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Why Is the 'Pacific COP' Being Held in Germany, and Does It Matter?

The country presiding over the United Nations climate summit rotates every year, but experts say location matters less than leadership.
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Salaheddine Mezouar (left), the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs, shakes hands with Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji, at the COP22 climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 18th, 2016.

Salaheddine Mezouar (left), the Moroccan minister of foreign affairs, shakes hands with Frank Bainimarama, prime minister of Fiji, at the COP22 climate conference in Marrakech, Morocco, on November 18th, 2016.

It's that time of year again. As you read this, thousands of government officials, activists, lobbyists, and journalists are flocking to Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd annual Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change—the conference that gave us the historic Paris climate accord in France in 2015.

The location of the COP and the post of conference president rotate every year, in keeping with the U.N.'s pursuit of "equitable geographic representation" between five recognized regional groups: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and Western Europe and others (this last group includes Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States of America). Last year, Morocco held the presidency, and the COP took place in Marrakech; the year before, the host country was France, and delegates gathered in Paris.

This year, for the first time ever, a Pacific island country will preside over the event: Fiji.

The COP presidency, while technically a neutral party, traditionally sets the agenda and tone for the two-week summit. "As the region of the world that is destined to bear the worst brunt of the effects of climate change, we have been given a crucial platform to put our case," Fiji's Prime Minister Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, the incoming COP president, said last November when he accepted the presidency. "As president of COP23, we will use this platform to continue to press for deeper cuts in carbon emissions to reduce global warming even further—and to counter the rising sea levels and extreme weather events that threaten the very existence of some nations."

This year's conference is happening at the start of the South Pacific cyclone season, and, even on Fiji's biggest island, it could have been difficult to host the 25,000 people expected to attend COP23. (The summit would have increased the population of Fiji's capital city, Suva, by nearly a third.) For these reasons, the UNFCCC decided that COP23 would happen in Bonn—to the dismay of any conference attendees who had hoped to cap two weeks of business with an island vacation.

Most experts agree that "equitable geographical representation" is critical for the presidency of the COP. But they're divided on whether the location actually matters.

"Seeing Is Believing"

Last year, Bainimarama invited then President-elect Donald Trump to "come to Fiji to see the effects of climate change for himself," and to convince the climate denier-in-chief of the value of the global accord. Trump has yet to take the prime minister up on his offer—and, let's be real, it's unlikely that experiencing the Pacific island’s climate woes firsthand would have convinced Trump to rescind his pledge to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement.

Political ideology is a strong force in perceptions of climate change. But the idea that experience can influence attitudes about climate change has many supporters.

"Seeing is believing," says Mahendra Kumar, a climate change and sustainable development consultant based in Suva, Fiji. "I recall my first visit to Kiribati. I had read about the vulnerability of these beautiful islands to sea level rise, but it was only after I saw the chain of islands coming into land and wondered if the plane would hit the water that I realized how low these atolls are."

There's some evidence that people who notice warmer-than-normal weather patterns firsthand are more likely to believe in global warming, and that others who have lived through increased flooding tend to become more concerned about climate change, but other studies have found no significant link between the experience of extreme weather and belief that climate change is real.

"Location Matters Less Than Leadership"

One thing that's certain: The countries that are already experiencing some of the worst effects of climate change are the same countries pushing for more stringent climate action. For the Marshall Islands and other Pacific states, the rallying cry at these U.N. climate summits is always "1.5 to stay alive," alluding to the fact that, even if the world meets its goal to limit warming below two degrees Celsius, many islands in the Pacific will still be inundated under that scenario. Nicaragua has long criticized the Paris deal for not being ambitious enough; in 2015, Nicaragua's lead negotiator, Paul Oquist, called the deal a "path to failure." But this year, as a show of solidarity with the other "first victims" of climate change, Nicaragua's president announced the country would finally join the accord—leaving Syria as the only nation outside of the agreement. "We have to show solidarity with this large number of countries that are the first victims, that are already victims and who will continue to suffer the impact of these disasters: countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, those in highly vulnerable areas," President Daniel Ortega said, according to Nicaragua's El Nuevo Diario.

"Ideally, if the COP could have been held in Fiji, or another [small island developing state], this would provide the participants opportunity to appreciate first hand the unique relationship between the people and the oceans, the vulnerability of these islands, their unique situations in terms of location, size, remoteness, access to infrastructure," Kumar says. But those unique characteristics also make it impossible for the small island nation to host the event, which has become sprawling in recent years, especially as civil society and non-governmental organizations have become more involved in the process: In 2015, official attendance at COP21 in Paris was over 36,000. This year, organizers have imposed attendance restrictions given limited space, but 25,000 people are still expected to show up in Bonn.

And, in the end, location matters less than leadership, which Fiji can provide more effectively from Germany, according to Achala Abeysinghe, principal researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development and a legal expert on climate change negotiations.

Recalling the various COPs that she's attended, Abeysinghe admits that COPs in warmer climates do tend to be more productive. "I was just telling one colleague, every COP that we had in warm weather, we've gotten better results. If you look back at the Bali COP, or Cancun," she says, "I guess people become friendlier—they warm to each other."

Then again, she adds, Paris was a notable exception.