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By Ravi Nessman

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (August 28, 2002 - Associated Press)---The tiny island nation of Tuvalu sees the issue of global warming as a matter of life and death. Few at the U.N. development summit seem to care.

The United States does not want the gathering to commit to specific pollution controls. The world's developing nations — many of them major oil producers — have little interest in helping a nation of 12,000 people that fears it will be crushed by storms, rising ocean levels and disruptions to marine life.

"If this issue of climate change is ignored, what will happen to Tuvalu?" asked Paani Laupepa, Tuvalu's assistant secretary of the environment.

Tuvalu comprises nine low-lying coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean between Australia and Hawai‘i whose highest point is just 5 meters (15 feet) above sea level. Studies suggest the global sea level has risen about 19.8 centimeters (7.8 inches) over the past 100 years, and some experts say the rate is increasing.

"Tuvalu is flat. As flat as a pancake," Laupepa said. "We are at the front line of climate change."

In March, the country's prime minister appealed to Australia and New Zealand to provide homes for his people if his country is washed away. But at what is expected to be the world's largest U.N. gathering, the country is being ignored.

Contentious negotiations over the conference's action plan have mainly involved three groups: the European Union, a coalition of industrialized nations including Japan and the United States, and the G-77 group of developing nations.

Tuvalu is a member of none of these.

When Tuvalu's representative raises his hand in heated negotiating meetings, he is never called on, some officials say. His contributions to the climate change debate are brushed aside.

"The nations with the most at risk should be the ones that are the most heard," said Jennifer Morgan, of the World Wildlife Fund.

The issue of global warming, which was so central to negotiations at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, is barely present here.

At the earlier summit, 170 nations agreed to voluntarily reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which is strongly supported by Europe, seeks to codify the Rio pledges and make emissions reductions binding. But the United States has rejected the protocol and strongly opposes any explicit mention of Kyoto in this summit's action plan.

"We would prefer it to refer to a global effort without a specific reference to the Kyoto protocol that would respect those that are pursuing Kyoto as well as those producing other strategies," a senior official with the U.S. delegation said.

The United States and other oil-producing countries also have proposed watering down timetables for expanding the world's use of renewable energy. Many experts believe that fossil fuels and other nonrenewable energy sources contribute to global warming.

Tuvalu worries that global warming is causing more deadly cyclones at odd times of the year. It is changing its seasons, throwing off the island's agricultural schedule and damaging the marine ecosystem that many depend on for their livelihoods.

Many of Tuvalu's climate change concerns are shared by fellow members of the 43-nation Alliance of Small Island States, which includes nations as diverse as Cuba and Mauritius.

"Climate change continues to be a highly underrated issue," said Tuitoma Neroni Slade, Samoa's ambassador to the United Nations and the chair of the island alliance. "Everybody that should be backing Kyoto is stepping back."

Morgan, of the World Wildlife Fund, said the main climate change concerns should be dealt with through the Kyoto process, not here. But she said the effort to ignore Tuvalu's plight has been unfair.

"It just shows the balance of power. These rich nations, they have such a bigger say when Tuvalu has so much at stake," she said.

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