Island nations used COP26 to once again emphasise not only the risks of climate change, but also potential solutions that could help save lives and livelihoods, Athaulla A Rasheed writes.
Despite the challenges to keep the 1.5 degrees Celsius target alive at the 26th meeting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) held in Glasgow this year, small island developing states (SIDS) have continued to promote international cooperation and climate security initiatives.
By analysing 18 statements from SIDS’ leaders from the Caribbean, Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Ocean and South China Sea at the opening of the high-level segment of COP26, a clear trend emerges in the policy narratives island nations used to promote international climate action.
Despite the efforts of larger actors like the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Canada and China, SIDS’ engagement in the ongoing debate has brought forward the existential nature of the climate crisis.
In particular, SIDS used COP26 to highlight their conceptions of the climate emergency, including its existential threat, loss and damage due to climate change impacts, and the need for increased financial commitments to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Perhaps most prominent narrative promoted by SIDS leaders at COP26 was that of urgency. Addressing climate change has been considered an urgent matter because it has created, in the words of the Seychelles, ‘an increasingly dire emergency that challenges all aspects of our chances for future survival…’
SIDS leaders regularly expressed the growing need for action through international cooperation, because SIDS alone cannot address the crisis – global action is needed for their survival.
This sense of urgency ties in quite closely with another major aspect put forward by SIDS delegations – the fact that climate change presents a genuine, near-term threat to their existence. Mauritius stated that rising sea levels ‘will cause tremendous damage and lead to massive displacement of people especially from low lying islands’.
Leaders regularly raised concerns for their survival. The Maldives described themselves as one of the many ‘low-lying countries that could disappear off the map because of the climate crisis’. Tuvalu described the ‘building [of] raised reclamation lands to preserve our physical existence as a viable state’ as being of the ‘utmost priority’. Antigua and Barbuda said that ‘our very existence now depends on urgent attention to our perilous situation’.
The urgency and threat narratives were neatly summed up in the phrase ‘1.5 to stay alive’. This campaign has been an integral part of SIDS’ climate discourse. As Fiji reiterated at COP26, meeting this target would ensure, ‘at the very least, that low-lying island nations and communities would survive’.
Achieving this goal, originally set at the Paris Agreement in 2015, remains a challenge. As Palau warned, ‘we are veering off the path of 1.5 degree warming limit’. Samoa also called attention to the fact that ‘even with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, SIDS will continue to incur severe loss and damage. Exceeding this will be catastrophic for us.’
With changes in climate, SIDS suffer the most — yet they have contributed least to the crisis. SIDS stepped up at COP26 in their commitments to address loss and damage caused by climate change. However, this is not a job that needs only their leadership; it requires support from larger actors and bigger emitters both for mitigation and to finance adaptation.
As the Seychelles explained, ‘the world must build a vision for a climate resilient future that puts adaptation and loss and damage at the centre of decision-making, and take immediate action now to protect people, the economy, and the environment’.
While funding for adaptation has been inadequate to cover the irreparable damages to island countries, the Alliance of Small Island States chair also called for the ‘phasing out of fossil fuel subsidies, scaled up and accessible adaptation and mitigation funding and a firm mechanism for loss and damage’.
In order to address the consequences of large nations emissions on small island countries, many SIDS underscored that international climate financing was vital. Leaders agreed that financing for climate action has been an important criterion to address climate change at both the national and global scale.
For SIDS, financing is also a matter of survival, and it is required to address existing and future loss and damage that potentially threaten their lands, infrastructure and livelihoods. Barbados declared that ‘failure to provide this critical finance and that of loss and damage is measured in lives and livelihoods being lost in our communities’.
Given the wealth disparity many island nations face on top of their emissions disparity, the vast majority of climate financing will have to come from larger states. Such is the track record of the major polluting powers, it would be understandable if one was pessimistic about the prospect of their tacking SIDS concerns seriously.
There is, however, some cause for hope. The United States–China joint declaration at COP26, recognising ‘the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis’, suggests some progress in climate security discourse as part of international diplomatic talks.
SIDS raised issues of insecurity and security at COP26 by showing how climate change has created high risks and posed potential threats to their survival. SIDS have continued to spotlight aspects of climate security – it is now time for world leaders to step up and keep their promises.
This article is based upon a paper published by ANU Department of Pacific Affairs (DPA) as part of its ‘In brief’ series. The original paper can be found here.