On Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden, French President Emanuel Macron and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi all sat down in a large convention room with more than 100 of their counterparts from around the world. But, despite the wealth and geopolitical clout of these nations, Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of tiny Barbados, was the first world leader invited to speak at COP26 beside the British hosts. “We have come to say try harder,” she told the crowd, speaking not just for Barbados but also for other countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
One of my favorite things to watch in international climate negotiations is the role of small island states and other countries that are especially vulnerable to rising seas, storms and other extreme weather events. They bring what’s often called “moral authority” to the conversation and remind delegates of the stakes and they often play an outsized role shaping the talks. This year, building on this dynamic, the U.K. hosts promised to host what they termed “the most inclusive COP ever.”
But following through on that proclamation has proven challenging. Many in the developing world lack access to COVID-19 vaccines, making the journey to Glasgow a health risk. Travel restrictions that seemed to evolve constantly and limited availability and high cost of accommodations in the city created even more complexity. This kept away many who would otherwise have come: only four heads of government from small Pacific island nations—typically a COP mainstay—were expected to attend, according to a provisional list of attendees. Many countries are instead being represented by their missions in New York or London.
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All of this has left a bitter taste for those on the ground. “These are particularly challenging times for everybody, and especially for developing nations,” Simon Stiell, Grenada’s climate minister and a key voice representing vulnerable countries at COP26, told me before COP began. “How we’re able to participate in this pandemic environment, it does speak to issues of social justice.”
Civil society groups have faced even greater challenges. While the British government made some adjustments to travel restrictions for country delegations, NGOs and organizers from many developing countries were stuck trying to navigate pandemic complications with little assistance. These groups play a crucial role both by providing analysis and assistance to developing countries with limited capacity as well as helping build political will with pressure campaigns and protests. Many of the civil society groups that did make the journey were met with long wait times and limited access.
“The only times when we have the impact that we want to see is when there’s an alignment with states to galvanize public opinion, shape the discourse, have the presence both inside the negotiating rooms and outside—and then aligning, obviously, behind the policy interventions in terms of the text,” says Asad Rehman, an organizer with COP26 Coalition, a climate justice group. “Those are all fractured.”
But there’s still the possibility that the most affected countries can push their agenda in the remaining time. As in past COPs, countries have organized in groups to leverage their collective power. There’s the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which is calling for countries to sign onto an “emergency pact” that will ensure financing for adaptation efforts. The Alliance of Small Island States is calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. And then there’s the High Ambition Coalition (HAC), a group of more than 20 countries, both large countries like Germany and small ones like Palau, that is pushing for a number of specific proposals that will keep the 1.5°C temperature target within reach. That alliance played a crucial role bridging the divide between some of the most vulnerable countries and big developed countries at the Paris talks in 2015.
A crucial concern for all these groups is closing the gap between the financial commitments developed countries have committed to providing to the developing world to deal with climate change—$100 billion annually—and the amount of money that’s actually been delivered. A slew of announcements have led analysts to say the developed world is close to meeting that goal, but still many leaders from vulnerable countries say it’s not enough, and that many more hundreds of billions are needed.
They are also demanding that finance flows increase for adaptation measures that will help prepare for extreme weather and other effects of climate change rather than just measures that reduce emissions like clean energy. “Adaptation isn’t something far off for us,” Sabra Noordeen, the president’s special envoy for climate change in the Maldives, told me ahead of COP. “It’s something that we have to deal with now.”
The stakes of climate change are existential for everyone—but nowhere is that more true than for these vulnerable countries. “If we don’t turn the tide around now, there will be no more islands,” Surangel Whipps, the president of Palau and a leader of the HAC, told me on the sidelines after the group’s meeting. “And then when there’s no more islands, there’s no culture, there’s no language, and they’re gone. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
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