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Countries at Risk Lend Nervous Ear to Climate-Change Debate

Environment: Low-lying island nation of Tuvalu is mulling purchase of land elsewhere. U.N. conference seems likely to produce only a statement of intent.


THE HAGUE — When you live in Tuvalu, a nation of nine coral atolls strewn like petals across the South Pacific, there's nothing abstract about global warming or recent changes in the weather. The government there is exploring whether to buy land in another country, in case rising seas or storms force evacuation of the entire 10,000-member population.

Teleke P. Lauti, Tuvalu's assistant minister of natural resources and environment, made the long flight to Western Europe to beg the rest of the world to take into account the fate of his country, whose total landmass is only one-seventh of that of Washington, D.C.

"Our islands are very low-lying," Lauti said here at the U.N. conference on climate change. "When a cyclone hits us, there is no place to escape. We cannot climb any mountains or move away to take refuge. It is hard to describe the effects of a cyclonic storm surge when it washes right across our islands. I would not want to wish this experience on anyone."

As the delegates gathered in The Hague continued to argue Friday over how to slash the emissions of carbon monoxide and other gases heating the Earth's atmosphere, they were being nervously watched by people whose homes, from Arctic regions to the South Seas, are threatened by changes in the world's weather.

"My country is the worst here!" Tooker Gomberg, 45, a Canadian, blurted out in the conference's media center. Gomberg said warming weather was endangering the habitat and food supply of polar bears in his country's far north. As curious reporters gathered round, he burned his passport to protest what he said was the Canadian government's overly tolerant attitude toward "greenhouse-gas" pollution.

"The Arctic will be no more, unless the delegates take action," warned Gomberg, a freelance photographer and unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Toronto. "Forty percent of the ice has already melted," he said.

The role of man-made gases in transforming the world's climate and triggering violent weather patterns, such as the periodic Pacific Ocean current changes known as El Nino, is still a subject of intense debate. But according to studies by long-range forecasters of the British Meteorological Office, there is no doubt that the Earth's atmosphere and seas have heated up by an average 1 degree Fahrenheit over the past century, or that this has led to a rise in ocean levels.

Geoff Jenkins, one of the British forecasters, said the best guess was that global temperatures would increase by another 4 1/2 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming century, unless countries take drastic measures to halt their emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. That temperature increase would mean a rise in the ocean level of at least 18 to 19 inches, as more of the glaciers and snow masses on land melted away.

The potential human costs could be catastrophic. According to the government of Bangladesh, the world's most densely populated country, a 3.3-foot increase in the waters of the Bay of Bengal would flood 17.5% of the nation's territory and leave 17 million people without shelter.

The Hague conference, which is supposed to end today, was deadlocked Friday, with European representatives and environmentalists branding a compromise proposal floated by the Dutch chairman as a cave-in to U.S. pressure, and the chief of the American delegation, Undersecretary of State Frank Loy, countering that he was "deeply disappointed" at such an "unacceptably imbalanced" package.

A U.S. official predicted that the end result would be a declaration of intent largely devoid of specifics--for instance, how much of a reduction in actual greenhouse-gas emissions each country would have to make versus its ability to earn credits through other actions, such as planting trees. Conference spokesman Michael Williams seemed to buttress that view, telling reporters Friday evening that the goal had become to produce a "convincing political document."

For delegates from many nations on the front lines of climate change, the deadlock seemed to stem from big, rich countries insisting on the right of their industries and automobiles to pollute even as inhabitants of smaller, poorer countries were menaced by flood, drought, rising waters and other natural calamities.

"It gets so intense that at times, you just want to throw something," said Yumie Crisostomo, representative of the Marshall Islands, a Pacific archipelago of about 1,200 islands whose average elevation is 6 feet above sea level.

Joseph Konno, 45, a native of Chuuk, formerly Truk, in another island group, the Federated States of Micronesia, said the rising waters of the western Pacific had gobbled up 30 feet of the beach where he used to swim and fish as a boy.

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