It’s a long way from Tuvalu to Glasgow. This low-lying group of eight coral atolls and reef islands three hours north of Fiji by air contribute very little to the world’s carbon emissions. You would need to put several zeros after a 0 and then a decimal point before you could register a 1 to reflect the islanders’ impact on the Earth system. They fall under the umbrella of what Scott Morrison has described as “our Pacific family”.
Maina Talia is doing his PhD through Charles Sturt University on Indigenous knowledge, climate change and geopolitics. He first started going to COP conferences back in Paris in 2015. He has been to every one since – they have all been held in the northern hemisphere. Only one – in Nairobi in 2014 – has ever met south of the equator – and then only just.
It is not easy for small island states to be heard on the international stage. Maina knows that Tuvalu is what is called a “weak actor”. It is hard to compete with the numbers of American delegates, for instance, and the vested interest of those who dislike 2030 targets (preferring 2050, or, in some cases 2060, 2070) – and who like to change the wording of final declarations away from “phasing out” to “phasing down” coal production.
This year’s COP 26 conference took place in a chilly, grey Glasgow, in days gone by a site of shipbuilding and imperialism. Tuvalu – well, those eight islands only make up 26 square kilometres (the second smallest state in the world) – and the population, about 10,000. Small they may be, but they are “the canaries in the mine” or as was suggested in their pavilion in Glasgow, “the polar bears of the Pacific”.
The symbolism was designed to convey the prospect of extinction, because Tuvalu is vulnerable to rising sea levels, the acidification of oceans, as well as the increasing intensity of tropical storms. No place on any of these thin necklace-like islands is more than three metres above sea level. One of the government ministers, Simon Kofe, delivered his address to the Glasgow conference while wearing a suit and tie, trousers rolled up to his knees – and standing in the ocean.
The subject matter of Maina’s thesis is “Am I Not Your Tuakoi, Your Neighbour?”. In talk surrounding climate change – and, in particular the now well-employed idea of climate justice – there is an increasing use of themes to do with neighbour-love. Here the neighbour is planetary. It is geopolitical. In a time of climate emergency, we are all neighbours to one another, and some are in more difficult situations than others. It is the kind of theme that is designed to consider climate as a common good (a theme of Pope Francis) and a matter of ethics and religion.
Most of Tuvalu is Christian – and so, neighbour/tuakoi picks up both Indigenous knowledge as well as Jesus’ teaching. The language of who is my neighbour lies behind his parable of the Good Samaritan – and Samaritans are well known to a wider Australian culture because of the work they do with the disadvantaged. For Muslims the care of the neighbour is also an important duty and obligation.
Ever since Paris, Maina has organised a COP side event. It is always strategic. These events are designed to attract media attention for a people whose land, sovereignty, and cultural inheritance is at such risk through no fault of their own.
At COP 25, Maina designed a side event that had a number of leading island delegates address for the first time this business of being a neighbour. It must have been successful! The next day the Australian prime minister felt obliged to make a statement in response. This year in Glasgow Maina again arranged a side event on the theme of the neighbour. It is a project that seeks to affect emotions and moral choice. At Glasgow, for the first time, he invited a Muslim leader to be on the panel.
Is it right for us in this country to go slow over meeting targets for the reduction of carbon emissions? Is it right for us to support the “phasing down” of coal when Australia’s percentage of the world’s export in carbon via fossil fuels continues to grow? Is it right to ignore a neighbour – one of “our family” apparently – when there is a real possibility that Maina’s children will no longer be able to live on their home islands?
Glasgow is a long way from Tuvalu. Throughout November, the peoples of these faraway islands were paying very close attention to what the world’s “strong actors” were saying about the future implications of climate policies.