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Voices from the Frontlines: The Plight of Small Island States

Caroline Mair-Toby

18 November 2022, 4:05am EST

At the time of writing, Small Island States at the United Nations Framework Conference of Climate Change (UNFCCC ) Conference of the Parties (COP) 27 negotiations are fighting for life.

For your life, for my life, our children’s lives, and for the lives of the next seven generations to come.

I don’t speak out of a desire to shock, to launch a diatribe, or appeal to a dramatic urge within the reader to propel them towards crisis or climate grief. I speak a simple, cold, hard fact.

They’re fighting for funding on loss and damage. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) issued a strong statement on Wednesday accusing some developed countries of "furiously trying to stall progress" on financing for a loss and damage fund and essentially scupper any agreement on the matter, which could undermine trust and therefore undermine progress on the summit toward climate justice. And the seven generations we were chatting about earlier. (Remember them? Please, keep up, you guys forget them way too often.)

One small island negotiator anonymously describes the process to me as “frustrating.” So far, negotiations on the technical facility have been successful, which is no small feat, but the funding lags woefully behind. COP27 is scheduled to end today, but I doubt it will end on time.

Let me tell you something about these AOSIS negotiators. They are heroes.

During Cop26, I watched them trudge through icy mornings and long lines in freezing fingers and still laugh and talk and show up to negotiate. At this Cop27, they dealt with endless inconveniences in a desert. Some left children with birthdays, some braved hurricanes threatening their very front doors, leaving their families to fight for your earth.

I had the unique honor of stepping in as one of them this year after around ten years of advising small islands from the NGO side, and this is my emotional testimony, as much as I can without breaking confidence as a representative of my country within the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). I understand what the AOSIS Chair mentioned, as they fight against those trying to scupper this agreement, and my heart has been broken as a result for our very earth.

The true heroes of Cop27 are not the ones you see giving speeches at events at Cop27. It’s not the heads of states, or the ESG touts, or the sustainability mavens. The true heroes are the ones you don’t see, tucked away in the negotiations, slogging it out at all levels. I don’t include myself here - I’m talking especially about the ones who have been doing it for years. Even the new ones learning the ropes, building capacity for the future. The ones representing small islands and least developed countries. The most vulnerable in the face of climate collapse.

I sometimes wonder how we’re seen, if our small islands seem like ephemeral yet beautiful flowers to those from more developed, larger countries. Ornamental. I remember once a UK human rights lawyer from a surprisingly good chambers saying to me when overhearing a conversation on Eastern Caribbean politics with a colleague who had formerly worked in the UK overseas territories: “It’s crazy to think that all of that goes on where one vacations!” I couldn’t bring myself to correct her, so proud was she about the broad- mindedness of her observation. You see, you don’t see us as small islands from the centre. But we see you from the periphery. We always see you.

Indeed, we small islands are beautiful. Symbolized by the beautiful flowers AOSIS female-identifying negotiators sometimes wear tucked behind their ears. We have beautiful food, beautiful cultures, beautiful people. But be careful - these flowers have thorns. Some, (read: many) islands have also been historically exploited and subjugated because of this exceptional beauty. We don’t often take too well to objectification.

It is time the world is awakened to our strength as islands, and not just our beauty. It is time they are awakened to the inner steel that is developed when facing 500+ years of subjugations and colonialisms. It is time they know what is at stake for us, and what they stand to lose when we are gone, canaries in the coal mine that we are.

It is time the world understands our knowledges, and we also uplift our Indigenous sisters and brothers within our ranks and celebrate their scientific knowledges. We must respect all Indigenous Peoples’ and First Nation’s rights to their cultural heritage based on the fundamental rights to self-determination, inclusive of all aspects of cultural practices, traditional knowledges, resources, and knowledge systems. Because it is this knowledge that will help the earth heal.

I think we are in a liminal space, a liminal time of awakening of knowledges, of subtle memories and ancestral lineages. I think it is a time when our ancestors are whispering from their graves. These are memories we knew from before, but they were colonized and repressed. It is time to listen.

Bob Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science, highlights the lack of political will to progress.

He responded to the publication by the Egyptian Presidency of COP27 of the draft cover decision from COP27 in almost scathing terms, stating that it was “some way from being a final agreement between all of the countries.” He said although it identified “key issues being negotiated, it showed “little evidence of progress.”

The areas that were merely mentioned included increases in the ambition of emissions cuts, finance, adaptation and responses to loss and damage.

Ward seems to agree with the dire state of the negotiations, stating he was certain that the summit would “carry on past its scheduled end point into the weekend.”

Those sitting comfortably on their sofas and armchairs while they watch the evening news (or reading it on the tube, more likely) don’t realize how grueling a two-week, all day, sometimes all-night conference is. I’ve never fully been through what the negotiators have had to slog through, and I’ve been through pretty close. I’ve been on the periphery, floating outside the plenary, offering help to the negotiations inside. But unless you’re in the battle, you just don’t know.

And these negotiators, many of them women, are some of the quickest, toughest lawyers you will meet. In Cop26 Glasgow they had to negotiate while dealing with price gouging, whilst on little sleep and freezing conditions in a subarctic Glaswegian venue that was not heated for the first week, with freezing water in the facilities under the guise of sustainably lowering emissions.

At this Cop27, higher, deeper rates of price gouging, hotel room gazumping, long dry searches for water in an actual desert as water station after water station was empty.

Costs of coffee and food so high and lines so long that delegates liaised and bonded over their free coffee cart discoveries. I personally made my breakfast from my hotel into sandwiches and didn’t line up at all. Difficulty navigating the campus due to the vast venue and confusing signposting. Walking 17,000 steps before 5pm and forgetting to check at midnight when you’re still moving, zombie-like.

So, for these negotiators, “just two more days” is like telling a marathon runner at the end of the race, ribbon in view, that they have to go through a detour and add about 5 kilometers again. Faster. Without proper water or facilities. And blisters.

It means canceling tours in Cairo for weary delegates to see the pyramids, trips to coral reefs, hikes in Sinai, dips in the Red Sea, meeting family and friends in train station cafes during layovers across the globe - all cancelled, postponed if time allowing. Or maybe it means children won’t see their parents for another half a week if flights have to be pushed back. Parties cancelled; birthdays missed. Hearts broken.

Either way, it’s money, and that’s not always the easiest for negotiators or the organizations or governments supporting them. Not that a plane ticket would break the bank of a small island but think of what could happen. The reality of "extreme price gouging" by COP27 suppliers, as well as unconnected taxis and even some hotels at the beginning of the COP reared its ugly head, and those budgets allotted before the Conference especially those available for travel arrangements were ultimately reduced. Some delegates would have to leave for several other reasons - work, family, life. Their numbers would thin out. This would provide less of AOSIS mycelial support during tougher negotiations, at a time when participants from the global south, small islands in particular, would have to fight their hardest to raise political ambition in one of the most tense and difficult tracks of the negotiations - finance for loss and damage.

According to SHE Changes Climate, women continue to be affected disproportionately by poverty and face ongoing social, economic, and political barriers to equality in all parts of the world. As a result, they are disproportionately impacted by climate change.

As one of the groups which is subsequently most vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, women will experience considerable losses that cannot be addressed by adaptation or development efforts. This is what is called Loss and Damage, and this is what some countries have been currently fighting against - financing in particular.

The mapping of the consequences of climate change must be gender-sensitive and transformative. We must ensure women’s equitable participation in decision‐making and loss and damage activities. We must assess gender‐differentiated vulnerability and prioritized needs. We must integrate women’s particular vulnerability in the loss and damage accounting processes.

Climate financing needs to be increased more effectively and target the impact of climate change in communities most at risk. This plan should cut across all relevant sectors, identify urgent actions, and actively promote successful experiences for scaling up.

Back to the words of the AOSIS Chair, the Honourable Minister Molwyn Joseph of Antigua and Barbuda, as he stated in a recent address that “developed countries are furiously trying to stall progress and even worse, attempting to undermine small island developing States. So, not only are they causing the worst impacts of the climate crisis, they are playing games with us in this multilateral process.”

This must stop.

“Our countries have been pushed to their very limits, and there is no lifeline in further delay tactics. We did not cause this crisis, we are bearing the brunt of the suffering, yet we are the ones constantly asked to make concessions.”

I stand alongside small island developing States who will no longer stand for delay on loss and damage finance.

When I left the allure of Sharm el Sheikh sunsets and the glow of Giza pyramids, reality came rushing in with lost luggage, children, sticky glorious hugs, viral croup, homework, mountains of work at Mair and Company law firm. But my head and my anxiety and yes, a bit of my heart, was left with the tough, canny legal minds that were still churning away in the depths of the cop27 campus.

Away from the bright lights and the speeches.

Away from the champagne breakfasts at hotels fully booked out by sponsors and companies.

Beautiful flowers tucked behind ears, legal brains of flexible steel. Fighting for lives. Yours. Mine. Those pesky but determined and demanding seven generations staring us down from the future.

“What did you do when the world was dying?” they ask. “What did you do?” So pesky. So demanding. All seven of them.

There’s just too much riding on these tiny islands to fail.

Caroline Mair-Toby is the Chief Empowerment Officer for SHE Changes Climate, the founding Director of the Institute for Small Islands, a lawyer with Mair and Company, a lawyer and liaison officer with Legal Response International, and was most recently a small island delegate at the UNFCCC COP27 Egypt. She is following the nail-biting conclusion to the negotiations from back in the Caribbean with her two children, Imogen and Sebastian.


Update as of Saturday 19 November, 8pm AST

Since posting, updates from the dramatic conclusion from Cop27:

From not even being on the agenda, to an surprise inclusion at the beginning of the negotiations, there has been a remarkable reversal of direction, and COP27 has created a loss and damage fund to support the most vulnerable who have been impacted by the climate change.

This has been something which has been 30 years in the making by the unceasing insistence of vulnerable countries since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Bravo to all the brave negotiators still slogging it out, and ironing out the text. There is still no agreement, despite many draft texts being released.

However, there is still much work to be done. To quote Mohamed Adow, Executive Director - Power Shift Africa, “It worth noting that we have the fund but we need money to make it worthwhile. What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now at the hands of the climate crisis.”

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