Interview with Tuvalu Climate Negotiator Ian Fry

Ben Block - Worldwatch Institute
Ian Fry Tuvalu

Photo courtesy IISD

Ian Fry, the chief climate change negotiator for Tuvalu, fought on behalf of low-lying island nations during the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, last month.
The 32-year-old country that he represents, a string of nine densely populated coral atolls located midway between Hawaii and Australia, rests no more than 4.6 meters above sea level. "The fate of my country rests in your hands," he told audiences in one teary-eyed speech. 

Worldwatch staff writer Ben Block caught up with Mr. Fry following the negotiations.

How did you, an Australian native, become Tuvalu's lead climate negotiator?

I've been on the job for 11 years. I was working for Earth Negotiations Bulletin and Greenpeace before that. I met the prime minister of Tuvalu at a meeting and provided him with a briefing on climate change. He then invited me to come onto their delegation at [the 1997 climate negotiations in Kyoto, Japan]. It evolved from there. I now work full time for the Tuvalu government as an international environment advisor.

What was your strategy going into the Copenhagen talks?

We were hopeful that we would have a substantial discussion on legal texts and that there might be a breakthrough on a legally binding outcome. We weren't naive to what the situation was in the United States. Given that there were 115 heads of state coming to the meeting, we thought it would be possible, if the mood was right, for a legally binding outcome.

Tuvalu How did Tuvalu decide to push for a target of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and atmospheric greenhouse gas levels to below 350 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide equivalent?

Within the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), we had commissioned work by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and we've done our own research on vulnerabilities based on work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It was clear that a global temperature rise above 2 degrees would be disastrous for Tuvalu. We were even saying well below 1.5 degrees. At 1.5 there are probabilities of sea-level rise that could be quite disastrous for Tuvalu. Well below 1.5 degrees relatively equates to 350 ppm.

Does Tuvalu consider the Group of 77, the largest negotiating bloc of developing countries, as representative of its national interests?

Tuvalu is not a member of G77. We only joined the U.N. in 2000. Since then, we have not joined the G77. We find it in our interests not to be members.... It seems strange that these 77 countries speak through one voice while New Zealand can sit at the table as one country.

Do you think that speaking alone is the best way to negotiate?

Within the context of climate change negotiations, it works both ways. An individual country can bring forward its views more strongly as an individual country. When it comes down to negotiations in the last few days then individual countries are not really considered. In the group of countries working on the accord, in the last couple of days, Tuvalu was not there. We were represented by Granada on behalf of AOSIS. There is a limit to what an individual country can do. It's a weird situation of the UN that's been going on for many years.

Is it true that the Copenhagen talks led to a split between developing nations?

During an interview with Australian radio I was accused of splitting the G77. There was intent to make a story out of something that was not happening.... Brazil, South Africa, China, India had already put out documents proposing their way forward in response to the Danish text [a proposed "political agreement"]. They were already putting up a position in response to the Danish draft declaration. If any group was talking about splitting, it was those countries.

Ian Fry In an article in The Guardian following the conference, author Mark Lynas, who attended the negotiations as a member of the Maldives delegation, wrote that China relied on delegates from other developing countries to act as "puppets" and "savage" the negotiation progress. Is this an accurate view?

Mark's views are far too simplistic. It was the first climate change negotiation Mark attended as a delegate. I know Mark; he's been to Tuvalu. It's a far too naive perspective. There are much more complex negotiations happening behind the scenes.

There were two key forks in the process. Obviously the U.S. could not bring anything substantial to the table, other than some offers of money because they can use appropriation bills, but they couldn't bring forward any substantial outcome because the climate bill was held up in the Senate. Because of that, the Danish government totally downplayed the outcome of the meeting, [and] played manipulative games through meetings of a few countries before the COP and after....

China was quite well aware of that. Why were they going to take the lead on some sort of commitment or whatever if the U.S. was not going to put anything on the table, especially considering that the U.S. did not ratify [the Kyoto Protocol] and is clearly responsible for the world's emissions? So you can understand China's viewpoint. But obviously there are other games to play in regards to bi-national negotiations between the U.S. and China that I'm not privy to. It's far too simplistic that we were "played off" by China.

Disagreements resurfaced in Copenhagen about which countries would receive aid for climate change adaptation. How did such disagreements affect efforts to reach an adaptation agreement?

Some countries in Africa are clearly the most vulnerable in the world, so I'm not sure where this trade-off game was played. One difficulty within the accord text was linking adaptation to impacts of climate change to linkage of compensation for oil-producing countries.... It brings a halt to consideration of financial support for vulnerable countries. We've made no progress for seeking funding because of that.

Critics of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change argue that any body that requires a consensus vote will never reach a deal on issues as divisive as climate change. Should the UNFCCC decide how we solve climate change?

It has to. There's no reasonable alternative. If you want all countries to agree on a collective global effort to address climate change, there is no other institution that can bring together that global effort. It has to work through the U.N. and the UNFCCC.

Of course it has its faults. With every country given a vote, the outcome is drawn down to the common denominator. Nonetheless, it compels all countries to think about climate change and drive toward collective action. It's hard to think of any other international process because climate change is such an international problem. Countries affected by climate change are so diverse. It's hard to think of any other institution that could handle that.

Why do you think Tuvalu received so much support from climate activists in Copenhagen?

I guess because we were outspoken in the plenaries. Because of the nature of the meeting, our comments were fed out through the media more broadly. It did provide a focus for what we were seeing. Obviously Tuvalu is the canary in the coal mine for climate change. Considering the low level of ambition driven by the Danish government at the meeting and our circumstances of high vulnerability, people rallied around our situation because the general public who came to that meeting and were observing the meeting wanted a lot more than what the Danish government was willing to deliver at the meeting. I guess Tuvalu became a focal point. We were hoping for a lot more.

How did such activist support affect your ability to negotiate?

xin It helped. Certainly the impromptu demonstration outside the plenary hall was very helpful, I think, in highlighting the fact that our concerns couldn't just be swept under the carpet. There was a strong voice of civil society supportive of our concerns. But, of course, in the end we weren't brought to the table. So, even the broad public viewpoint of civil society limited our input into the process.

The problem was, again, that the Danish government misread the broad concerns of civil society. They seriously misread interests and concerns of civil society. Protests, demonstrations, reflected a much broader concern about climate change than the Danish government was willing to acknowledge. They became too entwined in narrow political negotiations.

What are your goals for COP 16 in Mexico City this December?

Obviously, hopefully, things will change on the U.S. legislation front. If they do, it will relieve pressure from the situation and allow for more progress to occur. And hopefully we'll be meeting again in June in Bonn, and that may allow us to move forward in a more substantive way. Hopefully we will move to Mexico with ideas of the U.S. having signed a legal agreement.... It gives us a little bit of breathing space. If that works out favorably, then I think we can really get into some negotiations of proper outcomes and not just window dressing, like we did in Copenhagen.

What happens if the United States fails to pass a climate bill?

Clearly the biggest [historical] polluter has to come on board somehow to commit to reduce its emissions. You get a domino effect. Once the U.S. commits, others will follow. If not, it's hard for the rest to move forward in any substantive way.

This article was originally posted on the Worldwatch Institute website. Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org. For permission to republish this article, please contact Juli Diamond at jdiamond@worldwatch.org.

Read other great articles on Celsias: 

Climate Change's First Refugees

Islanders Flee Rising Sea Levels

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