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Wednesday 2 December 2015 | Published in Regional

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PARIS – The small island nations that dot the Pacific are aware they exist on the periphery of many geopolitical calculations. They are also among those most at risk to being flooded by rising sea levels.

So, while holding out hope that officials gathered in Paris this week for climate talks will help their islands cope with the effects of climate change, they are taking matters into their own hands in case aid pledges fall short, writes Rob Taylor, Wall Street Journal’s Australia and Pacific correspondent.

“We are looking at land security, coastal protection,” Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga said in November, after townhall-style consultations with his island nation’s 10,000 people. “We are looking at building our own security in Tuvalu, to save the people.”

As officials pledged to complete a global agreement to cut greenhouse-gas emissions, these 20 low-lying nations with about 10 million people spread out over more than 300,000 square miles say they are already struggling with climate-related ills.

US President Barack Obama met with six of these leaders on Tuesday in Paris, pledging support.

“Their populations are among the most vulnerable to the ravages of climate change,” Obama said after the meeting.

The attention Tuesday comes after years of advocacy by island leaders and, more recently, what they have pointed to as signs they are already on the defensive.

Tony de Brum, the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister, said salt water was increasingly spoiling the freshwater supplies of his island nation of 52,000.

The country faced more frequent and intense storms compared with years ago, he said.

If sea levels rise as projected, Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu would be among the first nations to be fully submerged underwater, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, which estimates sea levels could rise as much as 87 centimetres (nearly three feet) by 2090.

“I’ve been referring to ourselves as the canary in the coal mine, but the canary is dying,” Kiribati President Anote Tong said recently.

These poor and remote islands and other developing nations are pushing in Paris for a deal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial times, below the current 2 degree goal.

They are also urging bigger and richer nations to adopt a “Marshall Plan” like the one that helped a ruined Europe rebuild after World War II.

“The world united to make sure that recovery from devastation was immediate and so that countries would recover quickly,” de Brum said. “A similar impact should be taken in respect of climate change.” Hopes are focusing on the South Korea-based Green Climate Fund, created five years ago by the United Nations to help developing nations confront climate change.

The Pacific islands say they have seen little benefit so far from it because of a combination of bureaucracy and funding shortfalls, and they are urging Paris summit participants to contribute more money and ease access.

The UN hopes to raise up to $100 billion a year by 2020 for climate mitigation through a mix of public and private funding, but it has so far received only $1 billion of a promised $10 billion for the Green Climate Fund. Obama’s $3 billion pledge last year is stuck in congressional debate.

In November, the fund announced its first disbursements – $168 million for eight projects, among them only one in the Pacific, an urban water supply and wastewater management project in Fiji.

“Access must be based on the level of vulnerability, not on the quality of how to write project proposals,” Tuvalu’s Sopoaga said.

Meanwhile, several Pacific countries are reinforcing coastal barriers, working to protect limited freshwater supplies, developing more climate-resistant infrastructure such as solar power for remote communities and building agricultural plots above the sea’s potential reach.

The Marshall Islands is working on plans to relocate some small coastal villages further inland. Sopoaga said Tuvalu was trying to improve education to give citizens the ability to more easily migrate abroad, such as to Australia, Fiji or New Zealand, if they wished.

“There is a lot of passion and emotion for people to remain in Tuvalu,” Sopoaga said. “As a policy we aren’t yet looking at relocation.”

Kiribati has gone a step further, purchasing land last year on the Fijian island of Vanua Levu, as a contingency plan.

The Pacific nations are also lobbying for other action to combat climate change. Kiribati’s Tong visited Australia in November to call for a moratorium on new coal mines after Canberra approved plans for the world’s largest coal mine.

He has urged Australia and other bigger nations to adopt more ambitious targets for trimming greenhouse emissions. Australia’s government has promised to cut its greenhouse output by between 26 and 28 per cent from its 2005 levels in the next 15 years.

Climate change has also sparked creative passions in the region.

Mikaele Maiava, the artistic director of a Tokelau theatre group, lamented the rising tides that are taking a toll on his island, requiring school students to wade through tidal waters.

His group has developed a dance performance titled Water is Rising that they have taken across the world, including the US, to raise awareness.

- Wall Street Journal