For the Republic of Palau, an independent island nation located 4,609 miles across the Pacific from Hawai'i, the present day results of global warming carry with it a chilling reality—Palau has already seen deforestation, sea level rise and climate change decimate its reef fish populations and threaten the island's economy. Its waters are home to saltwater crocodiles, 850 species of coral and sponges, and 1,300 varieties of reef fish, which are closely tied to Palau's tourism and fishing markets.
In light of pressing threats of climate change, Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. has led a preservation movement to the doorstep of the United Nations in an effort to educate the world on the immediate dangers posed to millions of island-dwelling people, from the Maldives to Papua New Guinea to Hawai'i.
"Palau has lost at least one third of its coral reefs due to climate change related weather patterns," Remengesau said. "We also lost most of our agricultural production due to drought and extreme high tides. These are not theoretical, scientific losses—they are the losses of our resources and our livelihoods."
In 1998, Palau's coral reefs suffered severe damage by coral bleaching caused by warmed ocean currents that allow too much sunlight to penetrate the water, which left close to 99 percent of corals on certain reefs white and lifeless.
While Palau hasn't since faced the same level of devastation of that El Nino year, studies point to continued challenges caused by global warming. According to global climate models conducted by the Florida Institute of Technology, Micronesia will be particularly vulnerable to further thermal stress events and water temperatures higher than historical averages.
Australian coral scientist Charlie Vernon predicts that coral reefs will be extinct in 30 years, due in part to carbon dioxide dissolving into the sea over time, which will prevent corals from producing the calcium carbonate needed to make coral hard. The loss of coral reefs, his studies show, may lead to a chain reaction of events that will destroy the ecosystems and economies of islands throughout the world.
A joint effort
In an international effort two years ago, Remengesau helped to initiate the Micronesia Challenge: a commitment by five island governments (including Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, The Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands) to effectively conserve at least 30 percent of near-shore marine resources and 20 percent of land resources by 2020.
Last month, these island nations, together as the Global Island Partnership, called on the United Nations Security Council to accelerate global climate negotiations in order to prevent a humanitarian crisis for millions of island residents who may be forced to relocate due to the physical and economic effects of global warming.
Despite being one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide, the United States is the only major industrial country that has not ratified the Kyoto Protocal, which mandates a reduction of greenhouse gases 5.2 percent below a country's 1990 baseline over a period from 2008 to 2012. However, in 2007, President George W. Bush committed the United States to a climate change strategy that will reduce domestic greenhouse gas intensity by 18 percent over the next 10 years—still far behind projected goals by other developed countries.
Current U.S. presidential candidates are looking to go further. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has issued a plan that would see greenhouse gas emissions cut 66 percent by 2050. Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama presents a plan that aims at cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050. Both candidates have sponsored legislation that would set mandatory caps on emissions.
While the world's leading industrial nations are just beginning to acknowledge the importance of cutting back emissions, the Global Island Partnership has honed its skills in actively increasing awareness. In the past two years, its grassroots effort has engaged more than 20 countries and 20 international organizations to raise over $25 million in support for national environmental programs and set the tone for American supporters to follow suit. With the interests of 500 million people on 130,000 islands being put forth, the pressure is on the United States and the United Nations to act on agreeing to international climate change initiatives quickly.
Hawai'i shares Palau's concerns
On August 22, Remengesau spoke to environmental leaders at the Pacific Club on the Big Island.
"As we are all aware, our time is rapidly running out," he said. "In my own country, statistics are minimal regarding fish stocks and coral degradation, but any fisherman in Palau will tell you that our reef fish are being depleted at a dangerous rate."
The Palau president said that recent NOAA studies find that reef systems and fish stocks worldwide are in a downward spiral—with three quarters of Hawai'i's 55 species of reef fish depleted or in critical condition.
Remengesau urged environmental leaders to actively engage the community and avoid business sectors that develop island nations' primary resources, such as major extraction industries.
"Success will only occur if we have strong, transparent and fairly enforced zoning and land use laws that reinforce our primary development focus on tourism and the service sector," he said, comparing the similar relationship between the economy and natural resources in Hawai'i and Palau. "In Palau, we hope to learn from Hawai'i's experience in integrated land use planning."
In the 1960s, Hawai'i implemented the United States' first statewide land-use regulation system, which is run today by the State Land Use Commission. Currently, lawmakers are looking to improve Hawai'i's Land Use Law to more effectively conserve important agricultural lands and scenic open space.
Under state law, counties have complete authority to zone and regulate land use. However, the law fails to set standards for the counties to follow, particularly in the zoning of agricultural and rural lands.
As Hawai'i, Palau, and the Global Island Partnership continue to readjust to the effects of global warming, and reach out the the international community, Remengesau reminds all island community leaders to look closely and unbiasedly at both the mistakes and the effectiveness of what has already been done in the eco-political arenas.
"If we are to effectively respond to this marine deterioration, it is imperative that we look at our failures, as well as our successes, honestly and without silver linings," Remengesau said.