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CLIMATE CHANGE: Wanted – Homes For Small Island People

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 3 2008 (IPS) - A rapidly warming planet may soon create a new class of refugees – those fleeing climate change in their homelands.

Tuvalu is showing signs of such a dire prospect. The Pacific island nation of some 12,000 people has already appealed to the governments of Australia and New Zealand to open their doors for its citizens to find a new home, states a background note by the secretariat of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The appeal stems from the Polynesian island ‘’witnessing the salinisation of agricultural land and vanishing beaches due to sea-level rise,’’ adds the note. The Tuvaluan government wants to find new homes ‘’for at least 3,000 people, and possibly its whole population, within the next few years’’.

So far, the New Zealand government has been receptive, says Ian Fry, international environmental officer in Tuvalu’s ministry of natural resources and lands. ‘’The New Zealand government has approved a limited intake of about 17 people a year. The Australian government has rejected the appeal.’’

But Tuvalu hopes to make another appeal to Canberra later this year, Fry said in an interview. ‘’Climate change has become a security issue for us; the security of an entire nation is being threatened by global warming. Tuvalu may be uninhabitable in 30 years if there is no global action to stop the sea-level rising.’’

In fact, Tuvalu’s predicament is shared by island-nations that belong to a 38-member bloc, the Small Island Developing States (SIDS). And for this group, the week-long climate change talks in Bangkok has offered another platform to raise the alarm about their survival if the world fails to drastically cut greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions, and if there is no aid to help the SIDS adapt to the ravages of climate change.

‘’We are the first group of countries directly affected by climate change. For us, the talks here are more than simply addressing economic issues; it is about our existence,’’ Selwin Hart, the SIDS coordinator, told IPS. ‘’Our role at meetings of the UNFCCC has been unique. We have always served as the conscience of the climate change convention.’’

The Bangkok meeting, which runs from Mar. 31 to Apr. 4, has attracted over 1,100 climate-change negotiators from 163 countries to discuss a new international pact that aims to reduce global warming and to help developing countries adapt to a green-friendly development culture. These are the first round of talks following a major U.N. climate change conference held last December in Bali, where a deal was struck between the developing and developed world to shape a global response against a rapidly heating planet.

The 1992 Convention on Climate Change was endorsed by 192 countries at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as a response to warnings by the scientific community that rapid GhG emissions would wreck the health of the planet. In 1997, a new treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was added to strengthen the UNFCCC. It mandated the industrialised nations to slash, as a first step, GhG emissions by 5 percent by 2012.

And what SIDS wants through the climate change talks is a course of action that will help its members to avoid the plight of Tuvalu. ‘’We want to avoid moving to a foreign country. We are trying to address this problem before it becomes an issue beyond our control,’’ Pasha Carruthers, head of the Cook Islands delegation at the Bangkok talks, told IPS. ‘’Projects for us to adapt are essential if SIDS are to be viable.’’

Green groups from the Pacific Ocean islands agree. ‘’There is growing awareness among communities about the uncertain future. There are issues being addressed by some of the local churches,’’ says Arieta Moceica, climate advisor for Greenpeace in Suva, Fiji. ‘’But to move from their island will not be easy. It will mean loss of their culture, their identity and way of life.’’

Yet conferences being held under the UNFCCC are still to openly embrace the unique concerns of the SIDS, she admitted in an interview. ‘’It is time that the link between climate change and human rights be recognised at these talks. The world’s major polluters cannot afford to ignore this growing problem that one day will produce climate change refugees.’’

For now, though, help has come from another quarter. In late March, the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council acknowledged, for the first time, that climate change could undermine the human rights of people living in small island states, coastal areas and in areas of the world hit by harsh weather, such as severe droughts and floods.

This new milestone in the world’s human rights landscape was due to the dogged diplomatic efforts of countries like Maldives and Tuvalu. It comes over two decades after the leader of the Indian Ocean island made a moving speech at the U.N. The ‘’Death of a Nation’’ speech delivered in 1987 awakened the world to the plight of small islands threatened by rising sea levels.

‘’Since then, we have always highlighted our vulnerability due to global warming,’’ says Amjad Abdulla, director general of the Maldives’ environment, energy and water ministry. ‘’The basic argument is that vulnerable communities have a right to exist. We have tried to draw attention to the human dimension of climate change.’’

Yet despite such appeals, progress under the UNFCCC has been minimal, he told IPS. ‘’We are very disappointed at the slow implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. We can’t watch and see things happen to our countries. This is a scary thing.’’

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