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Environmental activists from Greenpeace demonstrate by holding images of landmarks in the water during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico, Wednesday Dec. 8, 2010 According to the UN weather agency, 2010 is "almost certain" to rank among the three hottest years on record, and in a report issued Tuesday experts said glaciers in southern South America and Alaska's coastal mountains have been losing mass faster and for longer than glaciers elsewhere in the world. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

CANCUN, Mexico -- When Ulamila Kurai Wragg visited New York in 2009 to speak about the frightening climatic changes taking place in the Cook Islands, some audience members stunned her.

"I was hearing, 'There's no such thing as climate change. What proof have you got?' " Wragg recalled.

"The experience I had in New York was not easy to forget," said the member of the Cook Islands delegation to this month's United Nations climate summit in Cancun. She described her experience while on a break from negotiations during the two-week summit, which drew 15,000 and ended Dec. 10.

Those comments galvanized her to continue speaking to Americans, and in April she visited universities in nine states, including U.C. Berkeley. She told audiences of:

  • Waves from sea surges now breaking in front of homes and on roadways;

  • More frequent and more powerful typhoons that have destroyed or damaged many island buildings and scoured away beaches;

  • The 15-island nation's first-ever water rationing last year;

  • Soil erosion from unprecedented flooding harming fish populations; and

  • Rising water temperatures killing parts of the coral reef -- which provide fish with food and shelter.

    "In the islands, there is a lot of fear among the people," said Wragg. "That these things are happening, and the frequency and consistency of them." The Cook Islands, population 19,000, are in the South Pacific, northeast of New Zealand.

    That anxiety is shared throughout island nations and in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, as they begin to cope with the effects of 1.8 degree F rise in average global temperatures in the 20th century, noted a report released on Dec. 3 at the U.N. summit.

    African nations with scarce resources -- some lacking even reliable weather monitoring systems -- are also highly vulnerable to small climatic changes, which can lead to crop and livestock declines, and water shortages, the report stated.

    Emissions of heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other types of human activity are blamed for the rapid rise in temperatures over the past century.

    It's a rate of increase that's "unusual in nature and completely unprecedented for human civilization," noted the report, called the Climate Vulnerability Monitor 2010. It was prepared by a group of nations vulnerable to climate changes -- headed by the Maldives, an island state -- and DARA, a Madrid-based humanitarian research group.

    It portrays through color-coded graphics the striking disparities now, and those expected by 2030, between wealthy and less-affluent nations in damage and deaths from the rise of climate-sensitive diseases and extreme weather events such as cyclones, hurricanes and floods, as well as from habitat loss and economic costs.

    The report, online at www.daraint.org, builds its findings on United Nations and World Health Organization reports, research by government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and peer-reviewed studies.

    Changing climate conditions are responsible for 350,000 deaths annually, the report asserted. By 2030, deaths could rise to 1 million annually if other nations don't help vulnerable countries. Children in Africa and Asia succumbing to malnutrition and diseases account for nearly 80 percent of the death toll from climate change effects. Floods will cause most of the deaths from extreme weather.

    In contrast, by 2030 extreme weather will only moderately affect the United States and Canada, and most of Europe, the report stated. Nor are rising temperatures in these regions expected to bring a return of diseases like malaria, which is carried by warmth-loving mosquitoes, given the sophisticated public health systems in these countries.

    Health gains due to shorter, warmer winters will likely offset the few additional deaths from heat-related maladies or extreme weather in wealthier nations, according to the report. The changing climate might even increase northern latitude fish populations, bringing a 30 to 70 percent increase in catches, while tropical regions will see significant declines.

    Poorer countries may also not have the means to build the sea walls, dikes and other defenses against extreme weather that wealthy countries routinely deploy, and disparities in public health systems will also deepen inequities.

    In the Cook Islands, community leaders on the main island of Rarotonga are contemplating building a reservoir. "They started discussing at the community level that our rivers were drying up, and maybe there was a need to put up a reservoir," said Wragg.

    The United States, Wragg noted, "has a comfort zone." For example, regions can adapt far more readily to extreme weather and rising temperatures, which would lead to deaths and food shortages elsewhere. "You can really not feel what's happening," she said, adding that's one of the reasons some Americans doubt the magnitude of the threats of climate change.

    The United States is singular in the degree to which many political leaders express skepticism about the existence of climate change, or the role of humans in triggering it, said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow with the International Institute for Environment and Development in London. Huq served on an advisory panel for the report.

    A Pew Research Center poll, released in October, found that 38 percent of Republicans believe the planet is warming, compared with 79 percent of Democrats. And 24 percent of Republicans think it's a problem requiring government action, while 68 percent of Democrats stated such intervention is needed.

    "The U.S. is indeed the only country whose leadership in the legislature is so skeptical about the very science of human-induced climate change," said Huq. "Other countries accept the science, but balk at the actions needed to meet the challenge."

    But the nations already under siege have a physical threat they cannot ignore.

    Cook Island leaders are working to adapt to changing weather and sea conditions, said Maara Vaiimene, a meteorologist with the Cook Island Meteorological Service, who also joined the country's delegation to the U.N. climate negotiations in Cancun.

    Still, after witnessing increasing number of devastating cyclones in recent years that destroyed and damaged many structures and beaches in the Cook Islands, he's not certain how easily the country can adapt.

    "If the current weather we're experiencing now is going to continue for the next 20 years, it doesn't look very bright for the small island nations," Vaiimene said.

    The Climate Vulnerability Monitor details more than 50 measures for preventing most of the harm from climate change in coming decades, ranging from building sea walls, water storage facilities and weather monitoring stations to insect control and coastal restoration projects. But the report also warned that unless greenhouse gas emissions are reduced within the next few years, the effectiveness of these measures will drop sharply as extreme weather builds.

    At the climate summit, negotiators from more than 190 nations accepted an accord called the "Cancun Agreements."

    Although no binding global treaty for reducing emissions was reached, the agreement does include a pledge to achieve the goal set at last year's U.N. talks in Copenhagen to provide $30 billion in "fast start" financing by 2012 to help developing nations develop defenses against climate change. And by 2020, under the agreement $100 billion annually will be dispersed for this purpose.

    Suzanne Bohan covers science. Contact her at 510-262-2789. Follow her at Twitter.com/suzbohan.