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Island nations warn of climate disaster at UN

The Palestinians want the United Nations to recognize a state. And the island nation of Tuvalu wants the United Nations to act — now — to keep their state above water.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Palestinians want the United Nations to recognize a state. And the island nation of Tuvalu wants the United Nations to act — now — to keep their state above water.

The high drama surrounding the historic Palestinian bid for statehood has to a degree overshadowed other issues facing the U.N. General Assembly, which Saturday heard from the leaders of island nations where the impact of climate change is already having a profound effect.

They argue that the U.N. is moving too slowly despite many initiatives designed to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. U.N. officials have recognized climate change as the greatest environmental threat to the planet but efforts to slow its inexorable progress have foundered.

The message Saturday from island leaders was that there is little time left for concerted action that could prevent their small, vulnerable countries from facing severe problems, or worse, as sea levels rise and flooding and storm activity increases.

Tuvalu Prime Minister Willy Telavi said his country's very existence is at risk as he urged U.N. members to move more quickly to limit the damage of climate change, and to come up with real, practical plans to help the most vulnerable countries.

"For a small island developing state like Tuvalu, climate change is no doubt a security issue which threatens our survival," he said, adding that time was quickly running out for his tiny island nation, located roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii.

The low-lying country, built on nine coral atolls, is one of the most endangered Pacific Islands, but others are also at risk as sea levels rise. It is not clear if Tuvalu, with its porous coral base, can be saved without a tremendous financial commitment from the international community, which may be reluctant to invest heavily in a country with only about 12,000 residents.

The country's leaders have faced this reality — more than a decade ago, they asked Australia and New Zealand to be willing to take in the Tuvalu's residents if evacuation ultimately becomes necessary.

The problem goes well beyond the vast Pacific region. Leaders from the Indian Ocean and Carribean also warned Saturday of severe problems facing their regions.

Navinchandra Ramgoolam, prime minister of the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius — larger and more developed than Tuvalu — warned Saturday that the threat has to be addressed more quickly if horrendous consequences are to be avoided. He said the existence of some small island nations is at stake.

"Climate change is real," he said. "Air temperatures have risen. The sea level is rising at the rate of 1.2 millimeters per year in the southwest Indian Ocean. Our annual rainfall has decreased by 8 percent in comparison to the 1960s. Extreme weather conditions like flooding are becoming more frequent. Without international cooperation and concerted effort the impact of climate change will be devastating for all our nations."

Freundel Stuart, prime minister of Barbados in the Caribbean, told the General Assembly that small island nations in the Caribbean and Pacific may be destroyed if current trends are not halted.

"The planet has now begun to protest," he said.

The warnings Saturday went beyond island leaders. Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, said her country is making contingency plans because a one meter rise in sea levels because of global warming would inundate one-fifth of the country and displace more than 30 million people.

"This would be the largest humanitarian crisis in history," she said.