Tuvalu News

By Alan Boyd

SYDNEY - Like a minnow in a shiver of reef sharks, tiny Tuvalu is taking the world's most powerful nations to court for their ostensible failure to do enough to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The nation of 26 square kilometers, most of it only a few meters above sea level, has set the ultimate challenge of wresting control of the global warming agenda before it sinks forever beneath the waves. When that will happen is anyone's guess. But Prime Minister Koloa Talake says the only thing rising faster than the tide around his country's nine atolls is the cost of moving the 11,000 inhabitants elsewhere.

Talake blames the United States and other leading economies for their half-hearted commitment to emissions reductions under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its protocols. Washington, the only country to repudiate its signature on the critical Kyoto Protocol, will presumably be the first target of the US law firm that has been engaged to pursue this intriguing legal action. After that it gets a little tricky.

Of the six leading sources of global emissions, three - Japan, China and India - are close Asian neighbors. The European Union, No 2 on the hit list, is an important donor and investment partner, as is the United States. Sitting in the next row is Australia, the leading source of development aid for much of the South Pacific. As the world's biggest coal exporter, it has cited potential economic harm for boycotting the protocol.

Canberra, a fellow member of the Pacific Forum, and Washington have attracted particular criticism for signing a bilateral environmental agreement that appears to undermine the uniform approach to emissions reductions sought under Kyoto. But does this constitute grounds for a lawsuit? Only if Tuvalu can show that it is the victim of an environmental conspiracy, and can trace the origins of the greenhouse emissions responsible for its misery. A tall order, given the lack of scientific consensus on the extent and causes of global warming in the Pacific, let alone the formidable legal obstacles inherent in transnational actions.

All we know for certain is that Tuvalu, like some other volcanic atolls, is sinking. Whether this is due to increases in sea levels, or natural changes in geological formations, is not clear. An Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in late 2000 that global temperatures appeared to be rising twice as fast as anticipated, and warned that flooding would occur much earlier. Yet a study of historic Pacific data stretching back 25 years by Australia's Flinders University has found no evidence of any sudden increases in sea levels. The average tidal change was a consistent 0.8 millimeter a year. Notably, the Flinders study did not look at land movements, which might give a deeper insight into Tuvalu's flooding problems.

Identifying the culprits will be no easier, as pollutants do not respect natural boundaries. China and Japan, numbers 3 and 5 on the list of emissions sources, undoubtedly contribute to the environmental deterioration in the Pacific. But how can their gases be distinguished from those of Russia, No 4 on the list? Or from the fossil fuels and forest burning that are widely condoned by other Pacific nations? It is the unwillingness of the Pacific to accept its own share of guilt for global warming that is the greatest indictment of the Tuvalu legal action, and the prime reason it should fail.

Kyoto gave developing countries a reprieve by shifting most of the burden for reducing emissions to advanced economies. However, this should not be seen as a let-out from tightening greenhouse controls. Samoa, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons have turned a blind eye to the systematic logging of the region's most prized canopy rain forests. Prime tracts will vanish in three to 10 years, according to the World Bank. There have been few Debt-for-Nature Swaps, in which the outstanding loans of developing countries are reduced in return for closed forest protection. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), chemicals that were phased out elsewhere years ago because they add to greenhouse gases, are still in widespread use. Industrial emissions and the burning of fossil fuels are mostly unchecked.

Tuvalu ratified the UNFCCC treaty way back in 1992, but has not made any commitments on emissions reductions. Perhaps it didn't expect to be around long enough to carry them out. Interestingly, the ratification included a formal declaration that Tuvalu reserved the right to seek legal redress "for the adverse effects of climate change" from the states held responsible under international law. That time seems to have come, and the island community will get its collective 15 minutes of fame before it is reclaimed by the sea. While the legal sideshow grinds on, Talake and his people will be looking for a country willing to take them in. But will anyone still be listening?

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