Small Island Developing States fight for survival at COP26

By Leo Chu, Eva Hartman, Liam Rinehart, Mallory Willson

COP26 began in Glasgow, Scotland last week, with the intent of building on the goals of the 2016 Paris Climate Accord and continuing to hold the international community accountable for climate change. Like many other large United Nations conferences, COP26 is disproportionately focused on powerful G-20 states that pollute the most, not the states most impacted by climate change. This hyperfocus on large industrial states could prevent COP26 from addressing the pressing concerns of states on the frontlines of rising sea levels and extreme weather events. 

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are facing extreme danger from climate change. Recognized for their incredible environmental resources and development in 1992, the UN reports that there is a total population of 65 million people living across remote islands throughout the world’s oceans. 

These citizens’ lives are threatened daily by sea-level rise, extreme hurricanes or typhoons, and ocean acidification. Furthermore, because these states have a high ratio of coastline-to-land area, significant portions of their industries and assets are under the direct risk of climate changes. SIDS represent a tiny portion of global greenhouse gas emissions but are bearing the brunt of this process. 

This crisis is seen in full force on the islands of Tuvalu. Located in Oceania, Tuvalu is both the smallest sovereign nation in the world and has the second-lowest maximum elevation of any nation. 

Tuvalu has already experienced sea level rise, threatening homes and livelihoods, and the cyclones that frequently devastate the small community have become more extreme as global temperatures rise. In 2015, Cyclone Pam created waves that reached sixteen feet high, flooding up to 100 Tuvaluan homes, destroying 90% of crops, and damaging the island’s only health facility. In recent years, government officials have begun seriously considering evacuation and migration plans for their citizens and community.

Though tiny, the loss of Tuvalu and similar nations to climate change would be devastating for humanity. Tuvalu’s culture is almost completely unchanged from what it was thousands of years ago. Unlike other cultures, in Tuvalu each family is responsible for one function of the village- fishing, house building, or defense — and these skills are passed from parents to children with each generation. There are few places in the world where traditions like this remain, and as emissions continue to rise and climate change becomes more intense, Tuvalu’s unique cultural heritage is increasingly at risk. 

Whether or not COP26 can produce actionable results and save precious cultural reserves like Tuvalu remains to be seen. In the past, United Nations conventions have been able to establish protections for SIDS, the most prominent of which was the 2014 Samoa Pathway cemented at the Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States. This agreement implemented sustainable economic growth strategies, sustainable energy infrastructure, natural disaster risk reduction programs, and ocean protection initiatives across various islands. But, as sea levels rise and countries like Tuvalu are forced to consider future survival scenarios, it’s clear that these agreements are falling short. 

Speaking at COP26 earlier this week, SIDS representative Brianna Fruean detailed how in order to save the hundreds of tiny islands around the world, larger nations need to immediately commit to lowering emissions and refusing fossil fuels. 

But at the conference, it is important to recognize that these Pacific island countries were also often left out of the conversation due to COVID-19. In a speech broadcasted at the summit this week, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe dressed in a suit and spoke in the water with his pant legs rolled to his knees. Kofe gave the speech from the ocean, standing on what used to be dry land to represent rising sea levels.

Because of coronavirus outbreaks and travel restrictions, many of these countries’ leaders were unable to make it to Glasgow — but symbolic gestures like these underscored the importance of SIDs in the climate crisis. Only Fiji, Palau and Tuvalu were able to send their leaders to COP26. Representatives from the Marshall Islands, for instance, were unable to attend.

But despite these absences, some progress for SIDs has been made. Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK’s support for these countries. Johnson chaired an event with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch a joint initiative with the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure and SIDs to help fund these states to develop resilient and sustainable infrastructure. The UK announced 40 million euros in funding to the Small Island Developing State Capacity and Resilience program, which will help support technological solutions for adapting to the crisis.

Still, SIDs demand more action, bolder change and increased commitment on funding and emissions cuts from the world. Island nations, which include 47 countries that represent over 730 million people, have contributed the least to climate change. 

But whether these goals will be met in time to save islands like Tuvalu is another story altogether. If COP26 fails to make real progress on the environment question, SIDS face a bleak future of shrinking coastlines and disappearing culture. 

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