As rising seas lap at their shores, Pacific nations may have more to lose than most of their counterparts from climate change. Yet fewer than half of Pacific regional delegations are expected to attend what is seen as a highly consequential United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow.

The conference, known as COP26, will finalize the “Paris Rulebook” — the rules and procedures for the 2015 Paris Agreement — focusing on climate mitigation, adaption, finance and global cooperation.

The Pacific nations have been unified since September’s United Nations 76th General Assembly in calling for the world’s most powerful nations to fulfill promises made in Paris. But they are unable to send as many officials to COP26 as they did to Paris, due to pandemic travel protocols.

The small Pacific turnout for the conference, which begins on Sunday and runs until Nov. 12, is raising concerns that their calls will go unheard.

Places like the outer atolls of Pohnpei, an island state in the Federated States of Micronesia, are experiencing sea-level rise and other impacts of climate change. Mark Edward Harris/Civil Beat

Who’s In And Out

“When I last did the stats for 2015, there were about 345 Pacific delegates from 14 countries,” said Salā George Carter of ​​Australian National University. “That may be a lot, but mind you, 10,000 people actually attend these conferences as official delegates from other countries as well.”

Salā estimated that the Pacific representation would not reach 200 this year, and could be as low as 150. The nations’ leaders are notable absentees, as there is no provision for virtual attendance.

Those leaders often broker agreements and take part in bilateral conversations, which is less likely with lower-level negotiators and diplomats. And while regional coalitions that include Pacific nations may make their voices heard, more narrow national interests could be drowned out.

Fewer academics, non-governmental organizations, university groups and think tanks are also expected to attend, Salā said.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, pictured at the Alliance of Small Island States Summit 2021, has been a vocal critic of the international response to climate change. YouTube/AOSIS Media

Kiribati, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Niue and the Federated States of Micronesia are among the many nations unable to send full delegations to COP26.

Officials face lengthy quarantines on return from the conference, up to a month depending on quarantine protocols, which would disrupt the day-to-day business of government more than for other nations that have chartered flights, presidential jets or fewer restrictions.

FSM’s four-strong delegation will be headed up by Jeem Lippwe, deputy chief of mission to the U.N. in New York, and the country has “full faith” in what it hopes to achieve, presidential spokesperson Richard Clark said.

“But it remains a concern that the international community doesn’t fully appreciate, or even recognize, that the threat projection is total civilizational collapse within our children’s lifetimes,”  Clark said. “And that the way to counter the threat is through radical collaboration and cooperation.”

Finalizing The Rulebook

As often happens this time of year, nations have been announcing climate plans. President Joe Biden pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, with a carbon-free power system by 2035. China promised carbon-neutrality by 2060, with less than 20% fossil fuel. And the EU committed to reducing its emissions by 55% by 2035.

But what’s concerning is that some of the most powerful, highest-emitting countries’ leaders — such as Russia, China and Brazil — have said they will not attend the conference, according to Albon Ishoda, the Republic of the Marshall Islands ambassador to Fiji and the Pacific. He said that many had yet to meet the commitments they made in Paris in 2015.

“Solidarity amongst Pacific Islands is not compromised and can never be compromised.” — FSM Presidential Spokesperson Richard Clark

High on the list of priorities for Pacific nations remains keeping the global temperature increase to 1.5 degree Celsius.

“To be quite frank … 1.5 was our compromise and even at 1.5, countries like the Marshall Islands still suffer immensely from these impacts,” Ishoda said. “We are expecting [other countries] to continue to push … ensuring we have a safe road for future generations.”

Those concerns are shared by nations outside the Pacific, which have formed coalitions and called for action.

Fiji Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama said the Pacific nations could no longer be “the proverbial canaries in the world’s coal mine, as we are so often called.”

The presence of Pacific nations at the conference “is important to continue to raise the expectation of our communities to ensure that we feel secure and we feel safe in a heating world — a world that is not (of) their doing,” Ishoda said.

Despite its anticipated modest turnout, the region is relying upon the few who do go to build on the ambitious work that has already been achieved. For FSM, it means relying upon Palau and Fiji to speak up for the region.

Underwater scene in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa. Image courtesy of Greg McFall.
Underwater scenes such as these, in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, are being compromised by rising water temperatures and other climate change issues. NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration

“Both the Micronesian President’s Summit and the Pacific Island Forum recognize Climate Change as an existential threat and the greatest challenge of our times,” said FSM presidential spokesperson Clark in an email. “Solidarity amongst Pacific Islands is not compromised and can never be compromised.”

Part of that Pacific message will be directed at Australia, whose lackluster climate response has remained a regional diplomatic issue.

Australia, which emits more carbon dioxide per person than any other nation, committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 on Tuesday. It would keep its fossil fuel sector, and the intricacies of the plans remain unknown. It has been lambasted by opposition parties, climate experts and academics.

Former prime ministers of the country panned Australia’s current government for its “cynical indifference” and “empty rhetoric,” apologizing to the Pacific.

RMI ambassador Ishoda says that if Australia is really concerned about the region’s security, it should not just be focusing with a “narrow lens” on military issues.

“Australia needs to take seriously the Pacific security issues, which includes threats, real threats from climate change,” Ishoda said.

Parlaying Pacific Priorities

The region has made its COP26 expectation and objectives clear: Limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, increase climate funding to vulnerable nations and get powerful emitters to stay true to their commitments.

Salā of Australia National University said his doctoral research revolved around the Pacific nations’ influence in international politics, with specific consideration of the 2015 Paris climate conference and its resulting agreement.

He found that influence does not necessarily correlate to size, and Tuvalu and the RMI were the strongest nations at the negotiating table in 2015.

The most influential negotiators always ended up being those who had the strongest opposition to general consensus, Salā said.

“It’s not the country with the biggest economy or the biggest military. That’s not how multilateralism works,” he added.

In Paris, Tuvalu successfully pushed for the 1.5 Celsius goal by the end of the century, opposing the U.S.’s proposed 2 degrees. The RMI organized an unheard-of High Ambition Coalition, which enlisted both underdeveloped countries and developed nations to make more ambitious plans to deal with climate change.

“This is the reality of climate change, and it’s getting worse and worse, and we need to do something about it now,” Salā said. “Whereby other countries may be pursuing more economic interests, the interests that Pacific countries are pursuing are more existential. It’s about survival. It’s about well being, it’s about livelihood.”

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