WITH their turquoise water and swaying coconut palms, the Carteret Islands north-east of the Papua New Guinea mainland might seem the idyllic spot for castaways.
But sea levels have risen so much that during the high tide season, between November and March, the waves block the view from one island to the next and residents hang their possessions in fishing nets between the palm trees.
"It gives you the scary feeling that you don't know what is going to happen to you, that any minute you will be floating," Ursula Rakova, the head of a scheme to relocate residents said.
The small chain could be uninhabitable by 2015 say locals, but two previous attempts to abandon it ended badly when residents were chased back after clashes with new neighbours on larger islands.
The situation underlies the thorny debate over the world's responsibilities to the millions of people likely to be displaced by climate change. There could be 200 million of these climate refugees by 2050, according to a paper by the International Organisation for Migration.
Aside from the South Pacific, low-lying areas likely to be hit first include Bangladesh and nations in the Indian Ocean, where the leader of the Maldives has begun seeking a safe haven for his 300,000 people.
Landlocked areas may also be affected. Some experts call the Darfur region of Sudan – where nomads battle villagers in a war over shrinking natural resources – the first significant conflict linked to climate change.
Last week the UN General Assembly adopted the first resolution linking climate change to international peace and security. The hard-fought resolution, brought by 12 Pacific island states, says that climate change warrants greater attention from the United Nations as a possible source of upheaval worldwide and calls for more intense efforts to combat it. While all Pacific island states are expected to lose land, some made up entirely of atolls, like Tuvalu and Kiribati, face possible extinction.
"For the first time in history, you could actually lose countries off the face of the globe," said Stuart Beck, the permanent representative for the Pacific island of Palau at the United Nations.
The issue has inspired intense wrangling, with some nations accusing the islanders of both exaggerating the unknown consequences of climate change.
"We don't consider climate change is an issue of security that properly belongs in the Security Council," said Maged A Abdelaziz, the Egyptian ambassador. "It is an issue of how to prevent certain lands, or certain countries, from being flooded."
The non-binding compromise resolution does not mention such specific strategies. It calls for a report by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon next year "on the possible security implications of climate change".
Scientific studies distributed by the United Nations or affiliated agencies paint rising seas as a threat. A 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, detailing shifts expected in the South Pacific, said rising seas would worsen flooding and erosion and threaten towns and infrastructure. Some fresh water will turn salty, and fishing and agriculture will suffer, it said.
The small island states are not alone in considering the looming threat. A policy paper released this month by Australia's defence ministry suggests possible violent outcomes in the Pacific. It said while Australia should try to mitigate humanitarian suffering, the country should use its military "to deal with any threats".
A policy paper titled 'Our Drowning Neighbours' said Australia should help form a coalition to address the issue. Political debates have erupted there and in New Zealand over immigration quotas for climate refugees.
The sentiment among Pacific islanders suggests that they do not want to abandon their homes or be absorbed into cultures where indigenous people already struggle for acceptance.
"It is about much more than just finding food and shelter," said Tarita Holm, an analyst with the Palauan Ministry of Resources and Development. "It is about your identity."
Rakova, on the Carteret Islands, echoes that sentiment. A year ago, her proposed relocation effort attracted just three families out of a population of around 2,000. But after last season's high tides, she is asking for about 1 million to help some 750 people relocate before the tides come again.