COP26 at the micro level

(Pacific climate talanoa) By the beginning of the second week of September, the informal Pacific Regional Talanoa Group (PRTG), of which I am a member, was suitably enthused to start its virtual talanoa series on the issues of COP26, scheduled to meet in Scotland on 31 October – 12 November 2021. The group had access to eight discussion papers released by the Griffith Asia Institute’s (GAI) climate diplomacy programme. The group is grateful to Dr Mahendra Kumar[1], an independent climate change expert, for these papers. Dr Kumar authored one of the papers.

The group chose to discuss the papers as listed by Dr Kumar. Clearly the papers generated different responses from the discussants: helped of course by the contextual framing of the papers. Some were clearly upbeat. One or two were not. Others generated pessimism. But there was a trend evident. The optimism of the first few papers slumped into progressive pessimism towards the end. This was helped, evidently, by negativity that was being heard from the UN General Assembly (UNGA) during the time of the discussions: from world leaders, including the dire warning by the UN Secretary General (UNSG).

The ‘Road to COP26: Timeline of Pacific diplomacy’ by Adjunct Associate Professor Dr Tess Newton Cain clearly states that GAI “was exploring what this means for Australia as a member of the Pacific Islands Forum.” For the PRTG discussants, this was heartening. If Australia, considered a climate change laggard, was being briefed alongside other Forum members with the same briefing materials, there was possibility of regional unity at least at COP26.

Fulori Manoa’s paper: ‘The Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS)’ early advocacy on climate and security at the United Nations’ brought about celebratory mood to the group.  We celebrated the work of our PSIDS champions in Ambassador Robert Aisi of Papua New Guinea and Ambassador Marlene Moses of Nauru for forcefully debating the connection between climate and security. Such a connection is now codified by the UN and its agencies, particularly the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Two similarly-themed papers followed: ‘Time to link diplomacy to action – climate change is at our doorstep’ and ‘Achieving strong COP26 outcomes on climate finance for the Pacific through climate diplomacy.’ These were authored by Bernadette Carreon and Exsley Taloiburi respectively.

Still buoyed up by the success of our PSIDS’ champions at the UN, the group discussants were convinced that the diplomatic skills of these champions and others alongside them, including diplomats and experts additionally mobilised from the various capitals, were sufficiently driven and targeted to carry the day in any international meeting, like COP26. The group discussants were so persuaded when they realised the extent of technicality which the second paper above entailed.

The next paper: ‘The urgency of action: Lessons for COP26 from the COVID-19 pandemic for the Pacific’ continued to buoy up the group discussants. The paper was co-authored by Nick Howlett and Anna Naupa. Basing it on the region’s relative success in managing COVID-19, the authors pulled out three lessons that can strengthen the region’s collective strategies for COP26.

Lesson One was that ‘a global crisis response at scale is possible but must be equitable.’ The region is calling for increased political will multilaterally to move forward on the commitments of the Paris Declaration. Should the political will be not forthcoming on the scale demanded by conditions on the ground, then some scaling down could take place. However, this should not jeopardise equity. The group discussants put the latter down to the fact that since the region and especially the PSIDS face an existential threat in climate change, implied in the Boe Declaration, any global reparatory initiative should really be preferentially directed at PSIDS at the forefront of the climate war. The group discussants are keeping their fingers crossed for that to be the case.

Lesson Two dealt with the role of governments for effective crisis response. The group discussants were positive about this and put it down to as a given. Later, however, this fact was to raise some questions regarding viability in the context of the collective regional approach to COP26.

Lesson Three asked the wealthiest nations to have a moral imperative to support developing nations during a crisis. The group discussants did not suffer any pangs against that in the context of the divided, unequal and inequitable world we live in.  They noted, however, that PSIDS were directing these lessons to COP26 for consideration of especially three issues, viz: climate finance, loss and damage and transparency.

The next paper to be discussed was: ‘Pacific climate diplomacy – strength in solidarity’ by Dr Kumar. The group discussants saw not only the desirability of the statement but also its urgency. Solidarity by way of regionalism makes a lot of sense to the group discussants. This was brought home when the group discussed the next paper by Ernest Gibson: ‘Pacific Pawa: Understanding how power differs in the context of Pacific climate diplomacy’. The Pacific Pawa (power) in Gibson’s view is by way of regionalism: Pacific regionalism in particular.

It soon dawned upon the minds of the group, however, that given the existing fractured state of Pacific regionalism, its power in COP26 – or in any other international forums for that matter, would be somewhat dissipated. This realisation dampened the elated mood of the group; and we began then to plant seeds of doubt about any success at COP26.

At this time of the discussions, the group was beginning to hear various statements from world leaders from the UNGA. Most prominent of these was the statement by the UNSG who said that the “critical meeting…. in Scotland is at risk of failure because of mistrust between developed and developing countries and lack of ambitious goals among some emerging economies.”  Five days the UNSG said: “We are on the edge of an abyss – and moving in the wrong direction….I’m here to sound the alarm. The world must wake up….The world has never been more threatened and divided.”

The group was thunder-struck by these comments. All remaining optimism quickly morphed to growing pessimism. That was not aided by the realisation that PSIDS may have lost the high moral ground when it comes to climate change. But that will be the subject of another talanoa series.

That state of mind became our prevailing mood towards the end of our talanoa. This was further cemented when the group saw the picture of the late Hon Tony de Brum, former Foreign Minister of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, on the first page of our last discussion paper. The paper was: ‘Pacific climate diplomacy and the road to COP26’, authored by Dr Wesley Morgan.

The late Minister’s picture underlined the existing fracture within Pacific regionalism and the realisation that the full impact of the region’s integrity will not be felt due particularly to the absence of the Micronesians from the Forum. PRTG members were particularly reminded of the late Minister’s role in the negotiations, especially in 2015, when he played an effective role in a major breakthrough that led to the conclusion of the negotiations on the Paris Agreement.

The PRTG concluded its talanoa series on 22 September – still over a month away from the opening of COP26. The group discussants did not draw any conclusions to the talanoa. But what remained unsaid, and which could be the unequivocal hope of many: that we will be proven wrong by the results of COP26 and all that pessimism building up towards it may have been somewhat overstated.

[1] Dr Kumar is not a member of the PRTG