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International Climate Plans Must Recognize the Plight of Small Island Nations

Image depicts Simon Kofe, Tuvalus's representative to COP26, delivering a pre-recorded speech in knee-high water.
Image depicts Simon Kofe, Tuvalus's representative to COP26, delivering a pre-recorded speech in knee-high water. Via Ministry of Justice, Communication and Foreign Affairs, Tuvalu Government

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, otherwise known as COP26, the United Kingdom welcomed leaders from across the globe to discuss the pressing issue of climate change. The event kicked off with President Biden stating that addressing environmental issues was a “‘moral’ and ‘economic’ imperative.” Celebrity and avid naturalist David Attenborough stated that “we are already in trouble.” Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked many attendees by promising to have India reach net zero emissions by 2070.

The renewed efforts to combat climate change came after the Covid-19 pandemic emphasized the importance of monitoring our relationship with our environment. Furthermore, COP26 was marked by an atmosphere of activism, with many young people pushing world leaders to take substantive action against climate change. Hundreds of protestors gathered in Glasgow throughout the conference to host demonstrations against corporate “greenwashing.” As the negotiations progressed, one major group of nations sought greater representation in the talks: Small Island Developing States (SIDS), a collective term used to describe small island countries across the world. SIDS generate just 1.5 percent of the world’s emissions; however, they face the greatest risks from climate change. And while SIDS stand to lose the most from rising carbon emissions, they have historically received little attention from the international community and the media and have worked to form collective alliances and conferences to discuss issues relevant to them. Future COP conferences will do nothing except further cement the climate crisis unless they focus on, and give voices to, the countries that stand to lose the most.

As many SIDS lie only a few meters above sea level, increases in sea levels and storms due to climate change can be a death sentence. Tuvalu, for example, lies just three meters above sea level and is home to 11,000 people. It is estimated to become uninhabitable in 50 to 100 years. In Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, 40 percent of existing buildings are at risk from rising sea levels. When Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, it caused approximately 3.4 billion dollars of damage and killed 100 people, making it unlike any hurricane the island has faced in 30 years. This comes as the intensity and frequency of storms is expected to worsen as a result of climate change. The planet is also projected to surpass a temperature increase of 2.7 degrees Celsius despite the Paris Climate Accords intended limit of 1.5 degrees. The current conditions experienced by SIDS are already worsening, and there is little indication of this trend changing given the expected temperature rise and lack of commitment from developed countries.

Furthermore, the traditional structure of the climate negotiations will allow false promises on behalf of developed countries to continue. The United Nations facilitates climate conferences like COP26 in an effort to promote global cooperation and strengthen commitments to fighting climate change. In between giving speeches to attendees and announcing new initiatives, leaders will meet to agree on common goals. Participation in this process, however, relies on political representation that SIDS lack due to their small populations. To remedy this, these states banded together and formed the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). Yet, there are still shortcomings. A third of Pacific SIDS did not attend this year’s COP26 largely due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, and those attending had “thin” negotiating teams.

More recently, developed nations and the United Nations have made major efforts to spotlight the experiences of SIDS. Marshallese poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner was invited to deliver a poem in 2015 on the questionable survival of her country. At this year’s conference, Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Narendra Modi worked with leaders from SIDS to announce the Infrastructure for Resilient Island States (IRIS) Initiative and create structural defenses against rising sea levels. Yet, there are still concerns of empty promises. While imploring additional action against climate change from large countries, Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said that they “might as well bomb our islands.” And although President Biden promised $3 billion per year by 2024 to help developing countries adapt to climate change, many developed countries made a similar promise over a decade ago, pledging to mobilize $100 billion to assist poorer countries—a promise which has largely remained unfulfilled.

In order to sustainably combat climate change, the United Nations must adopt a new framework that prioritizes impacted countries over the developed world. The concept of “Loss and Damage” provides one example of how SIDS can demand recognition of their disproportionate experiences. Loss and Damage was a concept first introduced by Vanuatu in 1991 as a possible way to compensate victims of rising sea levels. The UN would establish an insurance pool of money to ensure that the most vulnerable developing countries would receive support. The contributions of each country would be proportional to the percentage of their global carbon emissions. Loss and Damage was eventually officially recognized in a UN climate agreement in 2013 through the Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage. While the concept received recognition 22 years after it was first proposed, there are still many unanswered questions preventing its complete implementation. There has been little discussion about the question of attribution and how the UN could determine which countries could be held responsible for a crisis. One must also consider the political risks of being held “liable,” and the imprecise nature of climate science are added difficulties. For instance, while the United States supports the idea of Loss and Damage, its hesitations arise from language regarding compensation. Responsible countries are required to adhere to the original proportionality of Loss and Damage, to alleviate the burden of SIDS and create an incentive to reduce emissions. Special attention must be given to the concept of Loss and Damage to answer its ambiguous questions and ensure that SIDS have a financial framework to receive due reparations. 

At the same time, restructuring climate finance has also arisen as a solution to help SIDS receive more bargaining power in the negotiations process. One such idea has been debt-for-climate swaps. Here’s how they would work: Assume that a small island nation has been hit by a tsunami that has ravaged its infrastructure but has little money to rebuild. Using a debt-for-climate swap, the island could have its debt written off or discounted and instead make payments in local currency to finance domestic climate projects. While the idea has promise for allowing developing nations to raise capital and support green growth, it has only been attempted on a limited basis. In the early 2000s, both Georgia and the Kyrgyz Republic attempted to establish a swap with each other. Negotiating an agreement for a swap is an arduous task because both governments must agree to a litany of terms and feel they are receiving an attractive deal. As a result, the swap between the two failed. Nevertheless, it is a tool that could allow SIDS to avoid dealing with debt from increasingly erratic weather events. In fact, while the debt in developing countries fell by 6.2 percent between 2000 and 2019, it rose for SIDS by 24 percent. It’s this same debt which reduces the money available for projects in sustainable development, climate change adaptation, and disaster risk reduction. Further exploration of how debt-for-climate swaps can be developed more effectively would allow SIDS to have an influential financial tool that gives them an advantage in the climate talks.

The clock is ticking for SIDS around the world. With the recent close of COP26, leaders of the developed world must ensure that they are listening to the voices of those most affected. To accomplish this, the United Nations should undertake reforms in climate finance, so that SIDS that lack political representation can receive just compensation to support their populations. Samoan climate activist and COP26 speaker Brianna Fruean emphasized that SIDS “are not drowning; we are fighting.” To ensure SIDS have the future they deserve, they need to have a negotiations framework that lets them fight for their future before it’s too late.