Tiny Tuvalu Makes Big Waves at Copenhagen

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


The low-lying Pacific island nation of Tuvalu may be one of the first casualties of a warming world. It’s also one of the smallest countries on earth, with no coveted natural resources or strategic clout to speak of. So when economic powerhouses balk at the idea of deep emissions cuts, what’s a small player on the world stage to do? The answer: kick up a fuss. On Wednesday Tuvalu’s longtime climate adviser, an Australian named Ian Fry, grabbed the spotlight at Copenhagen by halting talks until negotiators considered a new, legally binding climate protocol that Tuvalu wants adopted instead of merely a political agreement. Tuvalu’s alternative treaty outlines more drastic emissions reductions aimed at preventing temperatures from rising by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.

In the current issue of the magazine, I have a piece about Tuvalu’s plight. One thing I realized while reporting the story is that for a vulnerable, isolated, powerless nation, political theater is one of the few weapons available. That’s why imperiled Tuvalu previously pulled a world-class guilt trip by announcing plans to go completely carbon neutral, and why, at a previous round of pre-Copenhagen climate talks, government ministers from the similarly endangered Maldives convened a cabinet meeting underwater.

But this particular maneuver may have some unintended consequences. It’s no surprise that industrialized nations opposed the deep cuts outlined in its alternative treaty, which was ultimately rejected. But not before the proposal drove a wedge in the assembled developing countries at the summit—a division that could affect negotiations as the talks continue. While Tuvalu’s proposal won favor with the Association of Small Island States—many of which are sitting in the same precarious boat when it comes to rising sea levels—and some African countries, it was opposed by large developing economies like India, Brazil, Saudia Arabia, and China. That’s because those countries want to avoid hard commitments for their own reductions. The G77—the bloc of poorer nations—usually bands together at big international talks. Now, Tuvalu’s plea for a more ambitious effort to combat climate change—one that would give it a shot at survival—has exposed a rift in their ranks.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest