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Climate is changing: what can we do?

The rising sea is eating at the shores of low-lying Funafuti, a small mound of coral and coconut palms in the remote Pacific, midway between Hawaii and Australia. Nervous islanders watch as fingers of ocean travel beneath the sands, resurfacing inland in startling places. 'It used to be puddles. Now it's like lakes' said Hilia Vavae, local meteorologist.

People were especially worried when the runway flooded. 'That's new' Margaret Bita told a visiting reporter after Sunday church services. The church and the little airport lie on the broadest part 600 yards across of slender, steamy 7-mile long Funafuti, home to about half the 11,000 people of Tuvalu, an impoverished nation getting by on fees from foreign fishing fleets, international aid and money sent home by Tuvaluan merchant seamen.

The main island narrows elsewhere to a mere 50 yards of sand, with swaying palms and a roadway between the lagoon and the sea. Its elevation is seldom more than a few feet. When February's high tides washed out a small causeway, children swam to school.

As recently as the 1980s, Vavae said, the peak high tides came only in January and February, now she said they crash ashore from September to May. But it is the quiet seepage from below that most alarms Tuvaluans. Because of intruding salt water, many have abandoned their gardens and crops. On the nearby islet of Vasafua, the coconut trees are dying. Another small, uninhabited island has vanished beneath the waves. 'It went underwater in the cyclone of 1997' Vavae said.

Similar events are taking place in the Marshall Islands, 1,250 miles away, and in Kiribati to the north of Tuvalu. And it is not only the low-lying atolls that are being affected. On Kosrae, a high island of volcanic peaks in the Federated States of Micronesia, the people have always lived along a flat coastal strip, but some are now dismantling their simple homes and heading for the hills as recommended by the government. People across the Pacific feel sure that something unusual is happening. 'I don't know' said a government worker in Kosrae 'but I think it is because of green something'.

Like the glass of a greenhouse, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other gases in the atmosphere let sunlight in but tend to warm the earth by trapping the heat inside the earth's atmosphere. Concentrations of carbon dioxide, a by-product of fossil fuels burned in everything from cars to electricity plants, reached record levels in the atmosphere this past winter, a Hawaii observatory reported in March 2004. This global warming is expected to change regional climates in powerful ways such as melting ice caps, intensifying storms and raising ocean levels.

The 'greenhouse effect' and climate change have languished on the world's agenda since the 1970s, a seemingly distant threat. But year by year, inch by inch, it is rising to the top as ocean islets flood, glaciers retreat, Arctic permafrost melts, and leading voices raise new alarms. The long-stalled 1997 Kyoto Protocol, that aims to reduce the world's greenhouse gas emissions, is opposed in Washington where US government and industry object that emission controls would handicap the US economy. Meanwhile signs of global warming mount.

And Pacific islanders aren't alone. Rising seas are a growing threat from Alaska, where Eskimos are relocating a coastal village further inland, to New Orleans in the USA and Shanghai in China coastal cities already below sea level, sinking on their own and further endangered by expanding oceans.

Back in Tuvalu, devoutly Christian since missionary days, many talk not of greenhouses, but of Genesis, reminding each other of God's promise to Noah: As long as rainbows cross the sky there will be no more great floods. 'God will protect us' one woman churchgoer assured a visitor. Saufatu Sopoanga, as Tuvalu's prime minister, must look into the future, not the Bible. He is talking to New Zealand about a kind of 21st century Noah's Ark a standby plan for a mass migration there. 'In 50 or 100 years, the islands are expected to go under water. What can we do?' Tuvalu's leader asked, on a day when a tropical morning downpour soon gave way to a rainbow in a blue, very warm sky.

Adapted from 'Mercury and tides climb, as climate change rises on global agenda' by Charles J. Hanley in San Juan Star newspaper, Puerto Rico, Caribbean, 23 May 2004

Messages In This Thread

Climate is changing: what can we do?
Charles J. Hanley -- Wednesday, 25 August 2004
Three different ideas for action on climate change
E. Beggs, S. Prasad, J. Ward -- Tuesday, 7 September 2004
Are we panicking about climate change?
T. Goreau, C. Lee, T. Suaesi, T. Tebano -- Tuesday, 21 September 2004
Climate change less panicking, more action
H. Ausiy, C. Harries, P. Harris, V. Wulf -- Tuesday, 5 October 2004
Adapting to climate change - 'Every little bit helps'
I. Byron, C. Fevrier, B. Mommsen, writer from the Caribbean -- Wednesday, 20 October 2004
Acting locally is not enough when it comes to climate change
A. Shakir Mohamed -- Tuesday, 2 November 2004

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