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Pacific islanders struggle at COP26 climate summit as pandemic keeps leaders away

by Alister Doyle | @alisterdoyle | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 4 November 2021 19:30 GMT

Seve Paeniu, Finance Minister of the Pacific island state of Tuvalu, stands by a statue of polar bears wearing life jackets to warn delegates at COP26 in Glasgow of the risks of rising sea levels, on November 4, 20201. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alister Doyle

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Pacific islanders are pressing for deep cuts in emissions at COP26 even though leaders of just three nations in the region - Palau, Fiji and Tuvalu - have made it to Glasgow

By Alister Doyle

GLASGOW, Nov 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Pacific islanders at risk of rising sea levels are struggling to be heard at the climate summit in Glasgow as the COVID-19 pandemic chokes off travel from the other side of the Earth.

Only three Pacific leaders - of Palau, Fiji and Tuvalu - have travelled to the COP26 U.N. climate talks in Scotland to make speeches to press for deep cuts in greenhouse gases by major emitters led by China and the United States.

Usually, almost all the leaders of 14 Pacific island states come to the annual talks.

"It has been a huge challenge," Seve Paeniu, finance minister of Tuvalu, said of simply getting to Glasgow.

He said it was the first time he had left the low-lying nation of about 12,000 people in almost two years.

He faces a three-week quarantine on his return home to Tuvalu, one of the only countries in the world to have recorded zero cases of COVID-19.

"Islands are disappearing - we are literally sinking," he said, standing beside an exhibit of five polar bears, life-size statues wearing red life-jackets on a block representing melting ice made by Taiwanese artist Vincent Huang.

"This is the thinnest representation of Pacific islands at a COP ever," said Satyendra Prasad, Fiji's ambassador to the United Nations in New York, using the shorthand for "Conference of the Parties".

"It has been very, very hard. Most of our region is closed - there are no flights out because of COVID," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Fijian officials left at home were also trying to track complex negotiations in Glasgow in the middle of the night, often with unreliable internet connections.

"Fiji is on the other side of the globe. If we dug a hole here, I think we would come out at Fiji," he said, laughing and pointing to the floor in the summit office of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), a 44-member group.

The Glasgow talks from Oct. 31-Nov. 12 are trying to keep alive the toughest goal of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Global surface temperatures are already up about 1.2C.

Prasad said that the lack of delegates inevitably meant it was harder for some of the most vulnerable low-lying nations to be heard.

The islanders are pushing for far more climate finance, in nations hard hit by COVID-19 restrictions that have cut tourism, often the main source of revenue. Fiji's economy has contracted 20% from pre-pandemic levels.

"For some countries, 1.5 might seem a stretch, for us it is the last compromise possible," Prasad said.

Many low-lying islands already face inundation by high tides and from salt water blown onto crops by storm surges whipped up by cyclones.

Uili Lousi, an environmental activist from the Pacific nation of Tonga, pictured at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, following a journey of nearly four days, Nov. 4, 20201. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Alister Doyle


Pacific islanders want $750 billion a year in climate finance in the second half of the decade, he said, far above unmet pledges by developed nations to provide $100 billion annually by 2020.

Fiji is trying to relocate up to 75 communities inland to escape rising seas, Prasad said, up from an initial plan of about 40 a few years ago.

Shortages of climate finance make the goal hard to meet, he added.

Uili Lousi, an environmental activist from Tonga, said he had probably had the longest trip of any delegate to Glasgow. It took almost four days, with COVID-19 testing along the way, to fly via New Zealand, Los Angeles and London.

He is the only one of three Tongan delegates in Glasgow to have travelled half-way around the world, he said. His two colleagues are diplomats based in London and New York.

"But it is worth it. The solution is called the survival of humanity," he said, wearing traditional dress including two necklaces, one made of whale bone and pearl and another with seeds painted with tiny images of sea turtles.

For now, however, Scottish cold rather than global warming has been his most immediate problem.

"I had to buy a lot of clothes," he said, wearing extra layers under his traditional dress including a ta'ovala, a mat wrapped around the waist used for formal occasions in Tonga.

(Reporting by Alister Doyle; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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