COPENHAGEN — Declaring "it's a matter of survival," one of the world's tiniest nations, speaking for imperiled islands everywhere, took on global industrial and oil powers Wednesday at the U.N. climate conference – and lost.
"Madam President, the world is watching us. The time for procrastination is over," Ian Fry, delegate of the mid-Pacific state of Tuvalu, declared as he asked the full conference for more aggressive curbing of greenhouse gas emissions than is being considered.
The rejection illustrates the rich-poor divide that overshadows the conference, a reality that has already led some islands to consider evacuation should international action on climate ultimately fall short.
Specifically, Tuvalu asked to amend the 1992 U.N. climate treaty to require sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, deeper than major powers are considering.
The amendment would have obliged the world's nations to keep global warming – the rise in temperatures accompanied by rising seas – to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That's just 0.75 degrees C (1.35 degrees F) higher than the increase to this point. Rich countries are aiming for emissions cuts that would limit warming to 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F).
It also would have made controls on fossil-fuel use legally binding for the U.S. and for China, India and other developing nations that until now have not faced such obligations.
Watch this video of the Director of Oxfam New Zealand as he describes Tuvalu's position.
Tuvalu's gambit, seconded by Grenada, the Solomons and other island states one by one on the floor of the cavernous Bella Center, quickly ran into stiff opposition from oil giant Saudi Arabia, which would be hurt by sharp rollbacks in fuel use, and from China and India. The U.S. delegation remained silent.
Connie Hedegaard, Danish president of the conference, said her decision on the motion would be "very difficult and yet also very easy," since action to advance the proposal would have required consensus approval. She refused to refer it to a "contact group," the next step in the process.
"This is a moral issue," Fry objected. "It should not be put off any longer."
Later Wednesday, hundreds of young international climate activists, chanting "Tuvalu! Tuvalu!" and "Listen to the islands!" thronged the conference hall entrance as the Americans and other delegates filed in for an afternoon session.
The dramatic showdown over basic issues came in the third day of the two-week conference, widely expected to produce no better than a political agreement on emissions reductions – obligatory for industrial nations, voluntary for China and other emerging economies – to be formalized in a treaty next year.
Those reductions would replace the quotas set for 37 industrialized nations by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which expire in 2012. The U.S. rejected the Kyoto pact.
The Copenhagen conference's finale comes late next week when President Barack Obama and more than 100 other national leaders converge on the Danish capital for the final hours of what may be tense, down-to-the-wire talks.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored scientific network, says seas are rising by about 3 millimeters (0.12 inches) a year. Its worst-case scenario sees the oceans rising by at least 60 centimeters (2 feet) by 2100, from heat expansion and runoff of melted land ice. British scientists note that current emissions are matching the IPCC's worst case.
Such sea-level rises particularly threaten nations on low-lying atolls, like Tuvalu and Kiribati in the Pacific, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
"Sixty centimeters can make a really, really big difference in a place like Kiribati," Australian coastal management expert Robert Kay said Wednesday in a presentation on the sidelines of the Copenhagen conference. Kay displayed time-lapse projections of how the ocean will eat away at narrow – sometimes 200-meter-wide – islands like Tarawa in Kiribati.
It has already begun in Kiribati, where islanders are struggling to save roads, houses and public buildings from increasingly threatening "king tides" every two weeks. Their wells have begun turning brackish with seawater. One village has been abandoned in waist-high water, Kiribati's delegation chief, Betarim Rimon, told The Associated Press.
Besides seawalls and other immediate measures, he said, the island nation's leaders have a "midterm" plan, to concentrate their population of 110,000 on three islands that would be built up higher with international aid. People now live on 32 atolls spread over 2 million square miles of ocean.
"Nobody in this room would want to leave their homeland," Kiribati's foreign secretary, Tessie Lambourne, told the side event. "It is our spiritual connection to our ancestors. We do not want to leave our homeland."
But "if we must go, we don't want to go as environmental refugees," Lambourne said, referring to a long-term plan to get Kiribati residents trained to emigrate as skilled workers. With Australian aid, 40 i-Kiribati, as they are called, are being educated as nurses each year in Australia.
Similarly, the leaders of Tuvalu, a nation of 10,000, are looking to the future, seeking permission to resettle Tuvaluans in Australia.
Greenpeace was among the environmental organizations protesting Wednesday's rebuff of the Tuvalu bid for a more ambitious emissions-reduction plan.
"Only a legally binding agreement can give these countries the confidence that their future is guaranteed," Greenpeace's Martin Kaiser said.
But scientists say carbon dioxide emissions already "in the pipeline" – slowly warming the atmosphere – guarantee that low-lying islands and coasts, such as Bangladesh's, will face inundation from tides and increasingly powerful storms.
Rising seas threaten shorelines everywhere but, islanders point out, the governments responsible for such endangered areas as Lower Manhattan island and Shanghai have the money and resources to protect them against the worst of global warming.
Another perspective came from Fred Smith of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington free-market think tank that says U.S. and international moves to restrict fuel consumption will be too economically damaging. He believes trickle-down wealth is the best support for the islands.
"If the focus in this century is on wealth creation, then the islands will be much better prepared for the risks if they materialize," he told the AP by telephone from Washington.