A Disappointed Pacific Watches COP28 Unfold

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A Disappointed Pacific Watches COP28 Unfold

For the island nations of the Pacific, the threat of rising sea levels due to climate change is already a reality. 

A Disappointed Pacific Watches COP28 Unfold
Credit: Depositphotos

The phasing out of fossil fuels has been the talk of COP28, even if some nations have derided the conversation around moving toward a greener future as overly fanciful. But for the nations of the Pacific, the lack of action will have real consequences in the very near future. 

Already criticized for being held in one of the world’s top oil producing nations, the summit in Dubai has seen the president of COP28, Sultan Al Jaber, claim there is “no science” that indicates a phase out of fossil fuels would contribute to a restricting of global heating to 1.5 degrees Celsius and any phase out would be wholly unsustainable “unless you want to take the world back into caves.”

In the wake of these comments, over 1,000 scientists signed a letter which stated: “Moving towards the phase-out of fossil fuel combustion is necessary to keep the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement within reach.”

For nations in the Pacific, which will bear the initial brunt of a seemingly inevitable rise in sea levels as a result of climate change, comments like those from Al Jaber form part of a larger view that the global North believes “business as usual” is the order of day, even if some larger polluters have pushed hard for change at the summit. 

Others, including Saudi Arabia, India, China, and Russia have pushed hard against any significant and meaningful reduction of fossil fuel use, even if some have simultaneously pushed for a promotion of green energy. 

On Monday, multiple nations criticized a draft text for a deal that failed to call for a “phase-out” of oil, gas, and coal. There has been hope that a deal on a policy to phase out fossil fuels was within reach, so the text came as a dramatic blow to those ambitions, calling instead for “reducing both the consumption and production of fossil fuels.”

The island nations in the Pacific have been left stunned at the communiqué.

The U.N. World Meteorological Organization confirmed that 2023 is “almost certain” to be the hottest year on record. And the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) say they are “concerned” their voices weren’t being heard during the summit. 

“[W]e feel our voices are not being heard, while it appears that several other Parties have enjoyed preferential treatment, compromising the transparency and inclusivity of the process,” AOSIS chair, Minister Cedric Schuster of Samoa, said in a statement. 

AFP reported that Vanuatu’s climate change minister, Ralph Regenvanu, believed the majority want a fossil fuel-free world in the future, but a small minority are scuppering the efforts to attain it. 

“The majority of countries now agree to have language on fossil fuels. There’s only a few countries that are holding out,” he said said on Sunday. “So that is the will of the majority. We need the small minority of countries that is blocking progress to shift the position, and that’s what we’re working on for the next couple of days.”

In an upbeat tone, Al Jaber called on all nations – despite his own pushing a strong narrative around a lack of reform – to be “more flexible” and noted that “the world is watching.” 

“Yes, we have made progress, but we still have a lot to do,” he said. “You know I want you to deliver the highest ambition on all items including on fossil fuel language.”

In response, the leaders from the Pacific were incredulous. Reuters reported on Tuesday that the draft statement was also too weak for Australia, Canada, Chile, Norway, the European Union, and the United States.

Schuster said the draft text wouldn’t lead to meaningful change in limiting temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. As a result, his nation, and the many others that make up the region, will be in peril. 

“We are greatly concerned that this lack of a platform to air our views has resulted in weak language that will obliterate our chances of maintaining the 1.5°C warming limit,” he said. 

“If we do not have strong mitigation outcomes at this COP, then this will be remembered as the COP where 1.5 would have died. This should not be the legacy of this UAE COP.”

He said any text that compromised on 1.5 degrees would be rejected outright. “Finance and mitigation must go hand in hand. Developed countries must lead because they have the resources to do so, we call on major economies to take the lead here in finance flows,” he said. 

“We will not sign our death certificate. We cannot sign on to text that does not have strong commitments on phasing out fossil fuels.”

For many of the nations from the Global North, the phasing out of fossil fuels is important, but not imperative to their own immediate survival. In Australia, the largest economy in the Oceania region, the debate around fossil fuels – especially coal – has focused on industry. Culture wars also play a part, with some politicians downplaying the impacts of climate change altogether, let alone at the behest of finance and industry. Others are agnostic on the issue, pushing hard for the adoption of nuclear energy, which is currently banned in Australia, over other forms of renewable energy.

For the nations in the Pacific however, there is a sense of injustice. As I have written in these pages regularly, the battle of the Pacific between the traditional Western powers, and China, has been at the forefront, with the last few years shaped by a realpolitik battle for the hearts and minds of politicians. However, the Pacific will rightly feel that this interest should extend to the valuing of their lives – not just their support in a proxy war. 

“[W]e remind you yet again – our small island developing states are on the frontlines of this climate crisis, but if you continue prioritizing profit over people, you are putting your own future on the line,” Schuster said. 

The result of COP28 will likely see little real change to the economies of the Global North. But for the nations of the Pacific, the threat of rising tides as a result of climate change is not a faraway hypothetical, but a reality.