Small Pacific Islands Plead For Carbon Cuts Before They Are Swallowed By The Sea

09/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

CAIRNS, Australia — A group of tiny Pacific Island countries appealed to the world Wednesday to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent to help save them from rising seas.

The seven nations, whose coral atolls rise just a few yards (meters) above sea level, urged rich nations to make the cut in their polluting emissions by 2020.

"As you drive along the roads along the coast, you will see coconut trees in the water – that's an indication of the sea level rise" in Tuvalu, Prime Minister Edward Natapei told reporters Wednesday at the annual summit of South Pacific leaders. At least one village has been abandoned, he said.

The seven countries, part of the 16-member Pacific Islands Forum, said in a statement they are worried about the "serious and growing threat posed by climate change to the economic, social, cultural and environmental well-being and security" of their populations.

Wednesday's appeal was the latest made by Pacific Island countries at international forums, and comes ahead of negotiations in Copenhagen in December on a new global pact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

U.N. climate change negotiator Yvo de Boer said industrialized countries need to adopt ambitious targets in Copenhagen and "engagement" from major developing countries was needed if a new agreement is to succeed.

"A number of these low-lying islands are clearly under threat already," de Boer told Sky News television on the sidelines of the South Pacific summit, which he is attending as an observer.

Many scientists agree that carbon dioxide and other harmful gases are warming the planet and melting ice caps, gradually raising sea levels.

Pacific countries including Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu have coral atolls no more than 10 feet (3 meters) above sea level, and rising oceans are threatening to eat away coastlines, pollute freshwater sources and kill off fruit-bearing trees and other crops.

South Pacific countries' small populations and impoverished states leave them with little diplomatic or economic clout at big international meetings.

They won some rhetorical support Wednesday from summit host Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who called climate change "the greatest challenge of our time." He promised to become an advocate of the islanders' plight in Denmark.

"Half the populations of these island countries are lying in the pathway of coastal inundation," said Rudd. "Australia's responsibility (is) to argue as clearly and cogently as we can the interests of our friends and neighbors in the councils of the world."

South Pacific countries "are among the least responsible for the causes of climate change. But they will bear the brunt of its impact the most," Rudd said.

Rudd has set a target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by up to 15 percent below 2000 levels by 2020, but says he might go deeper if a new pact is reached in Copenhagen.

The group of seven small countries – the Cook Islands, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tuvalu – adopted the position of the global Association of Small Islands States that asks developed nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2020 and 85 percent by 2050.