ENEKO ISLAND, Marshall Islands -- Pacific Island leaders today declared that "climate change has arrived" and called for an urgent phase down of greenhouse gas emissions to save their low-lying homelands from destruction.
Announcing the Majuro Declaration for Climate Leadership while surrounded by palm trees on an island about a 40-minute boat trip from the capital atoll, heads of state held up their countries as models by taking proactive steps to boost clean energy, protect shorelines and cut carbon emissions.
"This is a declaration of responsibility," said Tuiloma Neroni Slade, secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
Dressed in matching Polynesian black and tan shirts, presidents and prime ministers said they want this declaration to be different than the dozens of climate communiqués gathering dust in the annals of history. They noted that in addition to calling on all countries to "phase down" emissions, the document puts responsibility on islands' shoulders, as well.
While no countries put forward new targets, all of them -- from emissions giant Australia to tiny Niue (population 1,398) inscribed their domestic carbon-cutting, fossil-fuel reducing, renewable energy and energy efficiency goals as part of the declaration.
The Marshall Islands, as part of a program called the Micronesia Effort, has a goal of reducing actual emissions 40 percent from 2009 levels by the end of this decade. The government also vowed to provide 20 percent of electricity generation through "indigenous renewable" sources by that date, as well.
Papua New Guinea has pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2050, Nauru and the Cook Islands have steep renewable energy targets, and most others have plans for reducing the import of petroleum and other fossil fuels.
"This is an initial listing. It's part of their pledge to do something specific and tangible," Slade said of the tiny islands responsible for less than 1 percent of global emissions. "They've accepted responsibility, notwithstanding their role and absence of any significant contribution."
The 'heart of our survival'
Palau President Tommy Remengesau, whose country will host next year's Pacific Island Forum, said reducing emissions "is the very heart of our survival," and Palau next year will "pick up the momentum that has been started here in Majuro."
The two-page declaration begins with the simple but stark statement: "Climate change has arrived." Global warming, it says, is the "greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific and one of the greatest challenges for the entire world."
It also references May 9, 2013 -- the day the daily mean contribution of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surpassed a worrisome 400 parts per million for the first time since measurements began since 1958.
The declaration calls for an "urgent reduction and phase down" of greenhouse gases -- a phrase some called significant for its clarity and absence of U.N. numbers-heavy base lines and percentages.
"I think it can make a huge difference at least in reframing the discussion," said Kelly Rigg, executive director of the Global Call for Climate Action. "Saying we need to actually phase down greenhouse gas emissions, I think that's a real sea change."
Avoiding some touchy issues
What the document does not do is tackle any of the sensitive demands small island nations have made in the U.N. climate change negotiations. The declaration does not, for example, demand that wealthy, industrialized nations boost their carbon-cutting targets before 2020. It also avoids the deeply divisive issue of demanding a compensation fund for natural disasters.
Marshall Islands insisted throughout the week that they did not want the standard fights from the U.N. climate negotiations anywhere near the declaration. Instead, they preferred to send a simple message to build political momentum into next year.
Countries have vowed to sign a new global climate agreement in Paris in 2015, and 2014 will see a number of high-level events in preparation for the French summit.
"In the true spirit of the Pacific culture, we sometimes do not use very harsh words or demands in our discussions, but the one thing you will see very clear is that this is an issue of our very survival," Palau's Remengesau said.
Even those who pushed for stronger language, like Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga, called the final outcome significant. Still, Sopoaga said, he won't be satisfied with it until other world leaders understand the dire message island nations have sent.
"I feel a little bit happy, but I want to see this declaration received by the highest possible levels at the United Nations," he said.
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