COP21 – The Paris Outcome and the role of the Small Pacific Islands

Honours student Callista Barritt examines the role of Pacific Island nations at COP21

What has already been dubbed “the Paris Outcome” seems to so far have been met with jubilation that any agreement was met at all, after low expectations the world has for negotiations following the dismally discouraging failure in Copenhagen. However, it is important to keep in mind that, while the major developed nations congratulate themselves for what a good job they did in making Paris a success, small countries in the Pacific played an important role in negotiating a better outcome for developing nations already hard-hit by climate change. Even so, the targets still won’t prevent devastating effects on low-lying islands around the world that are already taking place.

While US President Barack Obama claimed the agreement as a “tribute to American leadership” and the French basked in praise for their diplomacy skills, the role of Pacific nations, who were active and organised in pushing for ambitious action at the summit, should not be underrated. Pacific people understand the seriousness of their situation and know that the lauded target of 2 degrees, reducing to 1.5 degrees, will not be enough to save their islands. And they are not distracted by the loud self-congratulations of the Euro-American nations. “History will judge the result not on the basis of today’s agreement, but on what we will do from today,” qualified Thoriq Ibrahim, Minister of the Environment Maldives and Chairman of the Group of Small Island States.

Not only the political elite, but also ordinary people are making it clear that although the region is sidelined as small and unimportant in the world of international relations, Pacific Islanders are all too aware that the effects of climate change are hitting them hard and fast, and they are doing all they can to protect their islands and communities.

On Sunday, 29 November, I saw the hope of tens of thousands of people in Sydney shine through for the future of the planet at the Peoples’ Climate March, while similar events were held in many other cities in Australia and throughout the world. The community of Pacific Islanders in Sydney was visibly prominent. On Wednesday, 2 December, 250 people calling themselves the ‘People’s Parliament’ made a more direct message to the politicians of their dissatisfaction with Australia’s disappointing climate policies by going straight to Federal Parliament House and occupying the lobby for several hours. Although I wasn’t in Canberra on Wednesday, the numerous images and videos of Pacific people speaking about their plight and demonstrating their cultural pride and strength in the face of it was obviously inspiring to those who were.

Unsurprisingly, the French territories of the Pacific were very engaged in what transpired in Paris. However, I had to turn to French-language sources to find out about what was happening in the Francophone Pacific. If the voices of people from the Pacific are not listened to often enough in relation to climate change, those from the French islands are rarely ever heard in Anglophone media.

As in the rest of the Pacific, people in New Caledonia and French Polynesia are concerned about the impacts of climate change in their region. Local leaders, such as the President of French Polynesia, Edouard Fritch, like other political leaders in the Pacific, are speaking much more strongly about the need to seriously tackle climate change than most other nations. “Are we willing to fight in solidarity, whether large or small in this world, against climate change?” he said in Paris before the summit to the French Minister of Overseas Territories, while citing the very real problems. Polynesian mayors are reporting to him about the effects climate change is already having locally, and calling for COP21 to not only be an affair of larger countries, but also listen to the needs of smaller countries: “We express the hope that COP21 is not just a summit of the major countries. We express the hope that our small states, invited to the COP21, are not stooges or spectators of a large planetary mass media in the service of great nations.”

Local environmental organisations were also facilitating ordinary people to be engaged in climate issues leading up to the summit in Paris. A large concern throughout the Pacific, including the French territories, has been potential displacement due to climate change. A creative demonstration in New Caledonia made a visual representation of these impacts by standing in the ocean carrying bundles over their shoulders to portray themselves as “climate refugees”. Young people are of course particularly concerned about their future, and in French Polynesia many school pupils made their own recommendations to COP21, which reflected their concerns to work towards a better way of living within the natural world and moving towards a greener economy.

These are simply a few examples from personal experience, acquaintances, and my interest in our local region of people concerned about climate change who want to create a better future. Paris may be lauded as a success, but nothing concrete has been done yet. Let us not turn our attention away from our leaders after the media frenzy covering the conference and forget to keep them accountable to their promises. Perhaps our best hope now is that the momentum and energy mobilising everyday people around these talks will continue to grow, and that we are all encouraged by each other to take action into our own hands and create the future we all hope for.

Callista Barritt completed a Joint Honours in Anthropology and French Studies at the University of Sydney. Her project examined discourses around climate change and migration in the French Pacific, the way dominant media and policy representations of the region contribute to the reproduction of relations of inequality between large wealthy nations and small Pacific islands, and the contrast with perspectives from indigenous Pacific people that create alternative, empowering and sustainable local futures.

Image: ConexiónCOP Agencia de noticias ’11-COP21_Foto de familia presidentes’ via Flickr Commons