Role of Small Islands in UN Climate Negotiations: A Constructivist Viewpoint

AuthorAthaulla A. Rasheed
Publication Date01 Oct 2019
Role of Small
Islands in UN
Climate Negotiations:
A Constructivist
Athaulla A. Rasheed1,2
This article is about small island developing states (SIDS) and their role in the
United Nations (UN) climate negotiations. It presents a discussion about how
a constructivist model of foreign policy analysis and international system design
can be used to explain the impact of climate ideas of SIDS on UN climate system.
The SIDS have been in the UN climate negotiations since the 1980s, committed
to a climate agenda with clear ideas about the challenges they face and the type of
solutions they seek from the international policy community. In this respect, this
article seeks to explain that climate ideas shared among SIDS have established an
intersubjective understanding to promote a compelling common voice at inter-
national climate negotiations, which is based on an island vulnerability identity.
These ideas have shaped the policy thinking and interests of climate negotiators
to design institutional frameworks that have given special consideration to SIDS.
It concludes that this observation represents a disproportionate impact of SIDS.
Despite the weak material powers for being small islands, their climate agenda
has influenced the UN system design to address their concerns.
Small island developing states (SIDS), climate change, United Nations climate
negotiations, constructivism, international relations, foreign policy
1 Grifth University, Brisbane, Australia.
2 Former Diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Government of Maldives, Maldives.
Corresponding author:
Athaulla A. Rasheed, Grifth University, Brisbane, Queensland 4066, Australia.
E-mail: a.rasheed@grif
International Studies
56(4) 215–235, 2019
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719861503
216 International Studies 56(4)
Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have moved to the forefront of climate
change debates today (Grecequet, Noble, & Hellmann, 2017). Although geo-
graphically distant and culturally diverse from each other, the SIDS also share
unique physical and material characteristics that create similar environmental
concerns and development challenge for them. More importantly, SIDS have
reached agreement about their disproportionate and unique vulnerabilities to cli-
mate change (Betzold, Castro, & Weiler, 2012, pp. 591–613; OECD, 2015; UN,
2017; UNFCCC, 2005; Voccia, 2012, pp. 101–115). Since their special case was
first endorsed by the United Nations (UN) in 1992 (see UNFCCC, 2005, p. 2), UN
climate negotiations have become a key platform for SIDS to seek international
collective action. They have been committed to a climate agenda with clear ideas
about the challenges they face and the type of solutions they seek from the inter-
national policy community. However, this behaviour tends to question the mate-
rial capacity of SIDS to actually make a difference in the UN. This is the case
especially considering the realist asymmetries of the international system
(Murphy, Tirpak, Drexhage, & Gagnon-Lebrun, 2009, pp. 13, 22). In this respect,
this article argues that SIDS have made a difference. This is argued along the
theoretical lines of international relations (IR) scholarship that focus on the idea-
tional role of small states in the post-Cold War international political economy
(see Bishop, 2012, pp. 942–960; Flockhart, 2016). Current literature agrees that
the UN climate negotiations have been influenced by small island diplomacy
(Ashe, Lieropb, & Ashe, 1999; Betzold, 2015, Betzold et al., 2012; Grecequet et
al., 2017; Parry, Canziani, Palutikof, Linden, & Hanson, 2007; UN, 2010;
UNFCCC, 2005). Hence, this article seeks to explain this role of SIDS in terms of
how climate ideas constitutive of the island vulnerability identity created an inter-
subjective understanding among climate negotiators about their special and
unique vulnerabilities.
Constructivist ideas can be utilized in a methodological context to explain the
climate politics of SIDS. The underlying notion is that ideas can have a causal
power to shape foreign policy purposes of states and influence structural changes
(Blyth, 2002; Flockhart, 2016; Wendt, 1992). Ideas generated, shared and agreed
between actors (or states) can shape their political and policy interests, and (re)
construct their policy structures. This ideational process can establish the UN cli-
mate system as a social construction or an intersubjective structure of climate
foreign policy of negotiating states. This forms a process of temporal interplay
between states involving continuous exchange of climate foreign policy interests
(see Flockhart, 2016). This means that despite the pre-existing institutional condi-
tions, ideas tend to shape interests as they are shared among negotiating states
during the processes of dispute resolution, crisis management and policymaking.
Therefore, this intersubjective structure of climate foreign policy is important to
explain how SIDS have performed in and shaped the UN climate system.
The scope of this article is also limited to the role of SIDS in climate change-
related engagements in the UN. SIDS presents a notable case when it comes to the
UN climate negotiations (Betzold et al., 2012, pp. 591–613; Betzold et al., 2015,

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