Leaders of 11 nations whose very existence is threatened by climate change called on the developed world today to set aside at least 1.5 percent of its gross domestic product to help them and other developing nations adapt.
They also urged world leaders meeting in Copenhagen next month to create a legal framework to protect what they fear will be a growing number of climate refugees.
"For us, climate change is no distant or abstract threat; but a clear and present danger to our survival," Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed said at the first gathering of the newly-formed Climate Vulnerable Forum.
"We are not responsible for the hundreds of years of carbon emissions, which are cooking the planet. But the dangers climate change poses to our countries means that this crisis can no longer be considered somebody else's problem.
"For all of us gathered here today, inaction is not an option."
The Maldives and other nations represented at the forum — Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Nepal, Rwanda, Tanzania and Vietnam — are already suffering the consequences in the form of rising sea levels, melting glaciers and droughts that put them among the most endangered nations on the planet.
Nasheed formed the Climate Vulnerable Forum to give those nations a voice.
"I make this pledge today: We will not die quietly," he said.
At their first meeting this week, the group signed a declaration to be presented at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen.
The declaration calls for developed countries to contribute 1.5 percent of their GDP annually by 2015 in the form of predictable, transparent grant-based financing. The financing agreement "should prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable countries, especially in the near term," the members wrote.
The vulnerable nations also promise to assume a moral leadership role by immediately beginning to green their own economies toward a goal of carbon neutrality — and they urge everyone else to aim for carbon neutrality, as well. Last week, the Maldives announced plans for a wind farm to provide 40 percent of its electricity needs.
Their actions alone won't be enough to save all their people, though. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea have already had to evacuate. In all last year, an estimated 20 million people were at least temporarily displaced by climate-related natural disasters, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
To help these displaced people, the declaration calls for support for climate refugees, protection of human rights and preservation of national sovereignty as climate change worsens.
Currently, people displaced by rising sea levels, droughts or other effects of climate change don't qualify for UN refugee status, which covers people "persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." Instead, climate refugees are considered either migrants, meaning they moved voluntarily, or internally displaced people. Neither qualifies for the level of protection and assistance provided to refugees.
The vulnerable nations called on world leaders meeting in Copenhagen to create "a legal framework to protect the human rights of those left stateless as a result of climate change."
"Anthropogenic climate change poses an existential threat to our nations, our cultures and to our way of life, and thereby undermines the internationally-protected human rights of our people – including the right to sustainable development, right to life, the right to self-determination and the right of a people not to be deprived of its own means of subsistence, as well as principles of international law that oblige all states to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other states or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction," they wrote.
Other groups of developing nations have issued similar declarations with the goal of being heard at the Copenhagen conference:
• The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) Declaration, released at September's UN climate summit in New York, calls for an "urgent and significant scaling up" of financial assistance and investment in developing nations, plus a package of mitigation actions that can keep global temperatures from rising 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and return atmospheric CO2 levels to 350 ppm.
• The African Common Position also focuses on financial assistance, and meetings of African leaders to discuss climate change issues have helped the continent speak with an increasingly forceful voice. At last week's international climate talks in Barcelona, the African nations staged a walk-out in protest of the weak CO2 reduction pledges by wealthy nations.
While some members of the Climate Vulnerable Forum also fall under those declarations, as a group of countries already feeling the effects of climate change, they have more in common — and they have compelling stories to tell that could help turn public opinion their way.
During the two-day meeting in the Maldives, Bangladesh's foreign minister, Dipu Moni, described how damage from erratic flooding, cyclones and drought had sapped her nation's development budget.
"The interruptions caused by climate change have eroded our development gains made in previous decades; slowed down the attainment of MDGs [Millennium Development Goals]; threatens our food security by affecting sustainable agricultural production; and challenges climate sensitive programs in areas such as water resources, agriculture, health, energy, urban planning, tourism, and disaster risk reduction," Moni said.
By 2050, 20 million people in Bangladesh will likely need to be relocated due to climate change, she told the group. A one meter rise in sea level would inundate 30 percent of the country, directly affecting 40 million people.
In Nepal, melting Himalayan glaciers have already affected the human habitat in the low land, Nepal Environment Minister Thakur P. Sharma said in a speech to the forum. The melting has caused more floods and landslides and has changed the rainfall pattern, and droughts have become more pronounced, affecting agriculture.
"We are not responsible for climate change, but we are greatly affected by it, Sharma said.
Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga, described another danger. In a letter read to the forum, he explained how prolonged drought had created food shortages, forced water rationing and reduced the country's hydro power generation, about 70 percent of its power.
"And as if this was not disaster enough, we are now experiencing heavy rains that are causing floods and death of people and animals. At this rate we shall have crop damage which will compromise our food security," he said. "The implications on economic performance are obvious."
Representatives from Europe, China and the United States sat in on the meeting as observers. With progress on an international climate treaty still slow, many of developed nations, as well as UN officials, have ratcheted down their expectations for the Copenhagen conference.
However, Nasheed, who has gone so far as to hold a Maldives Cabinet meeting underwater to draw attention to climate change, has not.
"I refuse to believe that it is too late, and that we cannot do any better," he said. "Copenhagen is our date with destiny."
(Photos: Forum by Mauroof Khaleel/Maldives Office of the President; Kiribati waves by Greenpeace)