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Pacific legends and metaphors: Island voices refuse to be drowned at COP26

Tuvalu Foreign Minister Simon Kofe delivers a speech while standing knee-deep in ocean water and wearing a full suit. Photo courtesy of Tuvalu government

By Louella Losinio

The 26th UN Climate Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow may have concluded in mid-November but the poignant messages from the small islands still resonate past the two weeks that it took to carve out a new agreement.

The messages from the frontlines were delivered in stories, chants, proverbs and metaphors to illustrate the inequities and struggles between small island developing states and developed nations. It was also told in imagery that brought the issue closer to those sitting at the negotiating table.

“Frankly speaking, there is no dignity to a slow and painful death. You might as well bomb our islands instead of making us suffer only to witness our slow and fateful demise,” Palau President Surangel Whipps Jr. said, addressing leaders at the high-level segment leading to the convention.

To illustrate his point, Whipps Jr. told the Palauan legend of Uab, a boy whose “unruly appetite” turned him into a giant. He said Uab threatened to eat the community that fed him but was defeated after the villagers banded together.

“This is eerily reminiscent of today’s world as large emitters with their insatiable appetite for advancement are continuing to abuse our environment and threatening our very survival,” Whipps said.

He said COP 26 must light the fire. “We must hold each other accountable. It is incumbent upon the parties of this Convention to concentrate on radical action, consistent mobilization, intentional outcomes. As such, Palau expects the set of rules guiding the implementation of the Paris agreement to be finalized as a priority outcome of COP 26,” Whipps said.

Tuvalu used the power of imagery to deliver its message. Composed of several widely-scattered low-lying atolls, Tuvalu’s limited resources make it more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. At COP26, Tuvalu’s foreign minister, Simon Kofe, delivered a speech that reflects the island nation’s struggle to address this existential threat, while standing knee-deep in ocean water and wearing a full suit.

With the Tuvalu and UN flags waving in the wind, Kofe said he was not just delivering a political statement, he was making a “call that reverberates from their eight islands and 12,000 people.”

“We are sinking but so is everyone else and, no matter if we feel the impacts today like in Tuvalu, our islands are sacred to us. They contain the mana of our people. They were the home of our ancestors. They are the home of the people today and we want them to remain the home of our people into the future,” he said.

Kofe said Tuvalu would not wait for the world to get its act together. The country is preparing for the worst-case scenario by pursuing legal means and adopting digital tools should they be forced to relocate from their island home and transition into a digital nation. He said they want to ensure that their “maritime boundaries will remain intact and they will still be recognized as a sovereign nation” should they lose their land to climate change.

“We all have a responsibility at COP26. We cannot wait for speeches when the sea is rising around us all the time. Climate mobility must come to the forefront. We must take bold alternative action today to secure our tomorrow,” Kofe said.

The world is likely facing its last chance to take action, Dr. Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, prime minister of Tonga said, noting the “unbearable horrors” of climate change and sea level rise facing small island developing states and coastal cities.

“Some may accuse us of being overly dramatic, but we can assure you, there is no drama when, as the leaders of small islands and coastal cities, year after year, you bury the dead from climate-induced natural disasters, including young children who are the most vulnerable and so small they cannot help themselves,” Tu’i’onetoa said.

“You scramble to provide security and shelter for your people, fresh water and enough energy to keep the lights on in your hospitals to tend to those who are injured. No more!”


Brianna Fruean, another young Pacific climate warrior from Samoa, said Pacific youth are refusing to give up. “We are not drowning. We are fighting,” she said at COP26

“When I was a little girl, I was taught the importance and impact of words,” Fruen said, quoting a Samoan proverb that means “even stones decay but words remain.”

“A lesson in knowing that words can be wielded. How text can change everything. How each word you use is weighted. How switching one word or number could reframe worlds. How climate action can be vastly different from climate justice. How 2 degrees could mean the end and 1.5 could mean a fighting chance,” she added.

At the same high-level meeting at COP26, Selina N. Leem, a climate warrior from the Marshall Islands, said she expected “the High Ambition Coalition to ensure that the world delivers fully on the promise of Paris.”

The Marshall Islands, led by the late Tony DeBrum, formed the High Ambition coalition six years ago at COP 21, where the Paris agreement was adopted. During negotiations, the coalition pushed for the 1.5-degree goal and for net-zero by 2050.

“In the eye of the climate crisis which affects every aspect of the Marshallese way of life and livelihoods, we must tackle this alongside other challenges like unemployment, poverty and health concerns,” Leem said.

COP26 ended with a new set of outcomes that have been described as a “failure” by some and a “compromise” by others.

In a statement at the end of the conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged this compromise. He said the outcome reflects “the interests, the contradictions and the state of political will in the world today—that they take an important step, but unfortunately, the collective political will was not enough to overcome some deep contradictions.”


The final agreement reflects these contradictions. The Glasgow Climate Pact “expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.”

However, the negotiating parties at COP26 failed to reach an agreement to phase out coal and fossil fuel, which is crucial to meeting the 1.5 goal. The parties also acknowledged the failure to meet the $100 billion climate financing for developing nations by 2022.

Guterres said while these goals were not achieved at the conference, the agreement provided “building blocks for progress.” He mentioned the commitments to end deforestation, drastically reduce methane emissions, and mobilize private finance around net-zero,” among others.

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