Striking a new global deal to reduce the impact of climate change is crucial to the future of vulnerable Pacific island nations, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Wednesday.
Rudd was speaking in the northeastern Australian city of Cairns at the opening of the Pacific Islands Forum summit of regional leaders, where climate change has emerged as a key issue.
Leaders from Australia, New Zealand and 13 Pacific Island nations will also tackle the impact of the global economic crisis and Fiji over two days of talks.
Forum countries are among the most vulnerable in the world to the impact of climate change, especially atoll archipelagos such as Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands where the highest ground is only a few metres above sea level.
Major talks in Copenhagen in December will attempt to strike a new global deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and reduce the rate of climate change.
“Pacific island countries are among the least responsible for the causes of climate change,” Rudd told the forum opening ceremony.
“They will bear the brunt of its impact the most — we must all act together to meet this challenge.
“We must use every opportunity to recommit ourselves as a region and as an international community to deliver a strong outcome in Copenhagen necessary for the planet, necessary for the Pacific, necessary for all our peoples.”
Rudd pledged Australian assistance to keep the interests of Pacific countries on the table in global climate change talks.
“Our first responsibility is to get a good outcome in Copenhagen because those in the front line of the impact of climate change are within our own region and we have a responsibility to act,” he said.
Leaders of the seven smallest forum members called Tuesday for Australia and New Zealand and other developed countries to slash their greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent by 2020.
Australia has offered to cut its emissions by 25 percent by 2020 if other developed countries agree to ambitious cuts at Copenhagen.
Kiribati foreign affairs official Tessie Lambourne said her country — made up of 33 coral atolls straddling the equator — rose no more on average than two metres above sea level.
“The storm surges we have experienced over the years have become more intense and more frequent and have destroyed lots of our homes, our livelihoods in terms of our crops and critical infrastructure.”
“This is a very emotional issue for us.”
Yvo de Boer, the head of the UN climate change office, said the Pacific was the face of climate change.
“A strong call from Pacific leaders will I think be an important signal on the road to Copenhagen, a signal which I think we are in dire need of at the moment,” said De Boer, executive director of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
The other main focus of the two-day summit is formulating a regional response to the global financial crisis.
“We need to do this to make a real difference to the 2.7 million people living across the Pacific who still today live in poverty,” Rudd said.
Australia had hoped to launch negotiations for a new free trade and economic relations deal at the summit, but outgoing forum chairman Toke Talagi of Niue said Tuesday that island nations were not ready to begin talks.
Rudd described the agreement, known as PACER Plus, as critical for driving closer economic integration in the region and advancing towards the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.