Published on Thursday, September 5, 2002 by Inter Press Service
Tiny Tuvalu Steps up Threat to Sue Australia, U.S.
by Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY - The tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu is stepping up its threat to sue Australia and the United States over their greenhouse gas emissions, saying these are bound to drown the island as warmer global temperatures send sea levels rising.
During the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) that ended in Johannesburg Wednesday, Tuvalu was busy lobbying other island states around the world to help launch a World Court lawsuit against the two developed nations.
Australia is the biggest per capita producer of greenhouse gases, and the United States is the world's single biggest polluter of such gases. The two countries were isolated at the WSSD, as the only two developed countries to refuse to sign the 1997 Kyoto protocol that sets targets for them to cut emissions of greenhouse gasses.
Tuvalu is a chain of nine coral atolls whose highest point is just 4 meters above sea level.
Many scientists argue that the melting of the ice caps due to rising global temperatures would push up the sea level, putting small South Pacific nations at risk. Tuvalu is expected to drown under the rising sea levels within 50 years, according to these scientific estimates.
These concerns drove Tuvalu, which has a population of 10,000, to make a formal request last year to Australia and New Zealand to open their doors for its citizens to immigrate if they face imminent danger from sea level rise.
New Zealand agreed to plan a 30-year immigration program, but Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said this action was based on speculation.
''Why would I agree with that?'' he asked. ''I think it is on a 30, 40 or 50-year horizon, if it's going to occur at all.''
Blaming the poor environmental records of Australia and the United States for its plight, Tuvalu now wants to file a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands.
Speaking to Radio Australia during the Johannesburg summit, Tuvalu's Finance and Planning Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu said that his people are already fearful of rising sea levels and that Australian scientific evidence provided so far does not match the reality on the ground.
''For the first time ever in my life that I have got scared because with the data or what have happened so far in Tuvalu doesn't seem to match the scientific data and information that they do have in Australia,'' he said.
The lack of resources in the Pacific has made island nations vulnerable to what critics say could be the manipulation of scientific data by developed nations, though Australian officials dismiss this.
During a meeting in Fiji last month of the 160-member South Pacific Forum (SPF), a Pacific grouping that includes Australia, Australian officials produced results of an Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) study that revealed no scientific evidence to support current claims by the islands on sea level rise.
Instead, it pointed to soil erosion as being the cause of sea level rise.
Australia's Environment Minister David Kemp has dismissed Tuvalu's legal threat, arguing that Australia contributes only 1 percent of global greenhouse gases.
''It is very much a global issue,'' he said, ''and no country is doing more with the Pacific Island countries than Australia to put them in a position where they can adapt and assess the risks''.
During the WSSD, Australia announced a 7.2 million Australian dollar (3.9 million U.S. dollar) package of ''partnership initiatives with our Pacific neighbors''.
This includes 4 million Australian dollars (2.17 million U.S. dollars) for a Pacific Island adaptation and vulnerability initiative to help Pacific countries adapt to the future impact of changing weather patterns. A smaller amount has been set aside to help improve weather forecasting and to set up climatic prediction services.
Fji's Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase said his country welcomed the ''partnership initiatives'' as the start of a process of turning the WSSD summit outcomes into practical initiatives or projects for implementation.
''It is the first opportunity for the partners of the Pacific to look at areas or concepts where they themselves may wish to pursue practical partnerships with Pacific governments, organizations and stakeholders,'' he said.
Australia's strong opposition to the Kyoto agreement is due to the strong lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, says analysts here. Australia is the world's biggest exporter of coal.
In June, Prime Minister John Howard told parliament, ''For us to ratify the protocol would cost us jobs and damage our industry. That is why the Australian government will continue to oppose ratification.'' Still, he said, Australia would take its own measures to try to meet its Kyoto targets.
According to U.N. Environment Programme figures, Australia emits about 27 tons of greenhouse gases per person each year, and the United States over 6,700 million tons a year.
To reach the Kyoto agreed targets, by 2010, Australia needs to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from industry, by 16.1 percent and the United States by 24.3 percent.
Australia is still behind its target. It is projected to reach 111 percent of 1990 emissions by the end of the decade -- still under its target of 108 percent under the Kyoto accord. Still, data released by Australian government in August said that the country is ''within striking distance'' of its target.
Analysts here believe that the threat of legal action against Australia by Tuvalu is some way off, if at all. But campaigns like that of Tuvalu, especially at venues like the WSSD, help raise international awareness on the issue of legal means to address climate change.
''The message to nations like Australia is ignore this issue at your own peril,'' Greenpeace International campaigner Peter Tabuns told Radio Australia. ''Not only do you endanger the lives and well-being of people in your own nation, but you risk action, reaction, from other nations who are harmed by your irresponsibility.''
© 2002 IPS