updated 8/20/2008 3:25:17 PM ET 2008-08-20T19:25:17

Climate change is wreaking havoc in the small island states of the South Pacific and assistance is needed for those already hit by rising seawater and severe storms, an islands leader said Wednesday.

Pacific Islands' Forum chairman and Niue Premier Toke Talagi said the frequency of severe cyclones and rising sea levels meant the challenge of climate change is no longer a matter of scientific theory.

"The evidence is quite clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc here," he said as he opened the annual summit of 16 nations.

Rising waters have forced villagers inland on four low-lying island groups in the region — Vanuatu, Kiribati (where two uninhabited islands disappeared under water in 1999), Tuvalu and the Cantaret Islands in Papua New Guinea.

Two people died when powerful winds from Cyclone Heta hammered Niue in 2004 and waves swept through villages perched atop cliffs, wrecking homes, the local hospital and other buildings.

"We shouldn't wait until a worse human catastrophe occurs before acting," Talagi said.

The international attention now focused on climate change "presents an opportunity for the region to negotiate and secure tangible assistance for people already affected by climate change," he said.

'Climate change is not science fiction'
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Wednesday that the U.N. and the Pacific state of Samoa are working to establish a Climate Change Center to coordinate support for Pacific Island countries to combat the impact of global warming in the region.

"Climate change is not science fiction. As your countries know all too well, it is real and present and your communities are facing the adverse impacts everyday," he said in a statement to the summit.

Earlier, representatives from the forum's seven small island states called for the completion of a deal for the bulk purchase of oil products to decrease energy costs for the mini states. Greenhouse gas emissions from oil products are a contributory source of the atmospheric warming that has helped trigger climate change.

Also Wednesday, South Pacific leaders denounced Fiji's military ruler for snubbing the summit and said measures would be discussed to pressure the coup leader to return the island nation to democracy. Forum rules do not allow for the expulsion of a member.

The stern rebukes came after Fiji's leader, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, announced Monday he would boycott the meeting, complaining that Fiji was being pressured to hold elections too soon after the bloodless coup he staged in December 2006.

Earlier this month the coup leader postponed promised March 2009 elections.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called Bainimarama's boycott a "direct and deliberate slight," and said measures must be taken in response to his "contempt for democracy."

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark likened the situation with Bainimarama to that of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and the Commonwealth.

"It seems a little like the dance we went through with Zimbabwe and the Commonwealth. ... Mr. Mugabe left rather than face his peers," Clark told reporters.

In a statement sent to 15 other government leaders at the summit, Bainimarama said if the forum continued to insist on Fiji holding elections by March 2009 — a pledge he made to leaders at their 2007 meeting — then Fiji could leave the grouping.

"I will be compelled ... to tell the people of my country that they must now be prepared to suffer more sanctions, and international isolation as we pursue ... a better, more durable democracy," he wrote.

The summit will consider a report from six regional foreign ministers who visited Fiji in July. The report said only a lack of political will was delaying elections in the country, which has had four coups since 1987.

Bainimarama attacked the report, which has not yet been made public, saying his government was "dismayed and disappointed" by its contents.

The 16 nation Pacific Islands Forum comprises Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Marshall Islands, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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