of the country further inland because the original site went underwater," he said.
While the Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has promised "maximum action" to address these ecological challenges, islanders believe that their culture and identity are at serious risk of extinction. "I would invite climate change deniers to come to live in Tuvalu and experience the reality of what is happening and see if they feel the fear we face every day," Mr Lusama said. email@example.com