The rich injustice of COP26

Many island nations weren't able to attend, making it easier for rich nations to ignore their cries for help.

“We will never know when the tide raises and swallows our homes. Our cultures, our languages and our traditions will be taken by the ocean.”
Unnamed activist from Papua New Guinea at COP26, U.N. news service, 11/8/21.

“You can't relocate your grandparents' graves.”
Ruth Łchav'aya K'isen Miller, co-founder of Polluters Out, NPR interview, 11/8/21.

Suega Apelu stands in a lagoon in Funafuti, Tuvalu. The low-lying South Pacific island nation of about 11,000 people has been classified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ to climate change by the United Nations Development Programme. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s an important time for all of humanity as international climate negotiations continue in Glasgow, Scotland. But it’s particularly important for humans in countries teetering on the brink of climate devastation.

The most climate-vulnerable people are underrepresented at this year’s historic climate summit. Due to prohibitive costs, visa and accreditation issues, lack of vaccine access, and COVID-19 restrictions, only three out of 14 threatened Pacific Island states were able to send delegates. Two thirds of civil society groups boosting populations most vulnerable to climate change have also reported being unable to send representatives.

The fossil fuel industry, meanwhile, was able to send 503 delegates to COP26—more than any other country, the BBC reported. And the country with the most delegates is one of the world’s most consequential climate polluters: Brazil, with 479 representatives.

The comparison highlights a profound injustice for vulnerable countries, which did very little to cause climate change and yet bear the brunt of its consequences. These talks were supposed to be their best chance to save themselves from drowning. Instead, their priorities are being drowned out once more—and now, only few life boats remain.

By the standards of developed nations, climate progress is being made at COP26. There were landmark deals to ditch coal, reduce methane, and slow deforestation. Twenty-one countries agreed to stop financing new fossil fuel projects in other countries. If all countries’ pledges play out the way they’re supposed to, a new analysis says we’d actually be successful at limiting warming to 1.8°C, thereby preventing most of the worst climate outcomes.

This progress, however, still isn’t enough for millions of people on the front lines of the crisis. Scientists say the world’s still on track for 2.4°C of warming—an outcome which would literally wipe out many indigenous communities and low-lying nations in the Global South. And even if warming is limited to 1.8°C, coastal nations would still see catastrophic increases in sea level rise and weather extremes.

This is all bad for developed nations too, but it’s far worse for vulnerable ones. That’s why, at COP26, vulnerable nations are seeking something called “loss and damages”—a process for establishing responsibility and compensation for the unavoidable, irreversible harm big polluters have caused them.

They also want industrialized countries to follow through on a previous promise to provide $100 billion a year in climate-related aid—considering estimates now say they’ll need about $300 billion a year.

But with COP26 nearly over, it’s clear vulnerable nations aren’t getting what they want. The promise for aid set in 2015 has yet to be fulfilled. And the BBC reports that rich polluting countries are again “pushing back” on taking responsibility for losses and damages of other countries. The reason: “they do not want to accept liability and risk being sued.”

While a loss and damages agreement is the most important thing for vulnerable nations, it’s also the biggest threat to polluting nations and the fossil fuel industry. Admitting responsibility for causing chaotic climate harm would open up the liability floodgates. Climate damage claims would start pouring in to developed nations and fossil fuel companies like the ocean is pouring into Kiribati.

But Kiribati has no delegates at COP26 this year. And that’s making it easier for their demands to go unheard.

Here’s a bit more on what the inequality looks like at COP26 between the biggest victims of the climate crisis and its biggest perpetrators.

  • This is “the thinnest representation of Pacific Islands at a COP, ever.” Only three out of 14 countries were able to send delegates. The three Pacific Island countries also brought small delegations: Palau brought 27, Tuvalu brought 24, and Fiji brought 47. (Reuters, Carbon Brief).

  • The world’s highest-emitting countries were all present, and they all brought large delegations. China brought 60; the United States brought 165 delegates; India brought 134; Russia brought 312; Japan brought 225; Germany brought 120.

  • Two-thirds of civil society organization members that usually participate on behalf of vulnerable populations were not able this year. Two-thirds of Latin America-based civil society organization members that usually participate were not able this year. (The Guardian, Wired).

  • Fossil fuel companies and organizations representing them sent a total of 503 delegates. This number is “larger than the combined total of the eight delegations from the countries worst affected by climate change in the last two decades—Puerto Rico, Myanmar, Haiti, Philippines, Mozambique, Bahamas, Bangladesh, [and] Pakistan.” (Global Witness).

  • Taiwan, a particularly climate vulnerable country, was blocked by China from participating. (Washington Post).

  • There are nearly double the number of fossil fuel delegates than indigenous delegates. (Global Witness).

In addition to having less representation, civil society groups told the Guardian that “their ability to observe, interact and intervene in negotiations” on loss and damage has been obstructed. Those negotiations are thus on shaky grounds.

But that doesn’t mean vulnerable nations are out of options. Developed countries might not have to come willingly.

The Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, and the Pacific nation of Tuvalu are done begging their oppressors to save them. “They are tired of empty words and vague commitments,” the countries’ lawyer, Payam Akhavan, told CBS news. “And they now want to use international law … to reframe the whole climate change issue.”

Last week, the two threatened island countries registered a new commission with the United Nations, which will seek a way to directly sue polluting countries for the destabilizing impacts of their excessive carbon emissions. The newly-formed Commission of Small Island States on Climate Change and International Law will be in charge of developing new “environmental norms and practices” under a 1982 U.N. marine law convention.

In developing those new practices, the commission will seek opinions from the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea—an independent U.N. legal body—on the legal responsibility of countries’ carbon pollution. If the legal body says developed countries can be held responsible, then threatened countries could begin launching lawsuits against polluting nations like India and China.

Still, threatened island nations wouldn’t be able to go after the United States, as they are not a signatory to the 1982 convention. They wouldn’t be able to pursue fossil fuel companies, either.

The new commission is thus not a holistic way for threatened countries to hold polluting ones accountable. It’s just a start, and an uncertain one at that. But for island nations facing certain annihilation from climate change, it’s also an opportunity for a truly equal playing field. Plus, any new beginning is better than the end.

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