Climate Change and Conflict By Volker Boege  |  30 October, 2023

COP28, Peace and the Pacific Islands

Image: ssi77/

This is the first article in a new Global Outlook series which will be published in the lead-up to COP28, where we look at hopes, expectations and the reality of this year's COP meeting in Dubai.

COP28 (the 28th Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change) takes place from 30 November to 12 December in Dubai. As UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres put it, COP28 falls into the “era of global boiling”. He was commenting on official data confirming that July 2023 was the hottest month on record. (Meanwhile we have also now had the hottest August and the hottest September on record).

At the same time, he pointed to COP28 as an opportunity for decisive climate action. At COP28, the first Global Stocktake (GST) of the Paris Agreement is due, and the conference organisers have to admit that the GST will show that the world is “well off track” to reach the Paris goals.  To stage a COP in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the world’s seventh biggest oil producer, is somewhat ironic. All the more so as the COP President, Sultan Al Jaber, is the chief executive of the country’s national oil company, Adnoc, which is planning a massive expansion of its oil producing capacities – and this in times when there is general agreement that the world must halve greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions within this decade and must reach net zero emissions by 2050 in order to achieve the Paris Agreement’s goal of preventing temperatures rising more than 1.5 C.

The COP Presidency promises “the most inclusive COP ever”, with a plan of action focusing on fast-tracking the energy transition, transforming climate finance, and “putting nature, people, lives and livelihoods at the heart of climate action”. It remains to be seen whether these fine words will translate into tangible results. Experiences of previous COPs give reason for doubt and scepticism. Critical voices from the Global South have labelled COPs as “theaters of climate colonialism (led mainly by corporations, powerful governments, and elites)” where a “performance of diversion, delay, co-optation, and performativity without substance is repeated almost annually”. At the same time, however, COPs can also be sites of “decolonial, anti-colonial, anti-racist, and feminist politics (led primarily by activists, youth, Indigenous groups, academics, unions)”, providing “opportunities to challenge the system, to utter necessary words for more people to hear, collectivize among young and old activists, learn from different positionalities, create new openings and possibilities of alliances…”.

There might be openings to utilise COP28 in this way, given that in this year’s COP programme new cross-cutting themes and new action areas are included, such as health, frontline communities, and “relief, recovery and peace”, with 3 December designated as ‘Relief, Recovery, and Peace Day’.  This gives reason for the Toda Peace Institute to pay particular attention to COP28. The Institute will engage with COP28 through a series of pre-COP Global Outlook articles. It will follow discussions in Dubai closely, and it will take stock of outcomes post-COP. The fact that, for the first time, ‘peace’ has made it on to the COP agenda is welcome. Over the last years, the Toda Peace Institute has developed a workstream on climate change, conflict and peace, with a regional focus on the Pacific, cooperating with academic and civil society organisations from the region. Toda’s aim is to advance research, give policy advice, and support practitioners who work with communities affected by climate change and its conflict-prone effects, linking climate change adaptation and peacebuilding.

Representatives of governments and civil society from the small Pacific Island Countries (or better: big Pacific Ocean states) have always been very active at COPs, and have managed to punch well above their weight, making the voices of the Pacific people(s) heard loud and clear, urging the main GHG emitters to do more on mitigation, and demanding substantial support for adaptation. At last year’s COP, for example, they finally succeeded in achieving an agreement about a new financial mechanism for loss and damage. The expectation is that at this year’s COP this loss and damage fund will be operationalised, and the major GHG emitting countries will make substantial financial commitments.

Loss and damage is a major issue for the Pacific Island Countries (PICs). While their contribution to GHG emissions is tiny, they disproportionately suffer from the negative environmental, economic, social and cultural effects of the climate crisis and the loss and damage that comes with them. Sea level rise, coastal erosion, saltwater intrusion, ocean warming, increase of extreme weather events (cyclones, droughts and floods) challenge the lives and livelihoods of the people in the region. These effects threaten land security, food and water security, livelihood security and habitat security. Natural resources become degraded and scarce. The future of entire societies and countries becomes uncertain. Consequently, the regional organisation for the Pacific, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), in its Regional Security Declaration of 2018 (the Boe Declaration) stated that “climate change remains the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and wellbeing of the peoples of the Pacific”, and at the PIF meeting in 2022, Pacific leaders declared a ‘Climate Emergency’ for their region.

The security risks associated with climate change in the Pacific play out at different scales. While it is highly unlikely that there will be ‘climate wars’ or large-scale climate change induced domestic violent conflicts, there is conflict and violence in the local and everyday context, e.g., conflicts between and within communities over diminishing natural resources, in particular land, or water or fish. There are conflicts in the informal settlements of the few urban centres in the region between communities which, due to the effects of climate change, have moved in from different rural areas or different islands. Informal settlements are also the site of relatively high levels of crime and domestic and gender-based violence, which is also high in the aftermath of extreme weather events like cyclones and ensuing displacement. Finally, the national security – or even the very existence - of some low-lying atoll states (e.g., Tuvalu) is at risk.

Moreover, it has to be taken into account that Pacific Islanders have an expanded, holistic understanding of security, which also comprises ontological security or relational security. Over the last years, the Toda Peace Institute has worked together with partners from the Pacific to feed the specific Pacific understanding of the climate-conflict-peace-security nexus into the mainstream (‘Western’, ‘Northern’ or ‘international’) hegemonic discourse, starting with the Toda Pacific Declaration on Climate Change, Conflict and Peace  (2019), and has facilitated dialogue between mainstream international thinking about climate and peace and Pacific approaches, only recently at a workshop about ‘The Pacific and its Peoples in a Changing Climate: Pasifika Wisdom and Relational Security’.

In the context of the ‘Relief, Recovery and Peace’ and ‘Frontline Communities’ themes, it is encouraging to see that COP28 will address several of the issues of special importance for Pacific Islanders (e.g., ‘human mobility and displacement’, ‘adaptation and climate resilience in low lying islands’, ‘accelerating climate action to countries and communities facing multifaceted crisis’). This opens avenues for dialogue between various stakeholders to which Pacific Islanders have a lot to contribute. Pacific Islanders are determined to leave “no stone unturned” to make the Pacific voice heard at COP28. It is to be expected that the Islanders’ call for a fossil-fuel free future will not go down well with the host of COP, head of the UAE’s national oil company.

Related articles in the COP28 series:

PCC at COP28: Advocating for phasing out fossil fuels, funding for loss and damage, and peace (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)


Volker Boege is Senior Research Fellow at Toda Peace Institute.