Enviroment: The paradise isles on the edge of disaster

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The Independent Online
Climate change threatens to swamp small Pacific Islands. But industrial countries are fighting shy of the action needed to prevent it.

America, Australia and Japan must do more, argues Derek Fatchett, Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I have recently returned from the Pacific. Not the newly industrialised Pacific Rim which dominates the financial pages, but the heart of the region - the small island states of the South Pacific.

For us in Britain, climate change and global warming might seem remote. For those living in the South Pacific islands, the issue is literally one of survival.

The question there is not whether grapes might grow in the Pennines. It is simply and starkly: "Will my country exist in 50 years time?" This was brought home to me very sharply: in Rarotonga, the hotel I stayed in would be one of the first buildings to disappear as the sea rises.

I was there for the Conference of the South Pacific Forum States. You would think at least in that context you would find a sense of urgency and purpose about climate change. Indeed the smallest and most vulnerable islands, who risk losing their coastal plains or even their very existence, had it at the top of their agenda. It was the response of their developed country partners which was so disturbing.

In eight weeks time the nations of the world will meet in Kyoto to decide how we will take the first steps to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change. The EU has proposed a 15 per cent reduction by developed countries of the gases which cause the greenhouse effect by 2010. The UK has set itself a domestic target of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide. It is not an easy target, but it is not one which will require major changes in lifestyle or industrial technology. At the very worst it may have a marginal effect on economic growth. At best it may stimulate new environmental technologies and industries and create new growth.

The response by some of our western partners has been disappointing to say the least. The Japanese have just published their proposals under which developed countries as a whole would be required to achieve emissions reductions of around three per cent. Whilst it's welcome that the Japanese are now talking about hard numbers, three per cent is too low to be a credible response. But at least we now have something to negotiate about.

Meanwhile, we hope the US position will emerge soon following this week's meeting at the White House. The Administration's heart is in the right place. But it will have to work hard to overcome the doubts in Congress and elsewhere, where many refuse even to recognise there is a problem.

But in the Pacific, where the problems caused by global warming will be most keenly felt, the response has been more disappointing. While the rest of us discuss reductions in emissions, the Australian government talks about increases. Measures to cut emissions are seen as too costly or difficult.

I find it hard to believe that Australia, one of the richest countries in the world with an average emissions level second only to the US, cannot do better than this.

Here in Britain, we have already reduced our emissions from 1990 levels and meet the commitments we signed at Rio. To go beyond this to achieve our 20 per cent target will require further efforts in areas like transport, domestic energy efficiency, power generation and industrial processes. We are preparing our strategy to announce next year.

We are also sharing our thinking with the Australian Government. What is needed is the political will to explain to the public why action must be taken and ask them to do the right thing. If I know the Australian people, I am sure they will respond.

Tony Blair sent a strong message to leaders at the June UN Environment Meeting. He said that we would be failing our children if we did not tackle climate change. Some of the key countries have so far turned a deaf ear. I urge them to listen to the concerns of the small vulnerable states represented at the South Pacific Forum.

Some of the poorest people in other large developing countries, like India, China and Bangladesh will also be affected by rising sea levels. Large parts of Africa may be affected by regular droughts. This is a major test for the post cold-war world order. Real political leadership is needed.