For the last thirty-one years, an alliance of nearly forty small island states have campaigned against global warming – because if it is not checked, some of them will be underwater.
I am old enough to remember when climate change was portrayed as liberal scaremongering. Even into the 1990s and 2000s, the idea of global warming as the result of human activity was somehow controversial. But the mechanism has been understood for a long time. This article famously appeared in a New Zealand newspaper a hundred and ten years ago:
The furnaces of the world are now burning about 2,000,000,000 tons of coal a year. When this is burned, uniting with oxygen, it adds about 7,000,000,000 tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere yearly. This tends to make the air a more effective blanket for the earth and to raise its temperature. The effect may be considerable in a few centuries.Coal Consumption Affecting Climate, Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette, 14 August 1912
While many countries have resisted action against climate change, there is at least one group of states that has been campaigning on this for a long time. And, unsurprisingly, it’s the countries that will sustain some of the worst and first harms of the climate crisis.
Tuvalu is a collection of small islands and atolls in the South Pacific. There are only three independent countries smaller than Tuvalu, and only one (the Vatican City) with fewer people. At its highest point, Tuvalu is just 4.6 metres above sea level. When the sea levels rise, Tuvalu is one of those countries that will go under the waves.
Half the population of Kiribati, another South Pacific country, live on Tarawa atoll. And that atoll is 3 metres high at its apex. But even those island nations with lofty volcanic peaks are under particular threat from climate change. Because of this, in 1990 the island nations of the world banded together to advocate for solutions to the climate crisis. This is AOSIS, the Alliance of Small Island States.
Currently, AOSIS has thirty-nine members, including countries in the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean. They don’t have a lot of political or economic clout, but they have the rhetorical upper hand and excellent media savvy. I particularly enjoyed the rather pointed underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives in 2009, and Tuvalu’s big protest at the Copenhagen Climate Change conference that same year. Time will tell if the rest of the world can do right by them all.