AOSIS: Coalition Dynamics looking forward to COP21 in Paris

By Skylar Smith

Skylar is a Political Science major at Williams, and is writing a more in-depth research paper on the AOSIS coalition during the COP21. (Feel free to contact her if this interests you and you want to know more about it!)


It’s no secret that coalitions—groups of countries that assemble due to shared geographic locations, shared strategic desires, or even similar stages of economic development (Weiler, 2012)—can alter negotiation dynamics, especially when those negotiations involve climate change. Although the climate change regime has seen the development and actions of several coalitions since 1992, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) coalition is distinct from others in that it comprises countries that will be most directly affected by a changing global climate even though they have contributed least to these changes. AOSIS is unique even among other marginalized coalitions comprising developing countries —such as the Group of 77 (G77), the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) (Morin, 2015)—in that its member countries are, for the most part, Small Island Developing States (SIDS) with small populations and physical territories. The group includes 44 countries and territories —39 of which are UN members—that come from three regional groups: the Caribbean, Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), and Africa, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea (AIMS). All together, these small islands make up 20% of UN countries and 28% of developing countries (in the UN). Although there is not formal charter, regular budget, or secretariat, AOSIS has been uniquely effective (compared to other developing country coalitions) in climate negotiations: as scholar W.J. David once noted, “these small and relatively powerless developing states have managed to exert a profound and continuing impact on global climate policy” (Davis, 1996, 18).

Shared Interests and Concerns Among AOSIS Members

Developing countries face distinct challenges in the climate change regime, as they are often concerned with protecting their right to develop and their right to “[raise] their economic standards of living” by continuing to contribute to industrialize and emit greenhouse gases (Frankel, 1999). Developing countries that are also small islands, however, bring a new set of challenges to the table. These countries and territories already face several burdens, such as relatively economic volatility (due to their “narrow range of imports and a high degree of dependence on strategic exports, such as food and fuel”) and comparatively high transportation costs (Nurse, 2014, 1625).

In the context of climate change, they face additional burdens. According to the 2014 Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the greatest climate-driven risks to the SIDS making up the AOSIS coalition are (Nurse, 2014, 1616):

  • Increasing sea and air temperatures
  • Rising sea levels
  • Increased intensity and frequency of natural disasters (i.e. tropical storms, cyclones, droughts)
  • Changing rainfall patterns

This IPCC report cites these risks specifically because they can potentially lead to:

  • Severe flooding on (and sometimes complete inundation of) these island states
  • Coral reef degradation around these islands
  • Reduction of freshwater sources on which these islands rely (Nurse, 2014, 1619-1625)

In other words, the predicted effects of climate change would make these already economically vulnerable states even more vulnerable—especially in terms of the negative effects that these changes may pose for island tourism and fisheries (on which many of these economies rely) (Nurse, 2014, 1619-1625).

Record of Influence on Climate Policy

First formed in 1990 in anticipation of the 1992 Earth Summit that initiated the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), AOSIS gained prominence as a lobbying group when it was able to achieve recognition in the UNFCCC text for the distinct vulnerability of small island states due to adverse effects of climate change (Betzold, 5). At the Earth Summit, AOSIS was also able to obtain a seat on the Bureau—setting a precedent which continues today, as AOSIS now also has a seat in several Convention and protocol bodies as well as climate finance bodies (i.e. the Adaptation Fund and Green Climate Fund) (Betzold, 5). Putting forth strong lobbying efforts in the negotiations surrounding the Kyoto Protocol (which set legally binding emission reduction targets only for Annex I (i.e. developed) countries), they were able to again protect their shared interests of continuing to develop under recognized principles of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR) (Gupta, 264-266). While earlier in its history, AOSIS members tended to write joint submissions, recent years have seen an increase in individual submissions from member countries as focuses have shifted towards specific mitigation goals for developed countries and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) (Gupta, 264-266).

Goals of AOSIS for Paris

(Note: this section draws on information published on the AOSIS website, under “press releases”)

In September 2014, AOSIS hosted the Third International Conference on SIDS, which focused on “the sustainable development of Small Island Developing States through genuine and durable partnerships” and stressed the following threats to SIDS today:

  • Territorial integrity, as compromised by rising sea levels
  • Increasing natural disasters
  • Food and water security
  • Scarcity of natural resources
  • Potential for forced displacement of peoples (Waqa, 2014)

In the lead up to the Paris Climate Change Conference (which marks the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC) since then, AOSIS has placed special emphasis on promoting a change that makes the long-term goal of the UNFCCC to prevent warming beyond 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels (whereas the current “goal” is to prevent warming beyond 2 degrees). During the Bonn climate talks in June 2015, Chair of AOSIS and Maldives’ Minister of Environment and Energy H.E. Thoriq Ibrahim emphasized many of the recent extreme weather events (including Cyclone Pam and Typhoon Maysak) that have occurred, as he pointed out, with only a rise in global average temperatures of less than 1 degree Celsius. In his statement, Ibrahim specifically cited a recent report from the Structured Expert Dialogue of the 2013-2015 Review that concluded, “2 degrees of warming is much too high, and would entail risks that would be incompatible with the ultimate objective of the Convention” (Ibrahim, 2015). Since these types of findings, Ibrahim and other figureheads representing AOSIS have called for action and declared that, “a 1.5 degree limit must be a part of the Paris agreement for the sake of present and future generations” (Ibrahim, 2015).  Language used by AOSIS leaders has become increasingly urgent, and Ibrahim continued to stress the 1.5 degree Celsius goal during the Bonn climate talks in August 2015.

In addition to this new goal, the AOSIS has called for a “legally binding protocol under the Convention that is applicable to all parties” in the outcomes of Paris (Ibrahim, 2015). The coalition has also stressed the important of Loss and Damage given the hardships already experienced by low-lying islands, and stated that, “Loss and Damage must be treated separately as a stand-alone element of the 2015 agreement” (Ibrahim, 2015).

(Check here for additional press releases)


Given SIDS’ prominence in the history of UNFCCC negotiations, and given their unique position of vulnerability in the face of climate change, the AOSIS coalition has been calling for increasingly ambitious outcomes out of Paris. In the past, this coalition has been able to use its strength in numbers to achieve measures that recognize their vulnerabilities and grant these small island states increasing assistance. Some questions to ask as Paris approaches: How will the dynamics of this specific coalition affect the major outcomes of the Paris negotiations, if at all?

Will AOSIS be able to get other countries on board with a new long-term goal of preventing global average warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius, instead of 2 degrees Celsius?

Is the power of a coalition such as AOSIS enough to provide protection to a group of states that are simultaneously most vulnerable and least capable of mitigating global climate change?



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