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Amplifying Island Voices in Climate Negotiations

Published 18 Oct 2021
Alexandra Russell Brown

For many nations, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released in August represented a sobering reading on the devastating impacts rising global temperatures are propelling us towards. A reckoning for our actions since industrialisation that will lead to fundamental and perhaps irreversible challenges if urgent action isn’t taken now.

Yet many small island developing states (SIDS) are already confronting the dystopian future set out in the IPCC report, and have been for years.

SIDS are by no means a homogenous group of countries, yet there are a number of common characteristics which underscore their particular vulnerability to the stresses of climate change.  Among these shared characteristics are small size, limited resources, geographic dispersion, exposure to natural hazards, distance from major markets, high population densities and restricted financial and human capacities. These pressures have exposed SIDS to climatic impacts that are amongst the most critical in the world. Perhaps most troubling is the sea-level rise that is threatening to make several countries, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, uninhabitable.

In response, global discourses have positioned SIDS as passive victims of climate change, often expressed through the ‘canary in the coal-mine’ metaphor. These narratives of victimhood are problematic as they erase the agency of island peoples and marginalise their voices in climate negotiations.

In reality, many SIDS have mobilised both indigenous and scientific knowledge to inform effective national adaptation programmes. The people of Kiribati, for example, have continuously adapted to changing conditions through strategies such as diversifying water resources.

Yet, as the pressures of climate change intensify SIDS’ vulnerability to frequent severe challenges, attempts have been made through island diplomacy to increase action by other states. The Fiji-led Talanoa Dialogue in 2018 is one example of this. The Dialogue involved operationalising the parties to the Paris Agreement to move toward more productive climate negotiations through the sharing of climate change perspectives from those who often find their voices pushed to the margins. A primary goal of the Talanoa Dialogue was to help encourage participants to increase their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), a system established at the Paris Agreement that allows actors to determine their own emission reduction targets. However, signalling the enduring lack of influence of island voices, the Climate Action Tracker found, through an assessment of states’ mitigation targets since the dialogue, that the majority of participants have not changed their targets sufficiently to achieve the Paris Agreements’ long-term temperature goal. Thus, the Talanoa Dialogue was unable to resist deeply entrenched geopolitical forces to improve climate outcomes for most vulnerable states.

After the IPCC report, the consensus is clear; the world is entering a critical decade for our climate. Yet, as the COP26 Climate Change Negotiations in Glasgow approach, voluntary pledges continue to fall far short of keeping temperatures under 2ºC, not least 1.5 ºC according to the UN. It is vital that precedent is broken, and SIDS’ voices are heard in these discussions as those most often found at the frontline of the fight against global warming, to help spur more ambitious commitments.

Alexandra Russell Brown is a fifth-year student at the University of Sydney studying Politics, International Relations and Political Economy. During her studies, Alexandra was invited to become a Dalyell Scholar.  In 2019, Alexandra was awarded the Vice Chancellors Global Mobility Scholarship to undertake an exchange at the University of Edinburgh and has also spent periods of time living in Canada, France and England. These international and academic experiences have fostered her interest in international affairs, particularly international trade and finance and global environmental politics.

Alexandra is undertaking an internship with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.