Climate Change and Conflict By James Bhagwan  |  20 December, 2023

COP28 Offers Too Little of an “Oasis" for AOSIS in a Desert of Climate Justice

Image: mtcurado/iStock


The desert dust of Dubai is slowly settling as we reflect on the outcomes of COP28 in the United Arab Emirates. 

What does the “Dubai Consensus” actually mean for Pacific Small Island Developing States and the communities that they represent? The fact that the so-called consensus was gavelled before AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States, even entered the plenary session or were able to make their intervention, was indicative of a COP, where the “F” words of “Fossil Fuel” were always going to be a contentious issue.

While the early adoption of and pledges to a Loss and Damage fund were welcome news, the expected celebration of this decision was tempered by the understanding that there was still much work to be done on the management of the fund, access to the funding by the most vulnerable and least responsible states and communities, and the process of how non-economic loss and damages were to be calculated in a manner that maintained dignity and values of affected communities. However, from the outset, Pacific island countries made their position clear, as has been clear since the Paris agreement was reached at COP21 in 2015: world’s average temperature should not exceed that of preindustrial times by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius in order to avoid the more extreme and irreversible climate effects. The slogan, “1.5 to stay alive” by Pacific countries has been at successive COPs since Paris. This year, 1.5 was the “red line” for Pacific Small Island Developing States. No ifs, no buts. 

Pacific churches have continued to support this stand by our governments, on behalf of the people of the Pacific, consistently saying that money for adaptation and loss and damage without concrete solutions on mitigation (the phase out of fossil fuels) is “blood money”. This year at COP28 saw the coming together of Pacific governments, church, civil society and activists to maintain the position, or “hold the line” of “1.5 to stay alive,” through an urgent and just transition away from fossil fuels, and serious new money in both adaptation and loss and damage funding, including non-economic loss and damage. 

The final text on the Global Stock Take (GST), on where we are as a planet since the Paris Agreement was reached eight years ago and what needs to be done, had only the simple mention of fossil fuels. While significant, this pales in comparison to the loopholes that surround the transition. There was an acknowledgement of strong references to the science. It was complemented by a clear runway with milestones for strengthening efforts by countries to prepare and submit enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions through to 2025 and the establishment of the technology implementation programme. However, the decisions fell short of the “red line” for the 39 small island developing states of AOSIS that are disproportionally affected by climate change. In gavelling a compromised text calling for a voluntary, non-binding “transition” away from fossil fuels—with no commitments, no timetables, not one enforceable step forward—COP28 failed to deliver what AOSIS called “course correction” of an “exponential step-change in our actions and support,” choosing instead to maintain business as usual. According to AOSIS, the result of COP28 is a step backwards. 

However, what was significant is that during the two weeks of COP28, some fossil fuel-producing countries endorsed the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty Initiative. Timor L’este, on the peripheries of our Pacific, and Columbia, which extracts both coal and oil, joined the growing number of countries that are committing to a just transition from fossil fuelled economies in response to the impact of climate change on small island states, as well as on their own communities. By the end of COP28, a total of 12 countries had already endorsed the fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty initiative, and an increasing number of countries continue to use language that could be seen as affirming the campaign.

Pope  Frances’  encyclical Laudate Deum, interestingly released in the lead up to  COP28, and the first time a follow-up encyclical has ever been produced to an existing document (2015's Laudato Si) as well as his message as a head of state (the Vatican) to the COP28 Plenary in Dubai, called for the end of the fossil fuel era. The Vatican is currently reviewing the documents around the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, with a view to a possible endorsement. This will be quite significant when it happens as it represents not just a state, but one of the largest religious groups in the world. 

Faith and religious groups continue to have an interesting dynamic at COPs. A “Faith Pavilion,” was set up during COP28 (at the cost of approximately $1.5 million according to organisers) and funded by U.N. Environmental Program, the Muslim Council of Elders, the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, the Episcopal Diocese of California and dozens of other faith-based groups. It was the result of a vast interfaith movement that is focused on climate change response, including backing for a Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty. For the duration of COP28, the Pavilion served as an innovative and inclusive space that nurtured interfaith engagement and cooperation for climate action. Apart from a space for reflection, the Faith Pavilion hosted panels on topics ranging from climate justice for indigenous communities, environmental restoration initiatives, loss and damage, feminist and youth leadership in the climate movement, to green finance.

The interfaith call issued at COP28 echoed the discussions in the Faith Pavilion, calling policy and decision makers to:

  • Prioritize a just transition to a green economy
  • Adopt the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty
  • Prioritize the protection of species and ecosystems in climate negotiations
  • Provide new and sustained funding and new forms of access to the Green Climate Fund
  • Extend and diversify funding for a just and inclusive access to the Loss and Damage Fund

For a region that is deeply spiritual, the Pacific Conference of Churches’ (PCC) presence at COP28 extended beyond the Faith Pavilion. PCC provided pastoral support to Pacific Delegates and AOSIS negotiators, participated in bilaterals, particularly with the Vatican on the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty, and joined activists in actions challenging the COP28 Presidency and leaders to ensure we maintained “1.5 to stay alive,” and for representatives of most affected countries to “hold the line” on the demands for a funded, fair, fast and “forever” phase out of fossil fuels. 

With a disappointing result from COP28, the Fossil Fuel Non-Proliferation Treaty initiative, and the seeking of an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on climate change and human rights—which have been led by the Pacific—are signs that a growing number of countries are seeing extra-UNFCCC processes as solutions and ways to move forward in the ongoing stalemate of COPs. This needs to be recognised as more than just frustration about a three-decade process that has had very little success in addressing the Climate Crisis, but as an innovative approach by those most at risk. It is a sign of hope and defiance of the status quo that shows, in the words of the Pacific Climate Warriors, “We are not drowning! We are fighting!” In the desert of climate justice in Dubai, this is the only blue oasis we of the Pacific have. 


Related articles in the COP28 series:

COP, peace and the Pacific Islands (3-minute read)

A loss and damage fund in the Pacific? (3-minute read)

Between a rock and a hard place (3-minute read)

This is not climate justice: The Australia–Tuvalu Falepili Union (3-minute read)

COP and the unaccounted loss and damage for Pacific Youth (3-minute read)

A new Pacific Diplomacy for COP28 (3-minute read)

Building Peace Amidst Climate Challenges: Insights from Conciliation Resources (3-minute read)


James Bhagwan is the General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches.