Island nation may sue U.S. over global warming

Published July 1, 2002

Tuvalu is threatening to sue the United States and Australia over their refusal to back the Kyoto Protocol, which sets targets aimed at cutting greenhouse emissions blamed for global warming and rising sea levels.

While not expecting to win what would be lengthy and expensive legal cases, observers say Tuvalu would at least draw global attention to its plight.

“The Pacific Island of Tuvalu has criticized Australia’s position on global warming for favoring the United States at the expense of its neighbors.” Tuvalu’s Prime Minister, Koloa Talake, said he was considering international legal action against major Australian companies whose emissions contributed to global warming and rising sea levels.

Pacific states are seeking ways to blackmail rich polluting nations and multinational concerns whose emissions of greenhouse gases they say are wiping them out. Tuvalu, a string of nine coral atolls five meters (16 feet) above sea level at their highest point, fears its last palm tree could sink beneath the Pacific within 50 years. Other threatened Pacific islands include Kiribati, Niue, the Marshall Islands, and the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

Bob Foster writes us from Adelaide: “Such an action by the Tuvalu authorities would be the best that could happen since then the scientific foundation of the ‘greenhouse effect’ would be tested in court and independent scientists would be heard as experts. Provided we could be sure the action would be brought in the U.S. or Australia, and not The Hague, we sceptics might consider launching the ‘Save Tuvalu’ campaign.”

Tuvalu and other Pacific nations were looking at taking legal action in the International Court of Justice. A case against Australia was possible, but action against Australian companies was more likely, Talake said. “These industries are in industrialized countries, they are the cause of global warming, and they are the ones we would like to take to court. Companies likely to face action would be the biggest gas emitters, such as major oil companies,” he said.

Talake also announced a partnership with Ecos Corporation, headed by former Greenpeace chief Paul Gilding, to develop a model for a sustainable and renewable energy system for Tuvalu, likely to be based on solar or wave power.

Australia’s National Tidal Facility (NTF), based at Flinders University in Adelaide, has installed and maintained eight sophisticated tide gauges at South Pacific sites, including Tuvalu. Since the instrumentation was installed in 1993, average sea level increase at Tuvalu has been 0.5 mm/yr, being a rate of 5 cm per century.

A similar analysis of 27 data-sets for the Pacific (longest record, 92 years at Honolulu) yields a rise of 8 cm per century. Crucially, “… visually at least, and at this stage, there is no clear evidence for an acceleration in sea level trends over the course of the last century.”

Why then is Talake so upset?

He could be concerned that the Summary for Policymakers of IPCC’s new Third Assessment Report states that: “Tide-gauge data show that global-averaged sea level rose between 0.1 and 0.2 meters (i.e. 10 and 20 cm) during the 20th century.” But “Within present uncertainties, observations and models are both consistent with a lack of significant acceleration of sea level rise during the 20th century.” And continues, implausibly: “Global mean sea level is projected to rise by 0.09 to 0.88 meters between 1990 and 2100.”

Even this dubious prediction should pose no problem for a coral atoll. After all, the sea has risen some 130 meters over the past 20,000 years, and atolls have maintained their station—at just above sea level.

Coral grows, if you let it. Storms break it off, and throw it up above the reach of normal tides. Islands like Tuvalu are self-maintaining—provided you don’t interfere. But if you gather up the coral debris for use in construction work; if you pave parts of the highly-permeable island surface and allow fresh water from rainfall to run into the sea instead of soak into the ground; and if you build flush toilets and discharge the effluent into the sea, then your island is doomed.

“It is likely that Mr. Talake’s problem is real enough. He calls it greenhouse. I would call it over-population,” writes Foster.