from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Sunk Coast Fallacy: How Island Nations Should Approach Climate Diplomacy

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga delivers remarks at UN Headquarters in New York on April 22, 2016. Carlo Allegri/Reuters

Pacific island nations under threat from rising sea levels can translate geopolitical competition in the region into climate action.

August 7, 2019

Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga delivers remarks at UN Headquarters in New York on April 22, 2016. Carlo Allegri/Reuters
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The following is a guest post by Betzalel Newman, intern for international institutions and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

In the past two months, the world experienced record high temperatures. Thanks in part to consecutive European heat waves, the hottest June in history segued into a July that was the single hottest month ever recorded. Yet as temperatures approached 100 degrees Fahrenheit, air-conditioned diplomats at mid-June’s Bonn Climate Change Conference dismissed the findings of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

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The document, which describes the consequences of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and warns that the world is on pace to pass this ominous milestone as early as 2030, is the synthesis of six thousand scientific studies and represents the consensus of ninety-one scientists from forty countries. Unfortunately, a small group of oil-producing nations in Bonn refused to agree to incorporate its findings in future negotiations. Such antipathy imperils humanity’s shared future on a vulnerable planet. It poses an immediate danger to one group in particular: the Pacific island nations at the vanguard of the fight against climate change.

These countries have long called for collective action in mitigating rising sea levels. Their typically non-combative approach, however, seems increasingly inadequate. Rather than more of the same, low-lying Pacific island nations should consider leveraging their increasing geopolitical relevance, a byproduct of U.S.-China competition in the region, and take a more transactional approach to climate diplomacy. 

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Nowhere in the world are the implications of climate change more immediate than on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. Rising sea levels have already sunk coastal villages in Fiji and five of the Solomon Islands. Settlements in Tuvalu, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are at risk of similar ravages in coming decades. Tropical cyclones are increasing in intensity, and the loss of coral reefs will irrevocably doom local fisheries. These effects are despite the miniscule contribution of Pacific islanders to climate change: the eleven Pacific island small states are responsible for only a hundredth of a percent of global economic output and even less than that share of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Their contribution to the fight against climate change, however, has been anything but miniscule. In September 2015, discussion among leaders at the Pacific Islands Development Forum produced the Suva Declaration on Climate Change, which affirmed the importance of a 1.5 degree Celsius warming target. At the subsequent UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) successfully pushed for explicit designation as “vulnerable countries,” recognition of loss and damage, and the goal to keep warming “well below” 2 degrees and ideally to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Yet discussions of Paris Agreement implementation reveal the 1.5 degrees Celsius ideal to be just that. The proceedings in Bonn served as a demonstration of the unfortunate reality of the situation, as the United States, Iran, Russia, and Saudi Arabia blocked the inclusion of the IPCC report in future negotiations, undermining mitigation efforts. Belize’s permanent representative to the United Nations characterized the decision as leaving “the little states to drown.”

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Marooned at Home

The Pacific islands climate campaign has seen little success to date, though not for lack of trying. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, for instance, presided over the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference and launched the Fiji Momentum for Implementation, a document that outlined next steps for Paris Agreement implementation and established the Talanoa Dialogue. The dialogue, intended to facilitate work toward more ambitious national climate targets, attracted high-level representation but is yet to produce significant revisions to national emissions targets.

Pacific island nations have likewise sought to leverage bilateral and regional fora. In 2017, Fiji hosted an India-Pacific Islands Sustainable Development Conference that led to Memoranda of Understanding on various issues, including disaster preparedness and climate change mitigation. That summit, however, was sui generis. The next iteration of the forum omitted climate change from its initial statement. Shortcomings were also apparent at the June 2019 Our Ocean Wealth Summit, which featured UN ambassadors from several island nations but lacked high-level representation from major powers.

Pacific island nations’ vulnerability to climate change has also garnered attention from such notables as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has gone to great lengths to further their cause. In May, Guterres visited Suva for the conclusion of the Pacific Islands Forum, where he spoke about the unique moral authority of its member states to speak on climate change. He appointed Fijian Peter Thomson as his Special Envoy for the Ocean in 2017, and recently divided the upcoming Climate Action Summit into nine segments, each co-chaired by a developing country disproportionately affected by climate change. Such efforts are vital, but have proved insufficient to date.

A Pragmatic Approach

The fate of the Pacific island nations ultimately depends less on how much they speak than on whom is listening and whether those listeners take action. Unfortunately, the most important listeners have proven tone deaf. To date, Pacific islanders have tended to emphasize mutual understanding, reciprocity, and openness in their climate diplomacy. In a world of conspicuous nationalism and retreating moral empathy, however, appeals to the better angels of human nature have proven largely unpersuasive.

The failure of countries such as the United States to respond to high-minded appeals means that island nations need to rethink their approach. Limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius requires that Pacific island nations adopt a more direct, transactional form of climate diplomacy.

Though these countries lack economic and military heft, they do have at least one critical asset: a front row seat in the power struggle for influence in the Pacific. Pacific island nations can leverage their prime real estate into climate suasion in their dealings with Australia, China, and the United States. Australia appears willing to take major steps to regain influence and check Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Donald J. Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, meanwhile, have demonstrated that both of the world’s leading powers are interested in strengthening their presence in the region.

Future diplomatic agreements could grant one or more major powers access to exclusive economic zones, rights to host military bases, or expanded scope for fishing and research vessels. By dangling the carrot of military and economic partnerships, island nations could secure financing for climate resilience and adaptation measures, and potentially more ambitious climate commitments from some of the most prolific carbon-emitting countries in the world.

This could happen within the next half-decade. The United States currently has Compacts of Free Association with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau, which allow it the exclusive right to base troops on those islands in exchange for defense and economic assistance obligations. These compacts expire in 2023 and 2024, and a bidding war could be in the offing, conceivably over carbon.

Their status as UN member states also affords Pacific island nations leverage. They hold disproportionate weight in one-country one-vote systems, and some have used this to secure additional foreign aid and investment. Eleven of the seventeen nations that have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan are small island states, and China has already provided benefits to countries that reverse course. Such dealings might make sense for Pacific island nations—if the (carbon) price is right.

Leveraging geopolitical rivalry for national gain is not new to the Pacific islands, either. In addition to wringing additional support out of the China-Taiwan diplomatic tug-of-war, Pacific nations have secured less restrictive aid packages from Australia and New Zealand, who hope to retain their relevance amid great power competition in the region.

Transactional approaches to climate diplomacy would not rule out other strategies. Island nations could continue to appeal to higher ideals, and to large countries’ national interests. Moderate warming could impose significant costs on major powers. Large coastal cities, including Shanghai, China; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Osaka, Japan; and Miami, Florida, are susceptible to flooding, for instance. Highlighting these risks, in tandem with making concrete offerings, could lend Pacific islanders’ appeals persuasive power.

Survival at Stake

The heatwaves of the last two months are among the most severe on record. This will not remain the case if emissions continue to increase and temperatures continue to rise—the consequences of climate change will only prove more catastrophic and widespread.

The effects of 1.5 degrees Celsius global warming on Pacific island nations are frightening to their residents. But the threats they face augur dire consequences for the rest of the world as well. “1.5 to stay alive” has been a popular catchphrase and chant among Pacific negotiators at climate summits in recent years. Leaders elsewhere should heed those words before they too face existential crisis.

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