The fight against the rising tide

It is possible that Kiribati has failed to make much of an impression on many people. The most easterly island in the world, it reached its apotheosis in popular recognition at the start of this millennium, when wealthy travellers flocked there to see the first sun rise on a new century.

The chances are the island will fail to make any impression by 2100. For Kiribati is one of a group of islands at risk of disappearing beneath the waves as a result of dramatic climate change - and the local people are facing a hard battle to have their concerns heard on a world stage.

Kiribati won't be the first casualty. One islet, Tebua Tarawa, has already disappeared. Another, Tepuka Savilivili, no longer has any coconut trees.

Tuvalu is the world's second smallest nation (after Nauru). It consists of nine coral island atolls, the highest of which is only 4m above sea level at its peak. It's not the sort of nation that can generate much of its own greenhouse gases, but its 10,500 inhabitants expect to be among the first to feel the effects of global warming. The coastline is gradually being eroded by the sea, and the island has been hit by high tides that sweep away trees and roads.

But the threat of the advancing sea isn't just about being submerged. More immediately, the salt water is seeping into the soil, making it increasingly difficult for the islanders to grow crops. Farmers have to use tin containers, filled with compost, instead.

In 2002, a record high tide covered much of the island and flooded its airport. The situation is deteriorating rapidly.

For the Tuvalu people, joining forces with similarly threatened people has certainly raised their profile, but their security is far from being resolved. And despite their fears, most of those involved in their campaign are reluctant to move, although many worry that migration will be their only hope of survival.

"The object of the exercise of 'sustainable development' is to survive on the atolls forever ... sustainability is the idea that we can survive from day to day, and ever after," says Ieremia Tabai, a former president of Kiribati and former chairman of the Association of Small Island States (Aosis).

So Aosis is lobbying the bigger states about the dangers they pose to their continued existence. The problem is that, as typically happens with the politics of small countries against large, nobody seems to be listening.

Teburoro Tito, President of the republic of Kiribati, likens the situation to the farmyard.

"It is like greedy piglets fighting over their share of milk from their ill mother. Instead of co-operating on how they could help to save her, they were all carried away fighting for their share, and making their mother even more ill, until all of a sudden they found out they had lost her and there was no more milk.

"Some say it is nonsense that we take today's standard of living back to the past, just on behalf of the protection of the environment. But saving energy does not greatly affect your living standards.

"Is wasting energy and living in luxury a highly civilised life? Don't you think that it is rather more civilised to think about the next generation, and the future of the Earth, and to act accordingly?"

Fine words, but they have little impact.

In Washington, while the White House officially agrees with the scientists' findings that global warming is happening, the United States Government is intent on finding ways of reducing the "carbon intensity of its economy" outside the Kyoto Protocol.

Among the objections the Republican Party has to Kyoto is its proposal for "trading" carbon dioxide emissions.

"Why should George Bush pay $1 billion to the Russian Mafia to keep a car plant in Chicago open?" commented one senior figure of the idea.

Whereas Archimedes was able to tell King Hieron, "Give me a place to stand, and I will move the Earth", small islands like those represented by Aosis have found themselves at the short end of political leverage.

They try, but there's something weariness-inducing about the pages of earnest politicking issued by the Small Island Developing States Network (which is intertwined with Aosis), not least in the plans for the Mauritius convention "to discuss recommendations for further and successful implementation of the Barbados Programme of Action", or the Concept Paper for the Waste Management Experts Meeting in Havana, Cuba.

Of course, these are important issues. But when islands are sinking it is questionable whether this is the way to effect change. And will the delegates be travelling to those meetings by that carbon-dioxide generator, the aeroplane?

Another problem is that even the politically devised systems we have in place to tackle climate change aren't working.

When the Kyoto Protocol was being hammered out, Aosis demanded that the industrialised nations cut their carbon-dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2010.

The industrialised nations agreed instead to reduce it, under Kyoto, to 95 per cent of its 1990 levels - which would be, by a 30 per cent cut, half what Aosis demanded.

But the US refuses to be bound by the treaty, and the latest data - submitted to a governmental climate change conference in Milan last month - suggests that the combined emissions of Europe, Japan, the US and other highly industrialised countries could grow by 8 per cent from 2000 to 2010. That's about 17 per cent over the 1990 levels.

At that same meeting, European Union ministers proposed putting off their next meeting, in which they will discuss the release of 30 million ($81 million) of relief funds to help "adapt to environmental changes".

Aosis members were outraged.

"To survive the dry periods we now need desalination plants run by solar energy, but we have no money for that," says Enele Soponga, who chairs the alliance and is also Tuvalu's ambassador to the United Nations.

"We need money from the countries that created the emissions."

Even those ministers who had hoped that, by putting off the meeting until May next year, they might give the Kyoto Protocol some chance to stagger back from the dead - perhaps helped by a favourable (read: Democratic) victory in the US and Russian presidential elections this year - relented. They agreed they would instead meet again this year.

But the funds haven't been released. And climate change continues to grow.

The International Panel on Climate Change estimates that, at present rates, mean sea levels could rise by up to 1m by 2100. There are sceptics, notably those running the website - financed by the right-wing Cooler Heads Coalition - who think global warming isn't scientifically provable. (None of the Cooler Heads members lives in any of the threatened island states, or shows any signs of moving there; they're all safely ensconced in the US.)

The best studies suggest that global sea levels are rising by between 1mm and 2mm a year. Which doesn't sound significant, until the Monitoring Project scientists point out that "this rate of change is about 10 times more rapid than the average over the previous 3000 years, as determined from the geological record".

But it's not just the rising sea levels that pose a threat to the islanders. Scientists predict that increasing temperatures will cause more tropical storms, the sort that generate higher waves, and which could mean inundation for the low-lying islands.

Tabai says "Mother Earth is silently calling us to stop fighting over our selfish interests and to help her back to recovery. All she is asking, from each one of us, is to care for her the way she cares for us, and to learn to live in harmony with her."

But no words will change the fact that the tide will rise tomorrow on Kiribati, and Tuvalu, and Nauru. And that tomorrow, it will rise just a little higher than the day before.

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