World news: Australia under fire from states that may disappear under water

If sea levels rise, then some Pacific islands might disappear altogether. So they are pressing Australia to help prevent global warming. But, as Robert Milliken reports, they aren't getting much of a hearing.
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The Independent Online
Tuvalu is so small you can barely find it on the map, and life under its South Pacific palms would not seem to pose too many problems. But yesterday, this tiny country joined with other Pacific island nations to attack their big neighbour, Australia, which they accuse of contributing to the global warming and rising sea levels that are threatening to wipe them off the face of the earth.

Australia and its Prime Minister, John Howard, came under fire at the summit in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific Forum. The Australians have steadfastly refused to bow to pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to below international targets, claiming their country is a special case because of its small population (18 million) and high economic dependence on fossil fuels.

Australia's Pacific island neighbours yesterday fuelled the row by declaring that enough was enough. They accused Australia of hypocrisy, claiming that its intransigence on greenhouse gases potentially poses a bigger environmental threat to the Pacific than the French nuclear tests which Australia vociferously opposed two years ago.

Tuvalu is an extreme case of the nations who believe their very existence is threatened. The coral atolls on which its 9,000 inhabitants make their livlihoods from coconuts and fishing are barely six metres above sea level. According to Bikenibeu Paeniu, Tuvalu's Prime Minister, unless something is done to stop global warming over the next 20 years, then his country could be the world's first to disappear under rising sea levels.

At a meeting last weekend ahead of the forum, Mr Paeniu joined with leaders of four other island states, Nauru, Niue, Kiribati and the Cook Islands, to pass a resolution calling on rich countries such as Australia to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2005 to one-fifth below their 1990 levels.

Mr Howard yesterday appeared to dismiss the islanders' claims that Australia's environmental policies were helping to put their futures at risk.

"That is an extremely exaggerated statement and not one that impresses me," he said.