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Australia in hot water over global warming stance

S. Pacific graphic September 20, 1997
Web posted at: 3:49 p.m. EDT (1949 GMT)

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (CNN) -- After a tense diplomatic standoff, Pacific island nations attending the South Pacific Forum gave in to Australia Saturday and agreed not to endorse binding uniform cuts for greenhouse gas emissions.

Pacific leaders were outraged that Australian Prime Minister John Howard put Australian interests ahead of their fate in forcing them to sign on to his stand.

They emerged unhappy from last-minute negotiations on the wording of the forum's official communiqué, claiming Howard had failed to respect island concerns.

Island states, some of which are only one or two yards (meters) above sea level, fear they could be wiped out by rising ocean levels caused by global warming.

"It was just a win by John Howard against 15 nations. Being small, we depend on them so much. We had to give in to what they wanted," said Tuvalu Prime Minister Bikenibeu Paeniu, whose tiny nation is close to being submerged by rising tides.

"There was no compromise. It was just no, no, no, no," he added.

Australia, a major exporter of coal and natural gas, says it cannot afford to lose jobs and investment by agreeing to international demands for mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

That country and New Zealand, the biggest foreign aid donors to the other 14 members of the Forum, entered the summit urging island states on the brink of insolvency to take a dose of tough economic medicine.

Australia intends to go to the U.N. climate conference in Kyoto, Japan, in December with a plan to allow nations to set their own limits, which would allow Australia to increase its emissions until 2010.

Greenpeace: Australia 'bullied' nations

Paeniu said the talks were deadlocked by Howard's refusal to budge on the issue, with the other nations only relenting to avoid the first split in the forum's 27-year history.

The environmental group Greenpeace, which has been monitoring the talks, said Australia had used its importance to force the island states to agree to its greenhouse policies.

"The small island states have clearly been bullied into submission," Greenpeace spokesman Ian Fry said.

Faced with strong opposition, Howard indicated Friday as he entered the talks that Australia would back off its hard-line approach. Afterward, he said the outcome of the three-day summit protected Australia's interests while acknowledging the island nations' fears.

"It's a fair outcome. It's a very good outcome for Australia," he said. "My responsibility at the end of the day, always above everything else, is to protect Australian interests."

Australian environmentalist condemns stance

Australia's opposition environmental spokesman Duncan Kerr called Howard's stance an embarrassment to the world.

"He has damaged our standing, not only in the eyes of several South Pacific leaders, but also internationally with his totally dismissive attitude of the existence and consequences of global warming," Kerr said.

The South Pacific Forum was formed to tackle common issues and enhance the collective regional voice of the South Pacific so its views receive greater weight in the international community.

A matter of survival

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Small island nations, such as Tuvalu, had hoped the forum would endorse tough and binding cuts in emissions, because they claim it's a matter of survival.

"They spoke very passionately about their love for their home and their concern at the threat that rising sea levels will cause, and at times I can tell you the discussions got quite warm," Cook Islands Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger said it was one of the most difficult issues the forum had ever tackled.

"If you are a small, low-lying island state ... and you have a leeway of one or two meters (yards), then the intensity of your emotions is totally understandable," he told reporters.

The Forum members are Australia, New Zealand, Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Tonga, Western Samoa, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.

 
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