The upcoming Glasgow COP26 is pivotal. Countries are expected to significantly enhance their commitments on reducing greenhouse emissions—“ratcheting up ambition”, in COP parlance—in order to mitigate the climate crisis. Notably, it will also be the first UN Climate Change Conference ever held in the midst of a different kind of global crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic.
Countries must take urgent action to address the climate crisis to assure a resilient future for all people. Former Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General, Dame Meg Taylor, reminded President Biden’s pre-COP26 Leaders Summit on Climate in April, “The Forum Leaders’ Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now, is a matter of survival and cannot be downplayed”.
Dame Meg’s emphasis on ensuring the survival of all people is an expression of a common moral imperative for countries to act swiftly to avert a global crisis. It’s also an example of a foregrounding in relation to climate action, that has been adapted and used by global leaders to call for closer collaboration to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
It also highlights how the response to the global pandemic crisis holds parallels—and lessons—for Pacific island countries as they seek to advance global action on the climate crisis.
Lesson # 1 – A global crisis response at scale is possible, but must be equitable
The global response to COVID-19 shows that a concerted, rapid and worldwide response is possible. The international community’s co-ordinated response to COVID-19 is unprecedented in human history, and has resulted in the development of multiple vaccines within only twelve months. Recognition of a common crisis requires the will to produce an expedited, collective response.
When it comes to the climate crisis, political will has been lacking. Many countries have spent the last three decades denying or downplaying the incontrovertible scientific basis for the urgent need to act, unwilling to sacrifice their fossil fuel interests for the greater global good. For example, the Green Climate Fund, has to date received only US$ 8.3 billion of its USD100 billion annual goal.
The current pandemic also highlights some long-standing systemic issues regarding international response to shared crises. The vaccine hoarding of wealthier countries and their unwillingness to waive patents on vaccines that have been funded mostly by public institutions signals a continued geopolitical imbalance which obstructs developing countries’ access to vaccines. In this case, it is not just the political will that is lacking, it’s the principle of equity. Despite (or, according to another viewpoint, because of) the COVAX facility, some Pacific island countries may not finish vaccinating their populations until 2025.
As for the global pandemic, so for the global response to climate crisis: as many countries as possible need to be willing to act in concert, as quickly and as equitably as possible, in order for the response to be effective in preventing global harm.
Lesson #2 – Government intervention is critical for effective crisis response
A striking feature of the global COVID-19 response is how governments the world over have intervened to make financial stimulus packages available. The neoliberal shibboleth of small government has lost its shine as the role of state intervention in an effective crisis response has been shown to be significant.
In the Pacific, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to shift thinking on how best to collectively respond to the climate crisis, and to influence partners to do the same. For example, COVID-19 has normalised the inclusion of social protections in many governments’ response to the crisis, and many countries have adopted a more active, interventionist approach.
The COVID crisis has demonstrated that one of the most effective responses that a national government can mount is to make financial assistance available so that communities can weather the crisis. Countries who have not taken this approach, or who have taken too long to intervene, are the ones suffering the most.
It makes sense, then, that for the greatest threat that we face—the climate crisis—we must take a similar approach. The climate crisis, like the COVID crisis, demands substantive governmental intervention.
Lesson # 3 – The wealthiest nations have a moral imperative to support developing nations during a crisis
The regional response to the COVID pandemic contains lessons that should be applied to progress the most intractable sticking points of the ongoing global climate crisis.
“The sticky COP issues for the Pacific are typically always about climate finance, loss and damage, and transparency,” says Anna Bule, a veteran Vanuatu Government COP negotiator. Bule says the ongoing debate at COPs about international responsibilities and planetary duty of care has often been tense.
Climate financing is a salient example. PICs regularly call on high emitting countries to follow through on their commitments to meet the USD100 billion annual target of the Green Climate Fund, and yet high emitting countries have contributed less than 10% of this target.
Bule notes, “the support for pandemic crisis response has been readily available from [development] partners and is much appreciated in enabling us to be proactive in addressing needs domestically.” The contrast between access and availability of finance between the two crises, COVID and climate, highlights the unresolved matter of the GCF commitment shortfall that COP26 will have to address.
Clearly, a global-scale response and commitment to addressing the climate crisis is possible if countries can agree on the need for urgency. Pacific island nations have provided global leadership around the climate crisis since it was first internationally recognised as a problem. They are amongst those most exposed to a changing climate, and their recognition of this fact has been central to the leadership they have exhibited at past global climate negotiations. They view the climate crisis as the “single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific”, as the Pacific Islands Forum’s Boe Declaration puts it. The Pacific views the climate crisis as a rapid-onset problem like COVID, not a gradual onset one.
The April 2021 US Leaders Summit on Climate and May 2021 report from the International Energy Agency to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 have highlighted that massively higher ambition on climate is needed. The global response to COVID has shown that this is indeed possible through multilateral, bilateral and domestic efforts.
With strained, under-resourced healthcare systems, and relatively high numbers of their populations at high risk, for Pacific Island countries, the COVID pandemic has drawn parallels with their high vulnerability to the vicissitudes that the climate crisis represents for the region.
The active and vocal stance that many Pacific countries have taken in demanding prompt access to COVID vaccines for economic survival and recovery, including travel bubbles, has a strong parallel in the way that they have mobilised at past global climate negotiations to exert maximum pressure on the recalcitrant larger (and wealthier) nations. With so much more to lose, Pacific countries have been very active in international lobbying in both crises.
Where will these lessons take us?
What will be the lasting effects of both crises for the region? Under the pandemic, Vanuatu, as with other Pacific countries, is already seeing massive socioeconomic impacts. Under the ongoing climate crisis, we continue to see socioeconomic and environmental impacts. Underlying all of this is a continued geopolitical imbalance as to possible responses.
Both COVID-19 and the climate crisis are not problems where a wait-and-see approach works. They both demand urgent, collective and coordinated action that addresses the geopolitical imbalances between countries’ responses, and delivers on the global rhetoric of ‘leaving no-one behind’.
COP26 must return the urgency of tackling the climate crisis and stress the importance of equity.
Nick Howlett is a strategic communications specialist who has researched Pacific climate change diplomacy and communications. Nick holds an MA in Communication from Griffith University School of Humanities and Social Sciences. He is based in Vanuatu
Anna Naupa is a Pacific policy and development specialist and currently works in the field of human development and skills. Anna holds MAs in Geography and Public Administration from the University of Hawai’i, Manoa and Harvard University’s Kennedy School respectively. She has previously written on a range of topics including Pacific geopolitics and regionalism, sustainable development and gender.
This post is part of our “Road to COP26 series”. The views expressed in this post are the authors’ own and should not be attributed to any organisation or government.