Pacific Islands: Climate Change, Radiation Concern Leaders

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Environment News Service

SUVA, Fiji -- Government leaders of 16 Pacific Island nations expressed "deep concerns" about the adverse impacts of climate change, climate variability and sea level rise as the 33rd Pacific Islands Forum closed in Suva on Saturday. Many of these small and low lying island nations are already experiencing extreme hardship.

"While the Pacific islands are small in population and land territory, in contrast to the billions who occupy the large land continents," said Fiji Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase at the opening ceremony, "let us not forget that we have sovereign authority over nearly one-sixth of the planet's surface, embracing vast tracts of our Pacific Ocean. This mighty mass of water is our heritage."

In their final communique, Pacific leaders "encouraged" the United States and all other major emitters of the greenhouse gases linked to global warming to contribute towards global efforts to address climate change.

The leaders welcomed the acceptance of the Kyoto climate protocol by Japan and approval by the European Community and again encouraged all parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to ratify it as "a significant first step forward on a path to ensuring effective global action to combat climate change."

The Forum includes Australia, which has decided not to ratify the protocol, agreeing with the United States that it would be bad for the nation's economy.

Some Pacific Island leaders show a growing hostility toward Canberra which they blame for the threatening sea level rise. Australian Prime Minister John Howard was served with angry complaints about his government's climate stance at the Forum.

Australia's National Tidal Facility, which is monitoring sea level across the Pacific, says it has recorded no rise in the past decade. But a new sea level study by Australian oceanographer Dr. John Hunter has found it is too early, and the data is still too uncertain, to draw any conclusions.

Today, in the Pacific Island nation of Tuvalu, people are experiencing damaging tidal surges and saltwater intrusion into agricultural land. Tuvalu authorities have publicly conceded defeat and appealed to the governments of New Zealand and Australia to help in an evacuation of Tuvalu's 11,000 people. Australia is not accepting, but the first group of evacuees will leave for New Zealand this year.

During the Forum, Australian Environment Minister Dr. Kemp announced in Canberra that Australia is "within striking distance" of achieving the country's Kyoto Protcol target of limiting greenhouse emissions to 108 percent of 1990 levels over the period 2008 2012.

Kemp said Australia is projected to reach around 111 percent of 1990 greenhouse emissions by the end of the decade, "far closer to the 108 percent target than many climate change commentators have predicted."

Still, Australia will not back down and sign the protocol. "It is clear that the Kyoto Protocol does not at this time provide an effective framework," said Kemp. "It will make only a modest contribution around one percent to reducing the growth of global emissions."

"Even as a first step, it does not provide a clear path towards developing countries commitments and the U.S. has indicated that it will not ratify. Together, these countries already produce most of the worlds greenhouse gas emissions," Kemp said.

Noting his country's own vulnerability to the impacts of global warming, Kemp is still using the Kyoto target as a benchmark. Calling the 108 percent permitted rise in greenhouse gas emissions by 2012 "challenging but fair," reflecting rates of population and economic growth among the fastest in the developed world, a strong natural resource base to the economy, and that fact that Australia does not use nuclear power.

Radioactivity and nuclear materials - whether released by nuclear testing or passing through on spent fuel tankers - are cause for concern across the Pacific. Leaders endorsed a Nuclear Weapon Free Southern Hemisphere and emphasized their "continuing serious concerns over the shipment of radioactive materials through the region."

The Forum communique calls on shipping nations to meet with those nations whose 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zones the shipments pass on their way between power reactors in Japan and nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities in France and the United Kingdom. They want assurances by shippers that the highest possible safety standards are being met.

While noting the reservation by Australia, the Pacific Island nations are urging acceptance by shipping nations of full responsibility and liability for compensation for any damage which may result directly or indirectly from transport of radioactive materials through the region.

In their final communique, Forum leaders recognize the continued presence of radioactive contaminants in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The leaders "reaffirmed the existence of a special responsibility by the United States towards the people of the Marshall Islands" adversely affected as a direct result of U.S. nuclear weapons tests of the 1950s.

A five year Nationwide Radiological Survey study of 432 islands in the Marshalls was funded by the U.S. and conducted by the Marshall Islands government. Presented in 1994, it shows that 15 atolls and single islands - almost half the nation - were dusted by radioactive fallout.

Begun in 1946, the last nuclear detonation in the Marshall Islands took place on August 18, 1958 bringing to 66 the total number of nuclear weapons tests at Bikini and Enewetak. The people suffer thyroid tumors, and a higher than normal incidence of growth retardation.

The 1986 Compact of Free Association prohibits Marshall Islanders from seeking future legal redress in U.S. courts and dismissed all current court cases in exchange for a $150 million compensation trust fund.

The Forum noted the Secretary Generals report on the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty and called on the United States to ratify the protocols to the treaty as a means of enhancing global and regional peace and security, including global nuclear non-proliferation.

The 33rd Pacific Islands Forum was attended by heads of state and government of Australia, the Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, the Fiji Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

For more on what the U.S. is doing about radioactivity in the Marshall Islands, visit:

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