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Small Island Climate Diplomacy in the Maldives and Beyond

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The world’s first underwater Cabinet meeting held by the Maldives in October 2009 was not merely an eye-opening plea for climate action but also a social construction of what climate impacts mean to small and low-lying island states. The former president of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed was quoted as stating that ‘… we are trying to send our message to let the world know what is happening and what will happen to the Maldives if climate change isn’t checked’ (Reuters 2009). One may argue that this was a public diplomacy strategy not new to the Maldives as well as to most small island developing states (SIDS) in climate politics (Corneloup and Mol 2014, 281). The timing of the Cabinet meeting was crucial to create global awareness about what it would be for island-states like the Maldives if sea level rise and climate impacts persisted. This event was selective especially in a time where climate negotiations which have succeeded the 1992 landmark United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had not pursued honest global efforts to combat climate change. The voice for special consideration has already been heard; however, policy commitments to set and meet emissions reduction targets were insufficient at best (IISD 2009). The small and vulnerable states like the Maldives were greatly exposed to further challenges especially due to the lack of commitments on emissions targets.

In 2007, the ‘Bali Roadmap’ called to replace the weaker Kyoto document with stronger requirements for cuts in global emissions, and in 2009, the post-Kyoto process prepared for a new deal to be set at Copenhagen held in December (IISD 2009; UNFCCC 2007). The Maldives took an international front stage. As reiterated by the Maldives Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdulla Shahid at the United Nations (UN) Security Council in 2019:

… On 17 April 2007, when the Security Council held its first-ever debate on the impact of climate change on peace, security, I spoke in this very room on this very same matter. I reminded the Council on that day, that climate change is not only an everyday fact of life for the Maldivians, but an existential threat. I reminded the Council that a mean sea-level rise of two metres would suffice to virtually submerge the entire Maldives under water. That would indeed be the death of a nation.

The idea of the death of a nation created a moral language for the Maldives in international negotiations. Likewise, the October 2009 Cabinet meeting created a moral leverage for the Maldives in shaping a SIDS’ climate discourse, leading up to the Copenhagen negotiations in December that year. A temperature rise limit of 1.5° C was agreed between SIDS during the September 2009 AOSIS Summit in New York (UN 2009). The media impact of the Maldives’ underwater Cabinet meeting gave strategic leverage for SIDS to dominate this emissions reduction debate at Copenhagen which consider a ‘temperature rise limit of 1.5° C above preindustrial levels, funding for adaptation, and a legally binding outcome’ (Corneloup and Mol 2014, 281). Copenhagen did not conclude the role of SIDS; similar play was seen in the proceeding negotiations at Paris in 2015 where their claim to limit the temperature increase to 1.5° C was pursued while ‘keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2° C above pre-industrial levels’ (UNFCCC 2015; Ourbak and Magnan 2017).

This practice of public diplomacy through social construction of meanings to climate impacts goes back to historical developments of SIDS’ island diplomacy. The island diplomacy of SIDS so far has been effective especially through the efforts of AOSIS in promoting their common agenda in climate negotiations. The Maldives emerged as a key driver of this island diplomacy in the UN climate negotiations (AOSIS 2015). Using a constructivist approach, this paper discusses how the historical development of the SIDS’ island diplomacy was shaped the Maldives in the mid-1980s.

Maldives and construction of island diplomacy

The 1970s and 1980s’ climate science and politics provided a window of opportunity for the Maldives to engage more meaningfully in international policy-making. The 1972 Stockholm Conference on Human Environment for example established the notion of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBRD) which informed the collective measures on global environmental issues. The 1972 Stockholm Conference marked a turning point of collective policy efforts against global challenges (Bodansky 2001; Stone 2004,........

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