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COP26 And The Pacific: Reframe The Narrative

By Katerina Teaiwa and Isabella Ostini

Last week’s COP26 was meant to be the most significant international climate conference since the Paris meeting in 2015. Now the final agreement is out, what did it deliver, and does it go far enough to save the Pacific? As part of the Pacific Cooperation Foundation’s Pacific Voices series, academics Katerina Teaiwa and Isabella Ostini say we need to reframe our questions and the ways in which Pacific climate stories are told.

COP meetings are rich sources of dramatic imagery: COP26 President Alok Sharma in tears, Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe delivering a speech knee-deep in a lagoon, the impressive Pacific youth climate activist Brianna Fruean telling world leaders: “you all have the power here to be better.”

While the presence of young people still passionate about climate action gives cause for hope, COP26 ended with a whimper. Yes, the timeline for climate action was accelerated and the 1.5-degree Celsius goal is still (barely) visible, but COP also produced weakened language on phasing out coal and fossil fuel subsidies, and there is no hoped-for loss and damage fund.

The news coverage was predictable: pre-meeting hype turned to a week’s breathless intrigue, ending in compromises and disappointment for many. The fossil fuel industry had 500 representatives, the Global South and Indigenous peoples had far fewer, there were lines everywhere and few real platforms to speak to those in power, to negotiate and to convince leaders to act.

Though scientists have clearly shown the urgency of taking action to stay under a 2-degree increase in global temperature, other reports took a positive spin on the slow COP process - there’s always the next meeting in Egypt! This despite current climate change-induced flooding in southern Egypt, which forced swarms of fat-tailed scorpions into streets and homes, resulting in 503 hospitalisations.

In the aftermath, the favoured media darlings emerge, competing to file their hot take on “what it all means” and claiming to advocate on behalf of an “Indigenous people” or the abstracted and homogenised “Global South” – even if they do not belong to either of these groups. So, it pays to slow down and take in the rising tides of climate discourse, scorpions, and “expertise”. Dramatic media images and words hide as much as they reveal.

Stories are powerful tools for change, but it matters who tells them

We know that stories are powerful tools for justice and change. The brilliant Chamoru writer and human rights lawyer Julian Aguon talks about how stories are essential tools for Pacific-led climate activism: “We need stories. And not just stories about the stakes, which we know are high, but stories about the places we call home.” But it matters who is telling those stories, and where and how they’re told. Outside media coverage of the Pacific often conflates climate change and under-development. And both development and climate change narratives privilege the simplest, boldest images of victimhood and impending disaster.

And so, consensus builds behind a simplistic snapshot of the weeks’ events. A story-pattern that hinges on depicting vulnerable, small countries of the Global South pitted against overbearing “developed” countries. You’ve seen it: pictures of disaster-struck islands or pull-quotes that emphasise Pacific Islanders’ frustration and despair, and “drowning” status. Such visions appeal to a range of would-be saviours and good Samaritans, not unlike those who flocked to the African continent to open schools and orphanages, or women’s rights advocates who helped justify the invasion of Afghanistan. The goals may be worthy but the words, the images, and the approaches can reduce the dignity, efficacy, agency, and voices of people on the ground.

In an interview for Pacific media platform, the Coconet, 350 Pacific communications coordinator Fenton Lutunatabua once said: “...if you look at the existing narrative of our people in the face of climate change, without pessimism ­- you fail to understand our realities…When you look at the spirit of our people in the face of climate change, and you're not filled with optimism - you fail to understand our courage.”

Emphasising zero-sum political competitions, or dividing the world according to purported development status, excludes the work Pacific leaders and communities have already done to build cooperation across diversity. From bringing talanoa dialogue to COP24, to making practical connections through the Pacific Islands Climate Action Networks, Pacific Islanders approach climate change as a collective regional and global issue. But the “we” of the Pacific and the “we” of the largest emitting countries – including those in the so-called “developing world”, the US, Australia, China, Russia, Brazil and Indonesia – are quite different.

How can media conjure up better images?

Most importantly, how might we learn to truly understand issues from multiple perspectives and scales? If an image feels compelling, ask: is it because it’s familiar and simplistic? Does it rely on a long genealogy of exoticist and belittling Pacific Island tropes?

Zoom out: those tempting, familiar images fit into a bigger historical trajectory. When Indigenous peoples talk about climate change, they often talk about colonialism. This isn’t a scholarly conceit, but a real, lived experience. Media are rarely aware of how their work buys into images that date to the days of early European explorers – images of Pacific Islands and peoples as remote, distant, different, and lesser.

Zoom in: think about the agency of people on the ground. The Pacific Conference of Churches reminds us that climate change is a cross-cutting social, spiritual, scientific, political, economic, relational problem. Climate solutions and stories must also cut across all those worlds.

Beware of absolutes. The Pacific region has many layers and many stories. Even the most eminent Pacific Islander scholars like Albert Wendt, Epeli Hau’ofa and Teresia Teaiwa, refused to call themselves “experts.” Productive stories about the Pacific are not simple, but they are very rich. Lean into the complexity. It’s the norm in Oceania.

Finally, be consistent. There’s no use telling Pacific stories only around COP meetings. People are at work daily, unglamorously addressing climate change effects – women, those of diverse genders and sexualities, church leaders, young people, artists, activists, politicians, and elders. Just like repetition makes reductive stories stick, so too can it help make new stories and images the norm.

Brianna Fruean told NPR: “As a Pacific Islander, a lot of people think my role here at COP is to come and cry, like I owe them my trauma, when I don't owe you my trauma.”

Everyone needs to learn to rethink their language of victimhood and convey the urgency of climate change without assuming the Pacific needs saviours. They have been flocking to the Pacific since the first missionaries arrived.

Pacific peoples will save themselves and as Julian Aguon proclaimed – to hell with drowning!

Katerina Teaiwa is of I-Kiribati and Fiji Islands heritage. She is Associate Professor in Pacific Studies in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University and Vice-President of the Australian Association for Pacific Studies.

Isabella Ostini is a European-Australian Honours student at the Australian National University, with an interest in the places where storytelling and policymaking meet – especially in Australian media and Australia-Oceania relations.

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