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The World’s Most Vulnerable Nations Got Shut Out at COP28

A reminder that “consensus” doesn’t always equal agreement.

Kausea Natano, Prime Minister of Tuvalu.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In the moments after Sultan Al Jaber, the president of this year’s COP, struck his gavel to finalize the text of the first-ever global stocktake, Anne Rasmussen, the lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, took the floor.

“We are a little confused about what just happened,” Rasmussen said. “It seems that you gaveled the decisions, and the small island developing states were not in the room.”

Rasmussen and her colleagues, it turned out, had left the room to discuss the changes they wanted to see in the text, with the idea that they could come back and present those changes to Al Jaber. But, as Tom Evans of E3G explained to me recently, COP works on the idea of consensus, which is reached when all the members who are in the room when a vote is called find common agreement.

Sometimes, consensus is used in odd political ways — the U.S. delegation for example, left the room during discussions around a loss and damage fund, which allowed the vote to go forward despite the U.S.’s hesitations. This may be what everyone thought the members of AOSIS were doing; when they re-entered the room, they received a standing ovation, which contributed to Rasmussen’s confusion.

But the moment had passed; there was nothing Rasmussen or her colleagues could do to get the text of the stocktake amended. So she used her time on the floor to stake her moral authority. I’m quoting liberally, because I think her words are worth taking in:

“AOSIS at the beginning of this COP had one objective, to ensure that 1.5 [degrees Celsius] is safeguarded in a meaningful way. Our leaders and ministers have been clear. We cannot afford to return to our islands with the message that this process has failed us,” she said. “We have come to the conclusion that the course correction that is needed has not yet been secured.”

Rasmussen continued, pointing out paragraphs and sub-paragraphs where the text failed to live up to its promise. It was, in short, a rebuke of what was supposed to be the most important statement to come out of this conference, the failed realization of a promise that was made when the Paris Agreement was written in 2015.

In many ways, that promise is personal for Rasmussen and her colleagues. AOSIS is the reason the 1.5 degree C target is in the Paris Agreement in the first place — as Justin Worland wrote in TIME in 2015, President Obama said the voices of the island nations were vital in those talks — and the passage of the stocktake without the presence of those nations is a cynical reversal of how things happened at that historic conference.

Rasmussen received a standing ovation when she finished.

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Neel Dhanesha profile image

Neel Dhanesha

Neel is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Prior to Heatmap, he was a science and climate reporter at Vox, an editorial fellow at Audubon magazine, and an assistant producer at Radiolab, where he helped produce The Other Latif, a series about one detainee's journey to Guantanamo Bay. He is a graduate of the Literary Reportage program at NYU, which helped him turn incoherent scribbles into readable stories, and he grew up (mostly) in Bangalore. He tweets sporadically at @neel_dhan.

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