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Climate change could erase the Pacific islands. Who will defend them at U.N. summit?

Satyendra Prasad, Fiji's ambassador to the United Nations, speaks during a 2020 Security Council meeting.
(Mark Garten / United Nations)

Just days until the start of the United Nations climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland, here is what passed for good news for Fiji’s small delegation: President Biden hadn’t refused to meet with them.

“The meeting has not been secured but not ruled out yet,” Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s ambassador to the U.N., texted Friday. “Let’s see,” he wrote, hopefully. “These things fall in place on the day [of].”

For small nations like Fiji and other Pacific islands, scoring in-person meetings with the leaders of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful countries has never been more crucial — or more difficult. Their survival is at stake. These nations face massive environmental challenges, from rising sea levels that could erase entire villages and decimate the tourism industry, to the destruction of coral reefs.

In the last five years, Fiji has endured 13 cyclones, three of them of the most destructive Category 5. After one of those storms, the country’s gross domestic product, a measure of goods and services provided, fell by 30%.

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An aerial view of the Fiji's Coral Coast.
An aerial view of the Fiji’s Coral Coast. Climate change is posing a long-term threat to the region’s marine environment.
(Reef Explorer Fiji via AFP via Getty Images)

The country must confront the likely prospect of having to relocate scores of coastal communities where life may soon become untenable because of rising sea levels.

“Every two to three months you have to face people who’ve just lost their homes and they look to you and they ask you: ‘Yet again?’” Prasad said. “You think about moments like that at these big international meetings.”

Heads of state, environmental activists, business leaders and journalists are in Scotland for a climate summit that comes as world leaders are running out of time to break away from fossil fuels and prevent the most catastrophic effects of global warming.

Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, only four Pacific island nations — Fiji, Palau, Papua New Guinea, and Tuvalu — will be represented by their heads of state this year at the global climate summit, leaving the other 11 with smaller teams of delegates and volunteers from nonprofit organizations. This has fueled concern that the countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, and least responsible for the carbon emissions causing rising temperatures, will barely have a presence at what’s widely considered the most important climate conference since the 2015 Paris agreement.

“For Pacific states, I am quite concerned,” Prasad said. “We are not big players on the global stage, but this is an exceptionally difficult year.”

As a result of the island countries’ thin attendance, the burden of representing those who can’t travel to Scotland will fall largely on the leaders who can. Prasad said he expected the four heads of state, including Fiji’s prime minister, to be working “almost 24/7" during the two-week summit, holding what he described as “the equivalent of one year of Zoom meetings in a day.”

On small island nations’ agenda: pressing the leaders of wealthy, industrialized countries to devote more money to helping them cope with the effects of climate change and transition to cleaner sources of energy.

In 2009, the U.S. and other developed nations agreed that by 2020 they would provide $100 billion a year to developing countries. But that promise has never been fully realized. Wealthy countries have failed to raise more than $80 billion annually. And, in a recent report, diplomats from Canada and Germany announced they wouldn’t be able to meet their target until 2023 — three years late.

The sun sets behind the mountains of Viti Levu island
The sun sets behind the mountains of Viti Levu island in Suva, Fiji on May, 2000.
(Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty Images)

Frank Bainimarama, the prime minister of Fiji, has gone much further in his request for aid. In a speech before the U.N. General Assembly earlier this year, he called on wealthy countries to increase their financial commitments to at least $750 billion annually beginning in 2025. The limited financing that does exist for developing countries is often out of reach because of complicated loan requirements, he said, adding that future aid should take the form of grants that don’t require struggling countries to take on more debt.

“I am tired of applauding my people’s resilience,” Bainimarama said. “True resilience is not just defined by a nation’s grit but by our access to financial resources.”

Governments’ failure to take aggressive action looms large as leaders head to the COP26 climate summit, billed as ‘the last, best chance’ to save Earth.

Concern that the leaders of developing countries wouldn’t be able to attend the summit has been growing for months, prompting a coalition of more than 1,500 environmental advocacy groups to call for the summit to be delayed again this year, as it was in 2020. In September, the chair of the 46-nation group of least-developed countries, known as LDCs, called out Britain’s quarantine requirements and the lack of commercial flights out of Pacific island nations as impeding their ability to participate and make their case in person.

Last week, England announced that it was ending requirements for travelers to quarantine and removing the final seven countries from its “red list” for coronavirus risk. But that decision came too late — small countries without easy access to vaccines and money for travel had already finalized their limited delegations.

“Not having their voices there definitely affects representation and inclusivity,” said Tracy Kajumba, a researcher at the London-based think tank International Institute for Environment and Development.

Women and people from developing nations are already underrepresented among delegates and event organizers, she said, and that imbalance will likely be worse this year. “These are the voices that really need to be at the COP,” she said.

Prasad said the leaders of Pacific island nations who are attending the conference will have to speak on behalf of their missing peers, ideally in as many face-to-face meetings with leaders of G-20 countries as possible.

Getting on those leaders’ schedules is tricky for small island nations under normal circumstances. It often means agreeing to meetings during the conference late at night or early in the morning, or on the margins — such as catching heads of state as they’re leaving one appointment and heading to the next.

“Our leaders have to be firm and very clear and sometimes quite undiplomatic in making sure they’re able to project what our communities and our people want them to do,” Prasad said.

Pacific island and developing countries have been able to exert influence in the past. In 2015, they fought for, and won, language in the Paris climate agreement committing world leaders to hold rising temperatures below 2 degrees Celsius, and to 1.5 degrees Celsius if possible.

But since then, most industrialized nations have failed to meet their emissions reduction targets. And a recent U.N. climate report found that even if countries impose the strictest cuts to atmosphere-warming greenhouse gas emissions today, global warming is likely within the next two decades to surpass 1.5 degrees.

Fiji and other Pacific island nations’ mission in Glasgow is clear: keep the 1.5 targets alive, Prasad said. “We can’t contemplate a future above that.”


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