The U.S. President Joe Biden and the French President Emanuel Macron sat down Monday with over 100 other counterparts. Despite the geopolitical clout and wealth of these countries, Mia Mottley (Prime Minister of small Barbados) was invited to address COP26 alongside the British host. “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.
International climate negotiations are a fascinating arena. I enjoy watching the small island countries and other nations that are particularly vulnerable to storms and rising seas. 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.”
It has proved difficult, however to keep that proclamation in force. The journey from Glasgow poses a risk to health for many people in developing countries who lack the COVID-19 vaccinations. Complexity was made worse by travel restrictions, as well as limited availability and expensive accommodations. 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 nations are represented instead by missions to New York or London.
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It has all left an unpleasant taste in the mouths of those living 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.”
The challenges faced by civil society groups are even more severe. The British government did make some modifications to the travel restrictions of country delegations. However, many NGOs and organizers in developing countries struggled with managing pandemic complications. This group plays a vital role by both providing support and analysis for developing countries and building political will via protests or pressure campaigns. Many civil society groups who did travel made it were denied access and faced long waiting times.
“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. Countries have been organizing in groups in order to maximize their collective power, just like in previous COPs. There’s the Climate Vulnerable Forum, which is calling for countries to sign onto an “emergency pact” that will ensure financing for adaptation efforts. Alliance of Small Island States has called for an end of subsidies to fossil fuels. 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. The Paris talks 2015 saw the alliance play a key role in closing the gap between developed and less-developed countries.
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 also demand that financial flows be increased for adaptation measures, which will prepare for severe weather and other consequences of climate change. These measures should not only reduce carbon emissions but must also help to prevent extreme weather. “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.”