GLOBAL WARMING HEADLINES GUAM CONFERENCE

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By Katie Worth

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, June 23) - Imagine having to import tuna from Hawaii because they've left Guam waters. Imagine a completely barren and dead reef, which provides the island no buffer from killer tsunami waves. Imagine years-long droughts that kill nearly all the vegetation on the island. Imagine 10 inches of rain dumping on the island in one hour, wiping out roads, homes and maybe even schools in a single swipe.

Those are just examples of what international officials at the Pacific Islands Environmental Conference yesterday warned may happen in coming decades, as Guam and the rest of the Pacific languishes in the grasp of a global climate change that they did not cause and cannot stop.

And global warming is already beginning to take a toll on other, smaller islands in the Pacific, said speakers at the Pacific Islands Environment Conference yesterday.

Take Yap, for example: slight changes in water temperatures and other factors have driven tuna from their waters and closer to Hawai΄i, said speaker Joe Konno, administrator of the Chuuk Environmental Protection Agency.

This not only means tuna has become harder to find in Yapese waters, it's also devastated one of Yap's few sources of income: commercial fishing, he said.

When the tuna were still near Yap, commercial fishing companies from all over Asia would come and pay Yap for permits to fish the tuna from its waters. Now that the fish are gone, the fishing permit money is also gone.

And that's just one tiny piece of a very large crisis that may spell Micronesia's financial and environmental ruin at the hands of climate change.

Not the least of Guam's worries is the frightening predictions that climate change may raise ocean temperatures by a degree or two in coming decades, said Karen Wirth of the U.S. EPA.

While that seems like a minor change, it could have catastrophic consequences for things that live in the ocean. A degree in ocean temperature change could kill most of the coral reefs in the world, she said.

For Guam, that would mean no reef fish, no tourist draw, the extinction of countless species plants and animals that survive on the reef, and the death of all the cultural practices and economic dependencies on the reef.

It would also mean the loss of Guam's primary defense against tidal waves that could destroy everything coastal.

"If the reef dies, Guam could become 'Tsunami-ville,' especially with all the tectonic activity around here," she said.

Climate change was introduced to conference participants yesterday with the Pacific premier of the documentary "The Great Warming." The film, narrated by Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette, expounded on the causes and effects of global warming and new technologies that might slow its arrival.

Though the film was Canadian-made and didn't specifically discuss climate change in the Pacific, a panel of speakers afterward talked about how the global phenomenon already is beginning to hit Guam and the islands around it.

Though some scientists dispute the extent and the cause of climate change, and whether humans are contributing to it, there's a large body of evidence, according to a National Geographic report, that the Earth's climate is warming, and that it will continue to do so in the coming decades.

While climate change is expected to happen planet-wide, Guam and other islands are likely to be among those hit first, and hardest, said panelist John Hay, a professor at the University of Waikato in New Zealand.

In the 1940s, Guam residents were casualties in a war that had nothing to do with them. Soon, Pacific islanders may find themselves innocent victims of another force far beyond their control, he said.

"The Pacific islands really have not contributed to climate change -- and you can say that categorically. Yet they're on the front lines to receive its consequences," he said.

"The droughts, the flooding, the very intense storms, the high sea levels -- all of these events are going to happen here and have consequences for the Pacific. And the consequences are going to be much greater here than they are in countries such as the United States, simply because of their highly coastal nature," he said.

And what that means in practical terms is astronomical costs, said Konno.

He gave the example of a project he participated in that looked at a single, four-mile long road in Pohnpei. Currently, engineers design roads to be able to withstand seven inches of rain in an hour.

But a road built that way may not be strong enough in the future, he said. Konno said his group looked at various projections of climate change in coming decades, which predict more intense and frequent storms in the Pacific. By using the models to calculate the likelihood and frequency of huge storms in the region, they determined that Pohnpei and other islands will likely be seeing some instances of a mind-blowing 10 inches of rain in an hour.

They asked engineers how much it would cost to build the road strong enough to withstand that much rain without washing away, and the engineers said it would cost an additional half a million dollars.

That's a big chunk of money for a tiny island with a small tax base to come up with, but in the long run, they will have no choice.

He emphasized that this was just a single road on one island. As you consider other potential impacts of climate change -- on public health, water and power infrastructure, fisheries, agriculture, buildings, homes and people -- the cost begins adding up to an insurmountable price tag.

And those are just the costs you can predict. Much is still unknown about climate change and what its consequences may be, he said.

"We didn't cause this climate change, but we're going to have to pay for it," he said.

June 24, 2005

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

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