Island nations in the Pacific often play a major role at UN climate conferences. The speeches and coalition-building of leaders from nations that will soon vanish beneath rising sea levels act as a powerful reminder of the real stakes. For obvious reasons, these leaders also tend to push hard for ambitious climate deals that will protect the most vulnerable countries.
Last week, it emerged that a third of Pacific small island states and territories do not have any government figures attending COP26, largely due to the quarantine periods they would face on their return to mostly Covid-free nations. This week, Reuters reported that just four leaders from these islands—Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, and Palau—will attend COP26. Low-lying Pacific Islands are being battered by the climate crisis—not just from rising temperatures and changing weather patterns, but more urgently as rising sea levels threaten to submerge whole countries.
COP26 is seen as a particularly high stakes event because it marks the deadline for the second round of national climate pledges, which are made every five years. It is thus a crucial moment for ramping up climate goals. Current climate commitments put the world on track for a 2.7C rise in temperature this century, the UN says, well above the 1.5C target of the Paris Agreement, which will already be catastrophic for many Pacific Island nations.
Pacific Islands will still have representatives at the conference, but the absence of those higher up in government is important. And they are not the only people who will be missing from COP26. Covid-19 restrictions, long visa processes, soaring hotel prices, and changing quarantine policies are keeping many would-be delegates at home. As a result, COP president Alok Sharma's plans for the conference to be “an inclusive summit where all voices are heard” are starting to look more than a little bleak.
Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, notes that most of the countries previously on the UK’s travel “red list” were the poorest developing countries. While the UK has now lifted the red list category for most nations, which has certainly helped many more attend the conference, “many will still not make it,” he says.
The UK’s muddled decisions with regard to its red list have made things even more difficult for some. In response to pressure from civil society groups, the UK offered to cover the costs of the five-day quarantine in full (it had already reduced the required hotel stay from 10 to 5 days for COP26 delegates). But Alejandro Aleman, coordinator of the Latin America branch of the influential nonprofit network Climate International Network (CAN), says that when the UK then removed 47 countries from the red list in early October, many who had already bought plane tickets were faced with paying for five extra days of accommodation to replace the quarantine period.
“At least four organizations from CAN Latin America that I know canceled their participation because they couldn't afford additional days,” Aleman says. He estimates that around two-thirds of civil society organization members in Latin America that would usually participate in UN climate talks are not participating in COP26.
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There have also been holdups with visas for delegates seeking to enter the UK. Maria Aguilar, an associate lawyer at the Colombian nonprofit Ambiente y Sociedad says she applied for a visa to attend COP26 on July 27 but that it only arrived on October 20, a day before her flight. “So the whole planning was filled with uncertainty,” she says. “I could call and write back because I speak English and had a credit card in hand, but I can imagine the trouble of those people that don’t have [these things].”
A lack of civil society participation from countries vulnerable to climate change will have a significant impact on the outcome of the conference, says Aleman. For example, CAN Latin America is among those pushing for loss and damage—the irreversible losses to people from climate change, such as losing homes or land—to be established as a “pillar of the negotiations,” something many rich countries have strongly resisted.
In early September, criticisms about COP26 came to a head when CAN called for the conference to be postponed, arguing that “a safe, inclusive, and just global climate conference” was now impossible. The UK COP26 Coalition, which backed the call, said time had run out for a “normal and inclusive” conference.
But many vulnerable countries did not agree, arguing that despite the issues, COP26, which was already delayed by a year due to the pandemic, must go ahead. Aguilar says she believes postponing COP26 in its totality was not an option. “We have seen the damage caused by its postponement due to Covid-19, and the delay of climate action,” she says.
Meanwhile, many of the richest countries plan to attend COP26 with large delegations. The US—historically a very powerful player at UN talks—will reportedly be sending 13 cabinet members and senior administration officials alongside dozens of other delegates. Conference organizers have been swamped with inquiries from the rich and powerful who plan to attend, according to Politico. “My feeling is that the gap in terms of participation between the powerful countries and the vulnerable ones is increasing,” says Aleman.
It continues to look likely that China’s Xi Jinping won’t attend the conference, although as president of the world’s biggest emitter you can be pretty sure any messages he has will be passed on. Both Queen Elizabeth and the Pope have canceled their attendance for medical reasons. And the European Union, while still sending plenty of delegates, has instructed them to avoid social events at the conference due to the UK's rising Covid-19 cases, which are now the second highest globally, after the US.
COPs are by no means the only venue for climate action, but important decisions are made there, and they present crucial opportunities for those most impacted by climate change to have their voices heard. With the world currently on track to exceed 1.5C of warming in around a decade, the absence of the most at-risk nations is something we, and they, can ill afford.
This story originally appeared on WIRED UK.
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