The role and influence of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in UN climate change negotiations

H.E. Ms Marlene Inemwin Moses is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Permanent Representative of Nauru to the United Nations, and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS)

She gave this speech at the ANU as part of the Crawford Barton Lecture Series, on Tuesday 19 February 2013.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Good evening.

It is an honour to be part of the Crawford Barton Theatre Lecture Series here at the Australian National University, particularly since I studied in Australia myself and later worked here as part of Nauru’s Foreign Service.

I am also delighted to see so many students from the Pacific. I can tell you that it is more important than ever for us to elevate our region’s engagement with the international community, and I hope that our conversation today helps encourage you to become more involved in public service — whether at home or abroad.

I was asked to speak about the role and influence of the Alliance of Small Island States (known by the acronym AOSIS), a coalition of low-lying island and coastal nations that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, at the United Nations climate negotiations.

As to our role, I think the instructions my former President, the Honourable Marcus Stephen gave me at the time sums it up well. He said, “Marlene, at the end of our chairmanship I want to be able to look my colleagues from Kiribati and Tuvalu in the eye and know we did our best.”

Though the President didn’t specifically spell it out, I knew exactly what he meant: Tuvalu and Kiribati are two of the countries most at risk from rising seas. If greenhouse gas emissions are not dramatically lowered immediately it will likely become impossible to keep them from going under by the end of the century, or perhaps even sooner.

I’m sure this information doesn’t come as a surprise to this audience. The unfortunate truth is that the scientific community has known for decades that human activities were dangerously warming the planet and putting the survival of entire nations at risk. It was also recognized at a relatively early stage that the best hope for doing something about it was for the international community to reach an agreement to lower the emissions responsible for the crisis.

AOSIS formed to advocate for precisely that objective at the United Nations under the leadership of Vanuatu, which became the group’s first Chair in 1991. In the ensuing years, the group’s membership has grown to include 39 diverse countries and five observer states from around the world, fully one-fifth of the UN’s voting membership.

Early on, AOSIS earned reputation for advocating for policies that are rigorously based in science and calculated to reduce emissions to a level that is consistent with the survival of all our members. In fact, the first UN proposal calling for a multilateral approach to tackling the dilemma, what would eventually become the Kyoto Protocol, was drafted by Nauru and submitted under the chairmanship of Trinidad and Tobago in 1994.

Since, AOSIS has been out front on many of the solutions that have become synonymous with the process, including playing a key role in the agreement that many observers credited with saving the climate negotiations from collapse in Durban in 2011 and the inclusion of a plan for Loss and Damage in the outcome reached in Doha last year.

“Loss and Damage” refers to impacts of climate change that can no longer be addressed by mitigating emissions or helping countries adapt to environmental changes—when our coral reefs fade away, gardens turn to dust, and sea walls succumb to ferocious waves.

Tragically this is now the reality for many countries in our membership, particularly in this region.

Cyclone Evan, one of the unusually powerful storms that have become more frequent in the Pacific, recently cut a path of destruction across Fiji before moving onto Samoa where it left forty five hundred people homeless. Earlier last year, Nauru suffered one of the worst droughts in memory, which left us just days from running out of drinking water. Tuvalu has suffered such severe droughts in recent years some have wondered if the country will be forced to evacuate because of water shortages long before the sea around it washes over.

Tragically, communities on some of Papua New Guinea’s outlying islands and in parts of the Solomon Islands, have already been forced to flee their homes for higher ground. Forced displacement is one of the most difficult realities for the people of the Pacific, but one, unfortunately, we can no longer ignore.

The Pacific is not alone, of course. Over the past several months, consecutive record storms have killed thousands and left hundreds of thousands more without shelter in the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.

In the Middle East, recent satellite data revealed that an amount of freshwater water equivalent to the volume of the Dead Sea has been lost in the past seven years alone. I could go on.

Now I want to delve a bit further into our proposal on Loss and Damage because it addresses the “new normal” of climate change I outlined above, and because I think it is emblematic of some of the important roles we play at the climate negotiations, as both intellectual leader and voice of the most vulnerable.

Our proposal consists of three-parts, what we have been calling an “international mechanism”. It dates back to the earliest days of the climate talks and is referenced in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Furthermore, it draws on numerous principles of international law, including the responsibility of a state, polluter pays, common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities, intergenerational equity, trans-boundary harm and others.

The first component recognizes that managing climate impacts demands acquiring baseline historical information about weather hazards and quantified assessments of a variety of new risks. The data should be used to guide the development and implementation of country-specific measures that reduce exposure to climate impacts in the first place.

The second part resembles insurance systems commonly found in the developed world and would cover countries for costs associated with sudden climate impacts, such as tropical storms, hurricanes, floods, and droughts. This is particularly relevant for small islands because our populations tend to be concentrated in highly vulnerable coastal zones. What’s more, the elevated risks we face often make the cost of insurance premiums prohibitive, if coverage is available at all.

Finally, the plan calls for the creation of an international solidarity fund that would compensate countries for economic and non-economic losses stemming from slow-onset climate impacts, such as sea-level rise, ocean acidification, coral bleaching, saltwater intrusion and desertification. This could include lost revenue to the tourism and fishing industries, cultural impacts, and, in the worse-case, the cost of relocation should islands become uninhabitable.

The submission took many by surprise in Doha and was the focus of a furious debate in the final hours of the talks. I think two things caught people off guard: First, is that the very fact we have to talk about Loss and Damage—not hypothetically but out of necessity—after over two decades of negotiations in some way concedes that we have failed to achieve the ultimate objective of the Convention; that, for some, mitigation and adaptation are no longer enough.

Second, I don’t think developed countries, which by and large are not comfortable with Loss and Damage, expected to encounter such a united front by developing countries on the issue. In meeting after meeting, news report after news report, AOSIS, the Least Developed Countries Group, Africa and the G77 and China, were all saying the same thing and refused to just let the issue drop by the wayside for the sake of expedience.

For AOSIS, this marked a new level of cooperation with developing countries at the talks, particularly with the LDCs and Africa. Together we represent 100 countries with over 920 million people. This is a trend I think promises to break new ground at the talks and one I hope continues as we move toward signing the comprehensive climate treaty in 2015.

I have said something about the role we play at the talks, as a moral and intellectual leader, and went into some of the details about the policy initiatives we have succeeded in advancing.

But, as the debate over Loss and Damage implicitly acknowledges, there is a difference between advancing policy and keeping emissions out of the atmosphere. This point provides a convenient segue for turning to the second part of the title of the talk: that it, the influence of AOSIS in the UN climate negotiations.

There is no doubt in my mind that AOSIS—thanks to the important work accomplished by my predecessors in years past—has not only left a mark on the climate talks, but on the public consciousness when it comes to climate change.

As the representative of civilizations that have thrived for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years, but on the present path won’t make it to the end of the century, the group carries considerable moral authority into the negotiating rooms. In fact, if we put up a united front, our numbers can make or break a negotiation.

Furthermore, we consistently appear in media coverage about climate change, and I can tell you from personal experience that when I make a critical comment on the record about one or another country’s position, it’s not long before I hear about it. So I’m confident we are being heard and that what we do at the UNFCCC matters.

But it is still hard to reconcile the progress we have made toward keeping emissions out of the atmosphere with the facts of climate change on the ground. Perhaps purposefully, the climate negotiations have become very much divorced from the decision-makers in capitals around the world who at the end of the day have to choose to solve this problem or not. Back in 2010, at the UN climate conference in Cancun, the former President of Nauru the Honourable Marcus Stephen, told the Plenary that the talks had become (quote) “lost in a fog of rhetoric and jargon” (unquote). What he meant was that even as technical experts on accounting rules and international lawyers fuss over the precise wording of this esoteric clause or that, the larger political battle to persuade key politicians to set aside short-term interests for the sake of the survival of island nations and in time civilization as we know it, is passing us by. In other words, complexity is too often used to disguise a lack of progress.

We aren’t going to solve this problem by making sure all of the commas in the negotiating text are just so. Unless or until world leaders invest the political capital needed to truly rebuild the global economy, we will never get off this merry-go-round.

So that raises a related question: who influences the politicians?

It is no secret that fossil fuel interests hold undue power in capitals around the world. In fact, my experts tell me that the revenue of the top ten oil companies in the world exceeds the combined GDP of all the countries in AOSIS, LDCs and Africa combined.

So how does AOSIS match up against some of the most powerful corporations in the world? Fortunately, we are not in this fight alone. The vast majority of people across the globe are committed to taking action and a broad movement in civil society is championing the cause.

The record flooding and fires seen here in Australia, and the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy, stands as a stark reminder that no country, large or small, is immune to climate change. What’s more, the remarks made by President Obama in his State of the Union address on climate change were some of the most thoughtful of his Presidency.

As I was departing New York last week, tens of thousands of people were assembling in Washington D.C. for the Forward on Climate rally. It was expected to be the biggest call to action of its kind in the U.S. capital and from my perspective we are closer to real action on climate from the United States than ever before.

This would be a significant advancement for the talks, and our job, including the those interested in making a difference on climate change in the audience here, is to make sure all of our leaders seize the opportunity to turn words into concrete action.

Thank you.