On the front line of climate change, the people of the Pacific Islands are desperately looking for higher ground. Adam Morton reports from Kiribati.
When a coconut tree dies the decay starts at the top. The leaves fall, then the fruit. All that is left is a desiccated trunk, cut off at half-mast. In areas flooded with seawater, dead palms resemble tidal gauges, the high water mark visible on their stranded remains.
They're plentiful in Tebunginako, a tiny village on an outer island of the Pacific republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas).
Over 40 years the villagers have seen the sea rise, storm surges become more frequent and spring tides more forceful. The erosion was so great that the village was abandoned. What's left of a hundred thatched homes and a community meeting hall, or maneabe, sits 30 metres offshore.
''The contamination of the groundwater started in the late '70s, and after that erosion started and houses started to fall into the sea,'' recalls Aata Maroieta, 64, the village chief.
''The force of erosion was stronger than the sea walls, and eventually the Government said 'all you can do is relocate'.''
It's a phrase 98,000 native i-Kiribati are getting used to. President Anote Tong has long warned Tebunginako, on the island of Abaiang, is only the start, that unless greenhouse gas emissions are cut and countries such as Kiribati receive international finance to adapt, they would be forced from their homeland.
''We would like to be able to build up the islands and remain here for the next century at least,'' Tong tells the Herald. Possible? That will depend on international aid. ''There is no way we can do it on our own, and I think that we deserve and we demand that the international community come to the party.''
A member of the Alliance of Small Island States, Kiribati is fighting for a deal at the Copenhagen climate summit next month that no one pretends is attainable: a cut in emissions of at least 45 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020 to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. But, as Tong concedes, a temperature rise of this order is all but inevitable. Kiribati has its hand out for billions of dollars from countries it says are responsible for climate change.
At Tebunginako the money might help with another relocation. The village was rebuilt about 15 years ago, 50 metres from the shore, but it wasn't far enough. Each day at high tide a handful of houses, a dishevelled Catholic church and giant concrete maneabe are surrounded by a saltwater moat where a fresh water pond once lay.
Like the coast, the food supply is in retreat. The freshwater milkfish that once fed the village are long gone, and plant life is dying from the salt. Taro - a starchy vegetable that grows in groundwater pits more than 200 metres from the coast - is killed by king tides.
Each year villagers need to head further inland to find fresh food and water, but Kiribati's 33 coral atolls and islands are skinny and average a height above sea level of only two metres. Inland goes back only so far.
''It is very difficult to find food these days,'' Maroieta says.
''It makes us feel sad that there is nothing left of our village. This is the place of our ancestors and we feel threatened and vulnerable.''
Climate change is not Tebunginako's only blight. A geological survey suggests the coast has moved 80 metres since 1964, in part due to a shifting sand bulge. But scientists say the relentless erosion cannot be divorced from global warming either.
Short-term readings of sea-level rise are problematic due to large year-to-year variation, in part caused by events such as El Nino, which typically causes a large rise, and La Nina (a smaller rise, or decrease).
The Australian National Tidal Centre reports that sea levels in Kiribati have averaged a rise of 3.7 millimetres a year since 1992. Work on behalf of the Kiribati Government suggests the rise is genuine - the main atoll of Tarawa, at least, is not sinking. But incrementally rising seas are only part of the story. Far more damaging are the extreme events that come with them.
In Australia a 20 centimetre rise is estimated to increase the number of extreme seas by a factor of 10. A 50 centimetre rise - now considered a conservative projection for this century unless emissions are curbed - is projected to bring about a 300-fold increase. John Hunter, a sea-level researcher at the University of Tasmania, says it is reasonable to think the effect in the Pacific - where data collection and analysis is under way - will be similar.
What might that mean? According to a World Bank report this decade, Kiribati's capital of Tarawa - where nearly half the population lives - will be severely inundated by mid-century. This is where US Marines came ashore 66 years ago this week, confronting determined and entrenched Japanese. After less than a week of fighting, nearly 1000 Americans and more than 4000 Japanese and Koreans were dead.
The world will go to extraordinary lengths to secure an out of the way Pacific speck when it suits the powerful.
If this battle is not won, Tarawa will be unlivable. Groundwater supplies would be poisoned, already limited arable land destroyed and disease rampant. Says Tong: ''We might be on the front line at this point in time, but others will be on the front line next. Is it going to be survival of the fittest? I think we are more human than that. I'm sure there must be more compassion in this world than there would seem to be.''
In Opposition Labor pledged a resettlement plan for climate refugees but has been silent on details. A spokeswoman for the Climate Change Minister, Penny Wong, says climate aid programs - including $150 million in last year's budget - are focused on building community resilience, but acknowledges permanent migration may eventually be the only option for some people. The issue will need to be dealt with by regional governments.
Tong says there has been little response from Australia and New Zealand to his requests for a long-term plan, although other leaders have been more immediately accommodating. ''The president of East Timor said 'we might be able to accommodate some of your people,''' Tong says.
On the ground many villagers have little or no understanding of climate change, but say they know they are witnessing a shift - not only increasingly intrusive seas, but stronger, less predictable winds and more intense heat.
''The average i-Kiribati certainly thinks it's getting hotter,'' says Emil Shutz, a former government minister who now runs tours for the country's few recreational visitors. ''Ten years ago they could fish all day in a tinnie, but not any more - it is just too hot.''
There are parts of Kiribati where you can't see the water. But the threat of climate change is ubiquitous. The first thing you see on landing are the sandbags that fail to stop tides from flooding the only airstrip. The hospital is regularly inundated.
A former British colony, Kiribati is light on infrastructure. Straddling the equator, with islands sprinkled across ocean roughly the size of Australia, the former Gilbert Islands comprise one of the world's poorest nations. One in four adults is in paid work, yet migration to Tarawa from outer islands has surged. The capital is overcrowded, hygiene is poor and health programs under siege.
Albert Ientau, 60, has lived on the water's edge in Abarao village since 1982. He has continually rebuilt his sea wall. He went drinking a few years back and, on his return, there was no house. ''I thought I was seeing things.''
A retired driver for Mobil, his attitude is a mix of pragmatism and gallows humour. If carbon dioxide emissions aren't reduced, he says, the land will continue to sink and ''we will be moving''.