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Last Updated: 07/13/2005
What's a tiny Pacific island to do?
Mary Jo Larson

"Small island communities are among those most vulnerable to the security risks of climate change," writes Larson. The rising oceans create a host of problems, including destruction of farmland, salination of water tables, and coastal erosion. But these individual island communities are teaming up, and "As 'low-power' actors, [they] are intentionally confronting the powerful industrialized countries responsible for climate warming."

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Small island communities are among those most vulnerable to the security risks of climate change.[1]  In the Pacific, warming trends are causing sea levels to rise, destroying coral reefs and reducing precipitation. Rising sea levels contaminate underground water tables, cause coastal erosion, destroy natural vegetation and make farmlands inoperable. Lowland island nations, such as Tuvalu[2], are among the most vulnerable and least able to adapt. Concerned about these of environmental changes, the government of Tuvalu has appealed to Australia and New Zealand to allow Tuvaluans to relocate as rising sea levels make evacuation necessary.


Pacific island diplomats are engaged in United Nations (UN) multilateral negotiations to address the risks of global climate warming. As “low-power” actors, small island delegates are intentionally confronting the powerful industrialized countries responsible for climate warming. The process of generating international agreements on any issue is difficult, and negotiations to address ecological conflicts, which mix economics, politics, the environment and scientific uncertainty, are considered the most complicated and difficult to resolve (Susskind 1994).


This paper analyzes how Pacific island leaders engage in multilateral diplomacy to persuade more powerful actors to address the effects of global climate warming. It identifies strategies of less powerful groups, and it recognizes dilemmas.  The study begins with a brief discussion of the case issue - climate warming - recognizing its potential consequences and UN multilateral responses. Within this context, it explains how Pacific island leaders advance their own security and contribute to the resolution of complex global ecological conflicts. The analysis identifies factors that strengthen low-power disadvantaged groups in multilateral diplomacy and the benefits of their participation. A conflict resolution systems framework highlights commonalities between flexible solutions and the resolution of conflicts.

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[1] Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change:

[2]See web site for Tuvalu:

Mary Jo Larson is a Visiting Professor at UPEACE. She earned her Ph.D. at the Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University. Dr. Larson is an international educator and consultant specializing in multilateral approaches to peace building, development and security. She is a trained Advanced Mediator, experienced global program director, and author of numerous journal articles on multilateral negotiations, leadership, gender, peace building and low-power contributions to ecological security