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Paradise lost?

The tiny Pacific island nation of Palau is a paradise on earth. This band of several hundred islands is home to some of the world’s most stunning marine life, and to the twenty thousand people who live there.Palau-infographic-tout

But like many low-lying nations across the world, Palau is threatened by the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. Palau’s coasts are being eroded, its local farmlands tainted by seawater, and its valuable reefs threatened. Johnson Toribiong, President of Palau, calls the damage he’s witnessing “a slow-moving tsunami.”

But Palau isn’t resigning itself to a doomsday fate. Palau has crafted a novel legal strategy at the United Nations to try to hold the industrialized world accountable for the damage caused by greenhouse gas emissions, which most scientists say are driving climate change.

Could this David vs. Goliath strategy actually work? Need to Know went to Palau to investigate. Here’s our video report:

As Palau’s legal initiative at the United Nations gained momentum, the United States emerged as its biggest critic. We were told the U.S. has exerted considerable diplomatic pressure on Palau and some of its allies to drop the initiative.

In a memo, circulated at the U.N. a few months ago, the U.S. argues that while it shares many of Palau’s goals with regards to climate change, the U.S. believes Palau’s legal initiative could have a “negative effect” on other longstanding international climate change negotiations, like the ones recently held in Durban, South Africa.

Palau’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Stuart Beck, strongly disagrees. He says international negotiations haven’t done nearly enough to tackle climate change, calling the process “feckless.”

“If the current process had a clear direction, and a clear focus,” Beck said, “then I could guarantee you we would not be messing with it because it would already be mitigating climate change.”

Despite the current diplomatic struggle between the U.S. and Palau, the two countries actually share a long and deep relationship. Palau was the site of major battles between the United States and Japan during World War II, and wreckage from that war can still be found scattered all over the islands. After the war, the U.S. was granted control of Palau, but later supported its independence and helped craft the Palauan constitution.

Those close ties remain today: Palauan kids are taught English in school, and the U.S. dollar is the official currency. In exchange for the exclusive right to potentially put military bases on the islands, the U.S. gives Palau millions of dollars in financial support. Palau’s citizens can join the U.S. military, and have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan. Palau also votes in near synch with the U.S. at the United Nations, including votes in support of Israel where the U.S. often has few other allies. Several years ago, Palau was one of the only nations in the world to agree to take in several freed prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


  • Sue

    Fabulous story on Palou and climate change.  Troubling to see the conflicts between so many nations.  Bravo to NEED TO KNOW for excellent reporting and bringing this international dilemma to the forefront.

  • Will Irby

    Your statement that “most scientists agree” that carbon dioxide contributes to global warming is false. All of my fellow engineers and scientists are fully aware that global warming causes increased carbon dioxide levels, due to the decreased solubility of carbon dioxide in sea water as temperature increases. This is easily seen by tracking atmospheric carbon dioxide over thousands of years; the increases in CO2 levels consistently lag behind increases in temperature.

  • Curmudgeon

    The sea level is not rising.

  • Norepublicansinheaven

    Curious. Obviously not directly involved in climate research. CO2 solubility is almost completely unaffected by temperature- it is strongly affected by pH. The models would obviously take this into account. Besides, if atmospheric CO2 rise is from warming water, why is the water warming? Why is the ocean pH dropping? It is obvious that CO2 is being absorbed by the water, not released from it. The ocean acts as a big CO2 sink, slowing the effects of human generated CO2 spikes. Sea life and coral reefs pay the price. Your contention is just one more false explanation to convince people there is no problem, just drill baby drill, we can have it all now, for tomorrow we are to die.

  • Sally

    The earth is preparing for a pole shift… normal end of a very big cycle activity.

  • Barbeszoo

    The continued debate of global warming reminds me of the cigarette debacle.  Not that long ago it was  ”Certainly smoking is not good for you and causes health problems, but will it kill you?”  Now it’s, “Certainly high levels of carbon dixoide emissions is bad for you, and causes serious health problems, but does it cause global warming?”   At some point those who deny global warming are going to have to admit that, like cigarette smoking, it is no longer socially acceptable to make the human race, if not the earth, sick with high levels of carbon emissions. It can and will kill you.   And  that my friends, does not take  rocket science to figure out.  

  • Scott

    This is a fact. Palau is sinking and has been for thousands of years. Originally it was a volcano. Over thousands of years, the volcano collapses, leaving a series of islands, and finally a coral reef. This cycle in island geology is well known and is covered in standard textbooks on island geology. The extensive car driving and construction projects in the last 30 years have accelerated compression of the porous islands. When we measure the level of the oceans using satellites, we see that the sea is not rising in this part of the Pacific at all.

  • Anonymous

    I just experienced my part of Belau being flooded under 40ft of seawater from the super taifun Hainan and would humbly like to point out that only scientists that gathers facts from the pink tabloids at the cash register denies the effects and causes of global warming. Stop trolling science.