By James Regan
NEWCASTLE, Australia, Oct 17 (Reuters) - Hundreds of protesters on Friday joined environmental activists from a dozen South Pacific countries attempting to halt shipping at the world's largest coal export terminal in eastern Australia by forming a blockade with canoes, surfboards and kayaks.
The action at the entrance to the Port of Newcastle briefly interrupted ships heading to open waters under a police marine escort but failed to bring any coal vessels to a halt.
Nonetheless, organisers from the 350.Org environmental group said it underscored concerns that the burning of coal mined in Australia was having devastating effects in the South Pacific.
Some experts say climate change will cause rising sea levels and higher tides that will swamp lower-lying Pacific islands and present other challenges such as coral bleaching and an increase in storms and cyclones.
"This is important today because we are here to highlight the effects of climate change across our islands," said George Nacewa, a 350.Org activist from Fiji.
"We are not willing to drown because of climate change. We are trying to change the narrative from 'we are drowning' to 'we are not drowning, we are fighting'."
Newcastle handles more than 4,000 ship movements annually, more than 90 percent loaded with coal from the nearby mines of BHP Billiton,, Rio Tinto , Glencore and others.
Calling themselves the Pacific Climate Warriors, the demonstrators chanted Methodist hymns before boarding traditional canoes to block shipping lanes leading from the port. They were joined by others on surfboards and kayaks. The flotilla was quickly flanked by police on jet skis and in motor boats as a tanker was shepherded out to sea by three tugboats.
There were no arrests.
Milan Loeak, a 26-year-old from the Marshall Islands and daughter of the President of the Marshall Islands Chris Loeak, said her islands were already feeling the impacts.
"I've seen my people and my islands suffer the impacts of climate change through droughts and floods from high tides," said Loeak.
Up to a third of Australia's coal sector is running at a loss, yet collieries are flooding countries such as China and Japan with millions of tonnes of coking coal used to make steel and thermal coal to generate power.
Australia, which relies on coal-fired power stations for electricity, has the world's highest carbon emissions per capita and tens of thousands of workers are employed in collieries and whole towns rely on mines for their livelihood.
More than half the world's steel-making coal, worth A$40 billion a year, comes from Australia.
Australia's conservative government in July repealed a tax that had forced around 300 of the country's biggest emitters to pay for their CO2 emissions.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, opening a new BHP coal mine last week, declared coal was "good for humanity" and vital to the world.
"We are a rich country and should be putting more money into renewable energies," said Meg Leathart, an Australian attending the protest. "Tony Abbott is pulling us back 50-100 years." (Editing by Michael Perry)
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