Island countries facing watery demise confer on survival strategies

HONOLULU -- Island nations threatened by rising seas need to confer on survival strategies in the face of limited options for winning help from large countries, officials said here Saturday.

Leaders of Pacific island countries will meet at a summit this fall and should "advance some language to call for urgent action on this," said Asterio Takesy, the Federated of States Micronesia's ambassador to the United States. At the same time, he said, countries need to take action at home.

"Unless we in the Pacific demonstrate that we are serious about this problem, then we have no place in the international negotiations," Takesy said. "Climate change must be integrated into our planning at the community, national, regional and international level. This is a global phenomenon, and therefore it has to be dealt with in a comprehensive basis."

Takesy addressed possible paths forward at a conference that looked at climate change and its effects on Hawaii and other islands. Many Pacific island nations are located just a few feet above sea level, and would be submerged if waters rise between 3 and 6 feet by 2100, as experts have said is possible. Already, storm surges and beach erosion are affecting food, freshwater reservoirs and the cultures of indigenous peoples, experts said.

The small countries argue that the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases -- notably, the United States and China -- have an obligation to help. The Hawaii forum took place as President Obama assured supporters in San Francisco that global warming remains a top priority, even as he warned that "the politics of this are tough" (Greenwire, April 4).

Takesy urged Hawaii leaders and activists to rally behind island countries.


"For us, it's a matter of life and death," Takesy said. "Our islands are sinking, and unless you folks in this room help us resolve the situation, it ain't going to happen."

Marshall Islands talking with Palau

Meanwhile, Tony deBrum, minister in assistance to the president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, said that comments he made Thursday about his country seeking help from an international court are attracting attention at home.

DeBrum on Thursday said that his country would consider asking the International Court of Justice to say which countries are responsible for climate change. That kind of opinion would not be legally binding but "would allow for a clear statement of what the body of international law would say is the liability of the biggest emitters," said Maxine Burkett, an associate professor of law at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. That could strengthen island nations' political position in global negotiations (ClimateWire, April 5).

After deBrum's statement was published in ClimateWire, he heard from the Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represents the Bikini Atoll -- a local government within the Marshall Islands.

"Next thing you know, everyone at home" is talking about it, deBrum said.

Palau, an archipelago of more than 300 islands in the western Pacific Ocean, in 2011 formed Ambassadors for Responsibility on Climate Change (ARC) to ask the U.N. General Assembly for an advisory opinion from the world court. There now is a new administration in Palau.

"I'm sure they're reviewing what needs to go forward," deBrum said. While Palau's appeal to the United Nations was framed as a human rights issue, he said "the approach from the Marshalls, it may be a little different."

"We're going to try to nudge the powers that be to at least live up to their own commitments" on greenhouse gas emission reductions, deBrum said.

Palau's new president is scheduled to visit the Marshall Islands in May.

Retaliation for U.N. push?

Some at the conference said that islands face the possibility of extreme push-back if they pursue the international court option. Referencing a report from ClimateWire , law professor Burkett said that suing big countries could result in those nations' cutting off foreign aid (ClimateWire, Nov. 16, 2012).

"It's a false choice that we're giving to island nations essentially," Burkett said. "Will you lose your aid or risk other possibilities of retaliation when your entire future may be at stake?"

There are a few other avenues for action, Burkett said. Those include class-action litigation, she said. Affected nations could unite, she said, and "that way, they can pool resources."

Some have suggested that smaller interest groups -- like women who grow taro plants -- could file claims against the United States in its district courts, Burkett said.

There is also the power of publicity, she said.

The Maldives in 2009, about a month before international climate negotiations in Copenhagen, Denmark, held a Cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threats of climate change.

"It was absolutely a publicity stunt but powerful," Burkett said. "It was effective and made a clear statement about where their priorities were, in that they want to be able to survive."



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