Negotiating from a position of strength

Pacific Island nations facing the reality of climate change-induced land loss are using their diplomatic strength to ensure their sovereignty and economic future are protected, Jess Marinaccio writes.

Climate change is a central issue throughout the Pacific Island region. The dire effects of sea level rise are already being felt, and Pacific nations have been active in advocating for stronger global action in forums like the annual United Nations Climate Change Conference.

Up to this point, the region’s advocacy has in large part focused on the devastation that is occurring as a result of climate change. This puts the region in a vulnerable position as it presents the future of Pacific Island nations as being entirely dictated by the whims of large emitters.

As a result, many Pacific climate advocates are trying to move away from this narrative of victimhood, which they argue reduces the region’s autonomy, in favour of a more proactive stance. Thus, the often-heard slogan, “we are not sinking, we are fighting.”

But what if you can be sinking and fighting? What if acknowledging the possibility of climate-induced land loss can be not a sign of vulnerability but a sign of strength?

This is a strategy that Pacific Island nations are now deploying. By making claims today to entitlements that may be threatened by sea level rise in the future, Pacific nations are looking to negotiate from a position of power.

This shift in strategy is exemplified by the current campaign by Pacific nations to ensure that the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) surrounding their countries, which provide access to lucrative fisheries, will not be altered by land loss.

This is demonstrated by the strongly worded 2021 Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate Change-Related Sea-Level Rise issued by the Pacific Islands Forum. Although, under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, land loss may affect the size or measurement of EEZs, the Declaration states that Forum members “do not intend to review and update the baselines and outer limits of…maritime zones as a consequence of climate change-related sea-level rise.”

Although Pacific Island nations may not be able to control the effects climate change and sea level rise are having on their land territory, they are taking a position of strength to ensure actions of major emitters do not reduce their maritime entitlements.

This positioning is further reflected in nations like Tuvalu, which has already taken bold steps in declaring that the nation’s sovereignty and statehood will not be compromised even if it suffers loses in land territory. Tuvalu has gone further still, proactively insisting that any nation looking to form official diplomatic ties must recognise the statehood of the nation as permanent, even if it suffers from total loss of its land territory due to sea level rise.

Tuvalu is lobbying other nations to agree today that they will continue to recognise the country even if its land territory is compromised due to climate change. This ties Tuvalu’s partners to the direst impacts of climate change the nation may face, and insists that they assist in preserving Tuvalu’s sovereignty even if they cannot prevent sea level rise.

In taking these powerful positions on land loss, Pacific Island nations are not forsaking their advocacy on lowering global emissions, developing adaptation and financing strategies to reclaim land and prevent against the effects of climate change, and calling on the global community to halt the effects of climate change and sea level rise. However, this proactive diplomacy on land loss is now much stronger in its focus on immediately securing entitlements like EEZs and statehood that might be otherwise threatened with land disappearance.

This is a powerful policy position that recognises that Pacific Island nations may very well become victims of major land loss, but that this does not mean they need to fall victim to other forms of climate-induced loss.