Climate Change and Conflict By Volker Boege  |  04 December, 2021

Pacific Voices Loud and Clear at COP26

Photo credit: Flexd Design/Shutterstock

Only a few Pacific Islanders made it to Glasgow in November 2021 for COP26. Out of the approximately 30,000 conference attendees, only about 140 were from Pacific Island Countries (PICs). Due to COVID-19 restrictions, both government delegations and civil society representation were considerably smaller than at previous COPs. Civil society representatives strongly criticised that “barriers for participation have been far higher at this COP than in previous years, in part due to travel restrictions linked to the Covid-19 pandemic”, with additional challenges “in the form of a very restrictive visa regime in the UK, which has been particularly restrictive to individuals coming from outside Europe and North America”; some even suspected that COVID-19 was deliberately used as a political instrument to prevent access.

However, despite the small numbers, Pacific Islanders made their voices heard loud and clear. They certainly managed to operate and influence proceedings well beyond the small size of their delegations. The world has to take note of the plight of PICs, as they are most severely affected by climate change, with hardly any responsibility for it. In fact, as the Samoan Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa pointed out, “while contributing less than 0.06% to the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the Pacific [countries] are on the frontlines of climate change and are amongst the most vulnerable to its impact”.   

This situation gives Pacific Islanders a strong moral authority, and Pacific COP26 participants made use of it. Again and again, they stressed the devastating, even life-threatening effects of climate change on their peoples and home countries and pointed the finger at those actors outside of their region who are responsible, demanding decisive action to reduce carbon emissions and support PICs in their efforts to adapt to the current and future effects of climate change. Those PIC leaders who made it to Glasgow – the Prime Ministers of Fiji and Tuvalu and the President of Palau – communicated this message powerfully, supported by other Pacific leaders who joined the conference online from their home countries. The General Secretary of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), Henry Puna, speaking on behalf of the 18  PIF member states, reminded conference delegates of the fact that “our islands, our ocean, our people already face the devastating impacts of climate change including rising seas, king tides and ravaging cyclones”. Consequently, PIF leaders “recognise climate change as the single greatest threat to our region”.

Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama criticised those who are still not willing to act on climate change and therefore bear the brunt of responsibility for the desperate situation Pacific peoples find themselves in. He said: “Humanity doesn’t lack the resources, technology, projects or innovative potential (…), all that’s missing is the courage to act, the courage to choose our grandchildren’s future over shareholder greed and corporate carbon agreement interests”, and he condemned “a collision of carbon addicts who would rather fight for coal than for a future of good jobs and innovative  industries created by climate ambition. These leaders make pledges but won’t show us plans. They even seek to spin the science, but we cannot let them write out the urgency of accelerating action. Clean coal, sustainable natural gas, and ethical oil are all figments of the selfish mind”. (Without naming names, the Australian government can easily be identified as a target of this criticism).

Tuvalu’s Prime Minister Kausea Natano reinforced the point that the climate crisis “is the single greatest threat to Pacific livelihoods” and urgently called “on major emitters to take stronger climate action”. He highlighted the need for stronger commitments regarding funding for climate adaptation, in particular demanding a new additional funding mechanism for loss and damage, arguing that even with future progress in combatting climate change the PICs will inevitably suffer from severe climate change-induced loss and damage.

This issue was a priority concern of Pacific leaders at COP26. The President of Palau, Surangel Whipps Jr., said: “We the islands that are devastated most, demand that your commitment of 100 billion annually be increased to meet the four trillion dollars the World Bank reports is needed with substantial shares of climate financing to support costly adaptation needs”. Other Pacific leaders echoed these demands for more adaptation funding, criticising that the commitment of 100 billion USD per year has not been met yet – funds desperately needed by PICs for adaptation. Mark Brown, the Prime Minister of the Cook Islands,  reminded “the larger development Parties at COP to meet this commitment” because “the ability of countries like the Cook Islands to adapt hinges on the promise of the USD 100 billion commitment”. Moreover, the “Cook Islands seeks a new commitment that dedicates financing towards Loss and Damage that would assist our vulnerable communities to manage the transfer of risks experienced by the irreversible impacts of climate change”. The Vanuatu delegate also made the point that “loss and damage is here and now, and the UNFCCC mechanisms are not delivering”; he explained that one of the top priorities of his country is “to see a standalone Loss & Damage Finance Facility to address the annual levels of catastrophic loss and damage from climate extremes and slow-onset events”.

Pacific delegates were the leading force on this issue and struggled hard at COP26 to initiate such a Loss and Damage Finance Facility. Fiji and Tuvalu put forward a loss and damage finance proposal, and they managed to get the support of the G77 group of developing countries. After hard work behind the scenes, the proposal got the approval of all delegations – except the USA and Canada which said ‘no’. Hence, at the end,  the “final decision text resolved to lay the groundwork for the provision of loss and damage financing without setting up a Glasgow Loss and Damage Finance Facility as proposed by a huge alliance of impacted countries”. This was hugely disappointing for PIC delegations. For them, the loss and damage issue is at the heart of climate justice. Not to forget the non-economic cultural and spiritual loss and damage which comes with the destruction of one’s homes and forced displacement and relocation, given the strong spiritual connection between place and people in a Pacific social-cultural context.

This role of Pacific spirituality was emphasised by Iemaima Va’ai, Ecumenical Enabler of Ecological Stewardship and Climate Justice from the Pacific Conference of Churches (PCC), and Reverend James Bhagwan, PCC’s General Secretary, who both attended the conference. They criticised the secularised, human-centric agenda which dominates the climate change discourse in general and COPs in particular. Together with other faith-based organisations, civil society actors, and representatives of indigenous communities, they put forward non-mainstream alternatives, using a broad variety of conference side events.

So, while there is a lot to be disappointed about from a Pacific perspective regarding the outcome of COP26, there is this important reason for optimism: Youth from the Pacific figure prominently and were a powerful voice, making it very clear to world leaders that they have not given up the fight. The young Samoan climate activist Brianna Fruean, who at the opening ceremony of COP26 spoke immediately after the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, declared: “We are not just victims of this crisis, we have been resilient beacons of hope. Pacific youth have rallied behind the cry ‘we are not drowning, we are fighting’ – this is our warrior cry to the world”.

Volker Boege is Toda Peace Institute's Senior Research Fellow for Climate Change and Conflict. Dr. Boege has worked extensively in the areas of peacebuilding and resilience in the Pacific region. He works on post-conflict peacebuilding, hybrid political orders and state formation, non-Western approaches to conflict transformation, environmental degradation and conflict, with a regional focus on Oceania.