Pacific leaders identify climate change as a major priority.

AUCKLAND (AFP) – Pacific leaders identified climate change as the greatest threat to the region, ordering officials to start work on plans to help people forced to relocate by rising sea levels.

The 16-nation Pacific Islands Forum on Thursday said the impact of climate change was already apparent in countries such as Kiribati, where some villagers have had to abandon their homes as the seas rise, and finance was needed to help them.

“Climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific,” said a communique issued by the regional grouping after a two-day summit in Auckland.

The communique, which also raised concerns about human rights in Fiji, thanked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for travelling to Auckland this week to highlight the threat posed by climate change.

During his visit, the UN leader said he had seen the effect of global warming first-hand during a visit to Kiribati and it had reinforced his belief that climate change was a reality.

“Climate change is not about tomorrow,” he said during his Auckland visit. “It is lapping at our feet — quite literally in Kiribati and elsewhere.”

The PIF leaders ordered a report into how relocation options could be financed in a region where many island nations rely heavily on foreign aid, taking into account “the specific capacities and needs of respective countries”.

They said there was a “critical and urgent need” for finance to help Pacific countries “in particular those already suffering, (who) are displaced or are being displaced as a result of the detrimental impacts of climate change”.

During the summit, Kiribati President Anote Tong revealed that his low-lying nation was considering radical solutions to deal with rising seas, such as moving its 100,000-strong population onto man-made floating islands.

He estimated that the plan, which would see Kiribati residents relocated to structures resembling oil rigs, would cost $2 billion.

The PIF report into how to pay for relocation options is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of next year.

On Fiji, which was expelled from the PIF two years ago after its military regime reneged on plans to hold elections in the wake of a 2006 coup, the PIF countries reiterated the need for a return to democracy.

“(PIF leaders) expressed their continuing deep concern at the deteriorating human rights situation and serious political and economic challenges facing the people of Fiji,” the communique said.

However, earlier on Thursday, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, who also visited Auckland for the summit, said he saw few signs the regime was easing its grip on power.

“Today we see little, if any, positive developments (in Fiji). The repressive regime remains in place, the socio-economic situation has worsened,” he said in a speech at Auckland University.

“Against this background there is an evident need for supporting the Fijian people but keeping the pressure on the regime.

“That is why we will continue our search for a solution that returns democracy to the people of Fiji.”

While the PIF meeting formally ended with the release of the communique, high-level talks will continue Friday when member nations hold bilateral talks with VIP guests in Auckland for the gathering.

US Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides arrived with a 50-strong delegation Thursday, saying President Barack Obama had personally ensured that Washington had top-level representation at the meeting.

“Without question, the President is very much focused on what we’re doing in this region and more importantly showing our deep and everlasting friendship with our friends in New Zealand,” he told reporters.

Other high-profile dignitaries in Auckland include French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma and China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai.

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