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On the shoulders of giants

Pacific voices, young and old, have been calling for action at COP26

Nic Maclellan 9 November 2021 3064 words

“Follow the money”: Samoan climate campaigner Brianna Fruean. 350


In the midst of the pandemic, Pacific islanders, young and old, are campaigning for more urgent action to restrict global temperatures to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Negotiators from major industrialised countries are seeking to water down stronger climate initiatives at this year’s Conference of the Parties in Glasgow, or COP26. But Samoa’s ambassador to the United Nations, Fatumanava-o-Upolu Dr Pa’olelei Luteru, stresses, “1.5 degrees is a red line for us — we do not see that as negotiable.”

COP26 has been more challenging than normal for Pacific island delegates. Faced with pandemic restrictions, some delegations have struggled to travel halfway round the world to participate. But those who have made it to Glasgow — official delegates, youthful climate agitators and a roll call of past and present island leaders — aren’t mincing their words. The time for quiet diplomacy is long gone.

Samoan student Brianna Fruean joined a climate action group when she was eleven. Last week, as a member of the youth network Pacific Climate Warriors, she spoke at the opening ceremony of the global conference: “You don’t need my pain or my tears to know that we’re in a crisis. The real question is whether you have the political will to do the right thing.”

For Fruean and many other Pacific delegates, the pledges made at global climate negotiations are more than just words, they are a bond and a commitment. As she stood before the dignitaries assembled at the opening — including US president Joe Biden, Prince Charles and environmental elder Sir David Attenborough — she relayed the Samoan proverb E pala le ma’a, a e le pala le upu (Even stones decay, but words remain).

“They’re promises, and a lot of the time, broken promises,” she said. “If we can really be intentional with how we wield words in these spaces, those are really the compass of how we will move forward in this climate crisis. We are currently living with the consequence of inaction, and we can’t just continuously have these COPs have these conversations and use words that aren’t as ambitious as we need them to be.”

Despite this, Fruean believes that the theatre of COP speeches can still resonate with young people who are watching these summits. “I was walking back to the accommodation and these four Swedish girls stopped me and said ‘E pala le ma’a, a e le pala le upu.’ They were speaking Samoan to me and saying, ‘You’re the one who spoke at the opening ceremony!’ They had memorised the proverb! This was a very heart-warming moment for me. I feel it is an honour for us to share our culture with other people, like those Swedish teenagers.”

Another Swedish teenager, Greta Thunberg, has been leading youth activists onto the streets of Glasgow, challenging the “blah, blah, blah” of official proceedings. But Fruean contrasts the hope and pride evident among young Pacific islanders at COP26 with the despair shown by many other young people from developed countries. “There is a very strong message coming from the pālagi youth, the global North youth, that their elders have failed them,” she tells me. “But I don’t feel that way with my elders. I know that a lot of young Pacific people don’t feel that either. Our Pacific elders have not failed us, because they have continually told the world that climate change is real and we need to do something.”

She adds, “Even though it is young voices like Greta Thunberg and the school strike that push this conversation forward, in the Pacific we young people stand on the shoulders of giants, who have been doing the work before Greta was even born. I feel that Indigenous people like Pacific islanders have always carried this message.”

Outside the global climate negotiations, youth networks like the Pacific Climate Warriors are developing targeted programs to put pressure on financial institutions that invest in fossil fuel corporations.

“A big part of our work at COP26 has been around finance, particularly divestment from the fossil fuel industry,” Fruean says. “We’ve always been pushing to keep fossil fuels in the ground, in order for the Pacific to survive. So we’ve added a new tactic, with our campaigning to get banks and financial institutions to remove their money from the fossil fuel industry. If these fossil fuel industries don’t have money for their extraction, it will make things so much harder for them.

“Governments have promised us money [through adaptation climate finance] but they’ve also been giving money to the industries that are destroying us,” she adds. “That’s why we are trying to follow the money. We want Lloyds of London and the Bank of England and other financial institutions to take their investments out of coal and oil — and that work goes on beyond COP26.”


Across the Pacific islands, churches, mosques and temples play a crucial social and political, as well as spiritual, role. Through the Pacific Conference of Churches, or PCC, mainline Christian churches are involved in a range of social justice campaigns around the environment, poverty and self-determination for Indigenous peoples.

In recent days, PCC general secretary James Bhagwan has been rushing from meeting to press conference to demonstration in Glasgow. As a member of the World Council of Churches delegation, the Indo-Fijian church leader says he’ll speak to the summit on behalf of the global ecumenical network. “As an official observer, the WCC speaks at plenary,” he tells me. “However on an alphabetical list we are always at the end, so probably I’ll speak at the end of the week very late at night. Given the fact that the Australian prime minister made his speech to an almost empty room, it won’t be much different for me!”

Echoing the appeal on “Faith and Science” issued by Pope Francis and religious leaders on 4 October, Bhagwan argues that “faith communities have been quite clear on the moral imperative around the human and non-human impacts of climate change. We have not just focused on the anthropocentric aspects of climate change, but also the more ecological and biodiversity aspects.”

He stresses the capacity of religious denominations in the Pacific to reach out to every town, village and tribe, a key network for climate advocacy and community education. Faith communities are “very important in terms of mobilisation of communities,” he says. “The key part of this discussion is about the social transformation that has to take place. This is where civil society and faith-based communities have a crucial role.”

Smaller island states like Tuvalu, Kiribati and Marshall Islands have long been crucial diplomatic players at the global negotiations. This year, however, a number of Pacific countries have been unable to send large delegations. The disruption of airline schedules, the diverse quarantine regimes that islanders must transit to reach Glasgow, the added expense of travel in a pandemic, and a fear of bringing coronavirus back to largely Covid-free nations are all factors that have limited the size of most Pacific delegations to this year’s summit.

Dismissing “the circus of COP” — the celebrities and speeches, the salespeople and snake oil merchants — Bhagwan highlights the important work of Pacific negotiators.

“This year, we have a very small number of Pacific negotiators and they have to work two or three times as hard, because they are small in numbers and thin on the ground,” he says. “Everybody is spread really, really thin. Negotiators and delegates need to double up in the spaces that exist, but you may find that people get called out of meetings to go into other bilateral meetings.”

Bhagwan says this is a major problem for Pacific delegations, facing up against legions of fossil fuel lobbyists in Glasgow: “This is one of those places where numbers matter. You can see the strain on our delegations already, just not having enough people. Each thematic area needs at least one negotiator, but you need two or three to back up.”

Beyond his own advocacy work in Glasgow, Bhagwan has found himself in a pastoral role, supporting the exhausted team who are working to advance Pacific agendas: “Our work is talking with our Pacific people and encouraging them, praying with them for those of the Christian faith, to help with the stress that they are under.”

While the northern hemisphere media often highlights the David and Goliath battle of Pacific states, the concrete proposals initiated by island governments are often overlooked. At COP26, for example, Forum Island countries have highlighted the oceans/climate nexus, looking at how warming ocean temperatures will affect the migration of tuna stocks and damage reef ecologies and marine biodiversity. Marshall Islands and Solomon Islands have been campaigning for action on maritime emissions at the International Maritime Organization. Pacific governments championed a recent resolution at the UN Human Rights Council creating a Special Rapporteur on Climate Change and Human Rights.

A function organised by the Office of the Pacific Oceans Commissioner launched the region’s new Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-related Sea-Level Rise, which seeks to expand international law on maritime rights. The statement, adopted in August, proclaims that the rights and entitlements that flow from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea “shall continue to apply, without reduction, notwithstanding any physical changes connected to climate change-related sea-level rise.”

A crucial objective of Pacific delegations is to finalise the rulebook for implementation of the Paris agreement on climate change. Another objective is to lock in predictable, accessible and targeted climate finance for developing countries, increasing the global commitment of funding for adaptation, and loss and damage. Joining delegates from the Caribbean and Indian Ocean, Forum Island countries amplify their message as members of wider alliances, such as the Higher Ambition Coalition, the Climate Vulnerable Forum, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States.

In Glasgow, Pacific island delegations have established a ‘Blue Moana’ space as an exhibition centre and meeting room. It’s a hub for the united OneCROP team, which assembles the delegates, experts and negotiators from the Council of Regional Organisations of the Pacific. But Bhagwan notes that “unfortunately this year the Blue Moana space is much smaller than usual and they’ve been put out of the way. Normally these spaces are a place for our team to congregate, but with Covid protocols in place, it’s really a very, very difficult place for people to work in.”


Australian prime ministers Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull have continued to intervene in political debates since they left office. In the same way, former Pacific island leaders have a level of freedom to speak without the constraints facing current officeholders. They can also present perspectives from island nations that are often watered down in the final communiqués of the Pacific Islands Forum, where Australia often stands against the agenda advanced by its Pacific neighbours.

To complement the urgent voices of Pacific youth, a new network of former presidents, prime ministers and senior officials has entered the fray — Pacific Elders Voice. Its members make up a roll call of island leaders who have been active in COPs for many years, including former Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga and recently retired Micronesian presidents Anote Tong of Kiribati, Hilda C. Heine of Marshall Islands and Tommy Remengesau Jr of Palau. They are joined by leading Chamorro scholar and politician Robert Underwood of Guahan (Guam), and the outgoing secretary-general of the Pacific Islands Forum, Dame Meg Taylor of Papua New Guinea.

In a series of statements, tweets and speeches, the Pacific Elders have played a prophetic role during COP26. They seek more urgent action to maintain temperature rises below 1.5°C, more targeted and accessible climate finance, and call for G20 nations to end fossil fuel subsidies by 2025. They propose a new climate Marshall Plan, on a scale similar to reconstruction after the second world war, to “rapidly decarbonise the global economy and provide the necessary financial support to those most affected by the impacts of climate change.”

While their demands are directed at all OECD countries as well as China, India and other industrialised developing nations, the Pacific Elders place a special focus on Australia, the largest member of the Pacific Islands Forum.

In Glasgow, Greenpeace Australia Pacific launched a new report, Pacific Bully and International Outcast, which documents how successive Australian governments have attempted to use aid money to block a regional consensus on emissions reduction, diluting the official communiqué at the annual Forum leaders’ meeting. Much of the Australian media has underplayed the growing anger and scorn in the Pacific directed towards “The Australian Way” — the Morrison government’s so-called plan for climate action. Nor have the displays from oil and gas company Santos at Australia’s official conference pavilion gone unnoticed — PCC’s James Bhagwan describes them as “a slap in the face to the Pacific community who are calling for an end to fossil fuels.”

Despite Scott Morrison’s belated proclamation of “net zero by 2050,” Australia’s refusal to announce a new emissions target for 2030 has angered Pacific delegates, young and old alike. “Once again, Prime Minister Morrison has failed to deliver anything new,” says former Marshall Islands president Dr. Hilda Heine. “There is very little detail and none of the clear action on fossil fuels required to keep global warming at 1.5°C.”

As the controversy since the signing of the AUKUS agreement highlights, Scott Morrison’s highly personalised diplomacy is damaging Australian strategic interests. His first presence at a face-to-face Forum leaders’ meeting in 2019 ended in bitter wrangling and criticism, and not much has improved since. Last week, former Kiribati president Anote Tong stressed that Morrison’s climate diplomacy is floundering: “We’ve hoped for far more from our Pacific neighbour. The rest of the world hoped for more. This great nation is becoming more and more isolated due to the government’s lack of action and ambition on climate change.”

Even Fijian prime minister Voreqe “Frank” Bainimarama, the current chair of the Pacific Islands Forum, has used social media to make some sharp points. Bainimarama tweeted a welcome to his “good friend” Scott Morrison at the Glasgow summit. It was accompanied by a picture of Bainimarama presenting his Australian counterpart with a copy of Fiji’s newly legislated Climate Change Act — a tongue-in-cheek reference to Morrison’s refusal to legislate even the long-delayed commitment of net zero by 2050.


In his formal national statement to the Glasgow summit, Scott Morrison announced a new pledge of A$500 million for climate finance for Asian and Pacific countries. He highlighted the way that $200 million of this amount will be “invested in our backyard amongst our Pacific island family.”

This gesture was immediately critiqued as too little, too late. In reports like Fairer Futures, Australian environment and development organisations had been calling for much greater increases to meet Australia’s fair share of the global target of US$100 billion of climate finance per annum, with a doubling of current commitments to A$3 billion by 2023.

Former president of Palau, Tommy Remengesau Jr, also made clear that adaptation funding means little unless accompanied by more ambition on emissions reduction: “Prime Minister Morrison cannot buy himself out of a much greater responsibility for urgent and rapid action to reduce emissions at home and to stop the export of coal.”

Island diplomats are concerned by Australia’s reliance on the shrinking Official Development Assistance budget for its international climate finance pledges, at a time when other OECD countries are looking at innovative sources to increase both development and climate finance. In Glasgow, Samoa’s UN ambassador stressed the importance of looking beyond aid budgets as the sole source for climate finance.

“I think it’s important to emphasise that we are looking for new money, not money that you shift from one pocket to the other, because it doesn’t really help us,” Fatumanava-o-Upolu said. “If you put more money to [climate] finance but that comes out of aid to our countries that has funded basic infrastructure or social sectors like education, health, etc., then it’s a no-win situation for us.”

Leaders of Smaller Island States are also angered by Australia’s refusal to reinstate contributions to the Green Climate Fund, or GCF, the global climate finance mechanism created under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Despite complex application processes and long delays, most Forum Island countries have already accessed GCF funding. By June this year, grants to Pacific Small Island Developing States amounted to US$440 million, combined with US$690 million of co-financing.

Playing to a conservative domestic audience, Scott Morrison has long railed against “negative globalism” and an “unaccountable internationalist bureaucracy.” In response, a member of Pacific Elders Voice, former Tuvalu prime minister Enele Sopoaga, suggests the Morrison government refuses to work through multilateral structures because it fears losing control over decision-making.

“We know that very little of this money will leave Australia,” Sopoaga said. “It will go to highly paid Australian consultants to do projects designed and managed by Australia. Pacific island countries believe in the Green Climate Fund and our own regional mechanisms because they give us access to critical climate finance, as well as ownership and control over how the money is spent.”

Beyond this, Morrison’s outdated, racist imagery of the Pacific islands as “our backyard” wins little support in the region. The Australian leader often presents himself as a Christian committed to the Pacific vuvale, or family. But this language is grating for many, including the leader of the region’s main ecumenical church organisation.

“I’m very concerned about the way Australia throws around the word vuvale as if they’re part of the Pacific family,” says PCC’s Reverend Bhagwan. “They are not honouring the meaning of that word, which talks about unity and working together for the common good and caring for the common household.”

“People need to ‘walk the talk’ of their faith,” he adds, “particularly for those leaders who proclaim to be part of the Christian faith, which talks of justice. They need the moral courage as well as the political courage to stand up. Whether they have the guts to put their political careers on the line for the sake of the future, that’s up to them.” •

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