Vulnerable Archipelagos

Continuing challenges to Small Island Developing States (SIDS) in global climate politics.

by Nex Bengson


Months before the UN Copenhagen climate conference in 2009, the government of the Maldives held a cabinet meeting and press conference underwater complete with oxygen tanks, scuba gear and waterproof table badges. For around half an hour, ministers communicated through hand gestures, white boards, and even signed a document while seated in actual chairs six meters below the water’s surface on bedrock off the Indian Ocean. This publicity stunt was made by the Maldivian government to alert the world to what could possibly happen to their country that stands at only an average of 2.1 meters above sea level if the world fails to drastically cut carbon emissions in the next decades. As it is, the possible disappearance of the Maldives and countless other small countries would be unprecedented in modern history. At the vanguard of this literal sea change are the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) that consider themselves as the front-liners in the climate change fight, both in their political leadership as well as their extreme vulnerability.


The consequent suffering of this specific class of countries would be significantly disproportionate considering their contribution to climate change. SIDS are estimated to be responsible for only 0.02 percent of the total greenhouse gases emitted and yet would be wiped out over time with a mere two degrees Celsius global average surface temperature increase above historic levels according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fourth Assessment Report. Inundation by rising seas is not the only threat that SIDS face, however. Tropical cyclones, flooding, damaged crops, diseases, drought and the loss of freshwater have also exacerbated vulnerabilities. To state the obvious – underlying most stress factors is the limited land area of these countries. Natural resource losses, moreover, are another critical problem area for SIDS that are heavily dependent on them. Both coral reefs and mangrove ecosystems that serve as fish nurseries and protection against coastal erosion, storm surges and tsunamis, cannot cope with accelerating thermal stress and sea-level rise. Due to their isolation, economic size and dependence on imports and natural resources, small island states are quite unable to cope with such external shocks. Given these existential risks, SIDS present themselves as a strategic starting point for a redesign of the global governance framework.


Coalition-building in Global Environmental Arenas

Despite having the moral authority on climate change, individual SIDS are not necessarily influential on a global scale. Small states with inconsequential militaries and modest economies have been historically and conventionally characterised as reactive and marginalised in international affairs. Multilateral negotiations, such as the Conference of the Parties (COP) where countries meet to discuss the implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), are likely to be dominated by parties wielding significant bargaining strength and coercive pressure to subject other states to agree to their terms. Even if small states are involved in setting agendas, the outcome is often dependent on bargaining between major powers. This is true in climate conferences where powerful actors such as the United States, China and the member states of the European Union weigh heavily in negotiations – indicating the immense discrepancy between major polluters and their victims. For large but poor countries, their options for adaptation are wider and chances for catastrophe are slimmer. The same could be said for rich, small states that have access to technologies for adaptation. Island nations with fewer resources, however, are less willing to compromise on their positions due to their circumstances. To better cope with these limitations, SIDS have formed the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) to better improve their position in relation with more powerful states in climate change negotiations.


Presently, the AOSIS is recognised as a major, vocal player in global climate negotiations, serving not simply as partners but as the forerunners in advancing the interests of future generations. The AOSIS started in November 1990 with 24 members under the leadership of the Maldives, Vanuatu and Trinidad and Tobago. Since then, the AOSIS has grown to 44 members which represent only five percent of the world’s population dispersed across Africa, the Pacific and Indian oceans, together with countries located in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. The primary functions that the AOSIS performs include presenting a unified position for members, representing environmental concerns, ensuring their needs are reflected in international agreements and securing participation in decision-making and follow-up processes. Since the alliance does not have a charter, secretariat or an annual budget, its actions are primarily coursed through the UN diplomatic missions of member states in New York City. The alliance’s key demands focus on the global reduction of greenhouse gases with further technical and financial support towards adaptation and mitigation. They have also been proactively engaged in drafting proposals and insist on open and transparent processes that emphasise international law principles. For example, the AOSIS was actively involved in setting up a new skills-sharing and storytelling platform within the COP process called the Talanoa dialogue, based on a traditional concept used in Fiji and across the Pacific that emphasises building trust through empathy, inclusivity and transparency.


For its efforts, the alliance has claimed many political and policy successes relative to its size. For one, former AOSIS negotiators John W. Ashe, Robert Van Lierop and Anilla Cherian claim that the UNFCCC represents a notable accomplishment of the AOSIS. Indeed, the early histories of the UNFCCC and the AOSIS are closely interwoven. The UNFCCC was adopted in 1989 by the UN General Assembly and went through six, intensive two-week sessions in the 14 months leading up to the formal signing during the 1992 UN conference in Rio de Janeiro. The AOSIS championed for the Convention to remain comprehensive, equitable and meaningful in that period. The alliance has also insisted on preventive approaches, commitments to meaningful conservation, efficiency requirements and the development of alternative energy sources. Another key area of achievement is stronger representation for SIDS, with small islands now recognized as a distinct category in the UN. The AOSIS has also secured seats in various bodies, including the Conference of Parties Bureau alongside five other UN regional groupings, the Executive Board of the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) and the Adaptation Fund, among other environmental committees and groups. Earth Negotiations Bulletin editor Pamela Chasek suggests that preventive action, capacity building that included scientific research, and dispute-resolution mechanisms would have not been included in these agreements without the active engagement of SIDS in UN negotiations. Perhaps the most remarkable accomplishment of the AOSIS is the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol (KP), which extends the UNFCCC and remains as the only legally binding instrument of the Convention. Only three years after the UNFCCC was adopted, however, some countries realised that its provisions were inadequate to reduce emissions, moving them to adopt the KP with 192 states now party to it. Despite these victories so far by the AOSIS, there are still daunting challenges that confront the countries most at risk from climate change. These challenges – that also present themselves as opportunities – may be grouped under the themes of negotiation processes, issue framing, the plurality of issues and the presence of possible competing alliances.



Challenges to the AOSIS

First, small states have been notable trailblazers in the negotiation process. Tuvalu, for example, has been recognised for causing the suspension of the COP and disrupting efforts of other parties to present the Copenhagen Accord, which approved the continuation of the KP, as a success. Within environmental discourses, SIDS have pioneered target-setting, normative issues and legal innovations. The AOSIS, for one, is typified by its ‘emergency’ negotiation style that is characterised by presenting radical positions at meetings between countries. At COP 15 in Copenhagen, for instance, ambitious global targets of 1.5℃ and 350 parts per million were presented by the alliance. The greatest challenge so far for the AOSIS, however, could be its insistence on a legally binding commitment. Although some of its positions were included in the final accord, its primary goal of making a new follow-up agreement to the KP legally binding, however, was unattainable. Such a development, despite the urgency and severity of the problem, reflects the hesitance of powerful states to be ultimately bound by these agreements. Without a significant level of commitment and consequential degree of enforceability, any attempt to solve the predicament of climate change could remain hollow and negligible. Even the recent Paris Agreement, a key step under the UNFCCC, has been criticised for not having binding mechanisms for enforcement.

Second, as mentioned, since small states do not possess economic nor military pressure to influence larger states, they rely primarily on framing strategies to advance their agendas. Through being moral leaders and developing novel international norms, small states are able to break through in multilateral arenas. SIDS have been shown to base their framing tactics largely on scientific findings and reports, such as the IPCC fourth assessment report, to shape policy action. Rather than purely moralistic arguments, the AOSIS has relied on frames that are technical and financial in nature, which reinforce the technocratic character of climate debates. This moral leadership by SIDS, nevertheless, has been found to be problematic despite their status and framing as victims. Although circumstances of SIDS have lent them legitimacy and credibility in bargaining, observers have questioned why they have not framed problems such as the loss of shelter, increased human insecurity and forced migration as human rights challenges. The last item, in particular, is glaringly left unresolved under international law, as people displaced by climate change do not have any recognition under the 1951 Refugee Convention. Given that a fourth of the member-states of AOSIS perform weakly on civil and political liberties, it has been suggested that the alliance has strategically avoided using human rights frameworks so as not to undermine their bargaining position and trigger debates on internal standards that member-states prefer to avoid. Be that as it may, the AOSIS and SIDS are missing out on an important opportunity to highlight threats to their citizens and improve their bargaining positions.


Thirdly, the phenomenon of climate change is not singular in nature and as such produces a multitude of issues that overlap with and even compound each other. COP15, with 45,000 individuals participating in a number of simultaneous formal and informal sessions, was one of the largest international conferences ever. A tiny state with limited resources and a relatively small delegation could not possibly cover, more so meaningfully participate in, all the conference discussions. Thus, the AOSIS assists member-states to collectively gain representation in UNFCCC processes by promoting a broad, shared agenda. This has two opposite effects. On one hand, a plurality of issues provides more spaces for divergent interests to emerge. Even within the AOSIS, states differ to their responses to climate regulations and agreements depending on their characteristics. For instance, University of Göttingen's Carola Klöck (née Betzold) and her colleagues mention Suriname and Guyana being more interested in compensation payments under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) mechanism while Singapore has interests in bunker fuels and maritime transport. On the other hand, a larger agenda also provides opportunities for issue linkages, compromises and side payments. One country may choose to compromise on one area in exchange for support on another issue it values more. All in all, considering the diversity and cleavages within the AOSIS, the coalition has remained largely effective and united in climate negotiations as could be seen in the Barbados Declaration, which strives towards providing sustainable energy in SIDS.


Finally, as global interests shift and change, it is expected that more coalitions aside from the AOSIS will form in the climate change policy space. Larger states, in the same vein, may opt to build coalitions as well. Small island states would resemble an interest group, unified by their survival instinct, while larger developing states would be bound by their historical emissions and collective responsibility. The BASIC group (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), for instance, contends with the AOSIS due to some of their incompatible interests in the tension between continued development and survival. More to the point, the increase in the number of blocs that compete with each other would also make it more difficult for any of them to advance their agenda. As issues due to climate change become more concrete, more actors will increasingly come into play – making the already crowded environmental discourse space noisier and more chaotic.


Advancing Earth Governance

The AOSIS, in its more than two decades of existence, remains front and centre in claiming what is due to its member-states and their citizens. While the AOSIS may take into account and should attempt to resolve the issues discussed above, the SIDS must not solely rely on the alliance to advance their agenda and must pursue all avenues necessary for their survival. In particular, the AOSIS should consider further enlarging their platform by including other middle powers, people’s organisations and also subnational island territories that share similar characteristics with SIDS. What the challenges above reveal is that we haven’t arrived at a working architecture of Earth governance that could prioritise the wellbeing of everything – both humans and nature alike. A democratic, sustainable and responsive system that places the environment and people at its centre shall remain a critical and continuing lively concern in the years to come.



Photo © NASA Goddard Space Flight Center; art by Inès Bonneau


Nex Bengson reads an MSc in Education at St Stephen's House. He highly recommends visiting the Philippine islands.

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