Takuu's singing islanders pay the price for global warming

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The Independent Online

Thousands of miles away - about as far as it is possible to get from here on the face of the planet - the singing islanders of Takuu are awaiting their fate.

Thousands of miles away - about as far as it is possible to get from here on the face of the planet - the singing islanders of Takuu are awaiting their fate.

The 400 inhabitants of the atoll off the coast of Papua New Guinea are likely to be the first people in the world to lose their homeland to global warming. The sea is inexorably rising around them, the gardens where they grow their food are being flooded, and their sand dunes are being swept away.

Now the islanders - who enjoy a unique culture, where every inhabitant has 1,000 songs he or she can sing from memory - have been told that they have at best five years, and at worst a few months, before their homes vanish for ever beneath the waves.

Their fate now threatens the whole world, after the collapse of talks in the Hague yesterday, through a combination of intransigence and plain incompetence. "Climate change is not a prognosis for the future," Klaus Topfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme said here last week. "It is happening now."

There are plenty of signs that he is right. Glaciers have retreated further than at any time in the past 5,000 years and the Arctic ice cap is now half as thick as it was just 25 years ago. Natural disasters such as floods and droughtshave trebled since 1990. And three islands in Micronesia - where palm trees have recently been spontaneously catching fire - may also soon have to be evacuated.

And, delegates were told, it is going to get much worse. Dr Robert Watson, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, presented a report suggesting global warming is happening nearly twice as quickly as had been thought. It predicts that harvests will fall dramatically in India, Africa and Latin America - and even in the US. It concludes that tens of millions of people will be flooded out of their homes as sea levels rise, and that tens of millions more will fall ill from malaria and other diseases once confined to the tropics.

The root of the problem has been the US: it is both the main cause - with just 4 per cent of the world's people it emits 25 per cent of its carbon dioxide - and the main obstacle for agreement on effective action.

Throughout the conference - and the three years of preparations leading up to it - US negotiators continuously sought to widen loopholes to undermine the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement under which the nations of the world undertook to make modest cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The blockage is in Congress and particularly the Senate, which has repeatedly made clear its hostility to Kyoto. Some delegates increasingly blame campaign contributions by oil firms and other interested parties. "This is a far greater dysfunction in the American system than what is happening in Florida," said one top negotiator. "It is allowing a few fat cats to hold the entire planet to ransom."

But the failure of the talks was not just the fault of the Americans. At the last minute John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, and Michael Meacher, the Environment Minister, brokered a far greener deal with the US than anyone thought possible, but they could not sell it to the rest of the EU who remained suspicious about the concessions agreed.

Other European ministers said that it was worth letting the deal collapse, in the hopes that they would get a better one at new negotiations in a year's time. But that is to play dice with the future of the planet. By then a US president who genuinely supports Kyoto may have given way to a President Bush who has consistently opposed it.