Engaging in climate diplomacy – policy pointers from an LDC

Effective climate diplomacy can help Least Developed Countries make sure their interests are reflected in international negotiation outcomes.

Brianna Craft's picture
Insight by 
Brianna Craft
06 August 2014
Gambia has appointed Pa Ousman Jarju as Special Climate Envoy. His appointment shows Gambia's commitment to effective climate diplomacy (Photo: Global Environment Facility)

Gambia has appointed Pa Ousman Jarju as Special Climate Envoy. His appointment shows Gambia's commitment to effective climate diplomacy (Photo: Global Environment Facility)

In July, ministers and special envoys gathered at the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate to discuss the future of the international climate regime. Named by Responding to Climate Change as the who's who of people tasked to stop climate change, the group represents nations you might not expect. 

While the European Union, United States and China are hardly surprising to find listed, countries like the Gambia and the Marshall Islands may seem misplaced at a forum of major economies. How do such nations have the diplomatic leverage to influence the major economies' climate change debate? How might other vulnerable nations successfully engage? 

In a recent IIED briefing paper, Gambian officials identify several best practices for climate diplomacy.  

Climate diplomacy in practice

Since the 1990s, governments have tried to form a comprehensive system for managing climate change. Their efforts have produced a complex of tangentially connected regimes which includes the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and various other bilateral and unilateral initiatives. 

To engage effectively with this complex system, nations must go beyond established forms of diplomacy. Effective climate diplomacy merges climate and foreign policy by proactively linking national interest debates and international cooperation on climate change.

Developed nations have long practised climate diplomacy in an effort to shape climate negotiations to deliver outcomes that are consistent with their priorities. Their special envoys travel to meet with partners and form agreement prior to negotiations. These meetings often take place outside the established UNFCCC negotiations but can vastly influence their results. 

In contrast, developing countries such as the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) often lacked sufficient capacity to actively engage in this form of diplomacy. Thus, their ability to shape negotiations is limited. In 2013, the Gambia appointed the first – and thus far the only – Special Climate Envoy from an LDC. Now on a who’s who list of people tasked to stop climate change, Minister Pa Ousman Jarju's appointment reflects the Gambia's commitment to addressing climate change and engaging in climate diplomacy.

Successful climate diplomacy begins at home

Gaining domestic constituencies that see climate action as a core national interest builds the authority for government ministers to act as effective climate diplomats in two ways. First, domestic engagement assures diplomats that they are articulating national sentiments internationally. Second, strong action at home gives diplomats external credibility, for they "practice what they preach". Rooting climate action firmly into the national interest debate is enhanced by the practice of mainstreaming.

The Gambia has successfully mainstreamed climate change issues and risks as a crosscutting theme into its medium-term development plan, Programme for Accelerated Growth and Employment (PAGE 2012–2015). To carry forward the actions mandated by this exercise, the Gambia also developed and presented a Climate Change Priority Action Programme (CCPAP). Among other things, the CCPAP will work to develop a national low-carbon strategy, to integrate climate change into the basic and higher education curriculum, and to address the country's climate data needs.

The Gambia is not the only LDC to integrate climate change into development planning. Eight other LDCs  Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Laos, Mozambique, Nepal and Rwanda  have brought together the goals of reducing climate change emissions, adapting to climate change and economic and social development in their development strategies. Termed low-carbon resilient development, such policies form a solid foundation for LDC governments to build a programme of climate diplomacy.

Media matters

Appropriate and effective communication is a prerequisite to diplomacy and climate diplomacy in particular. It reduces the risk of confused messages, allows for announcements to be spaced out for maximum impact, and can ensure that messages are timed to coincide with audience interest and receptiveness. For example, Minister Jarju wrote an open letter to President Obama in response to the USA's recent announcement to cut emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Diplomats must also interact honestly with the public via the media to explain the importance of their work and make it relevant. Marshall Islands Minister Tony de Brum frequently exhibits how powerful this type of communication can be. 

During an interview with the Guardian in May, Minister de Brum plainly and passionately spoke about climate change's impacts on his people, saying: "Some islands and atolls are already disappearing. One, called Enebok… is now underwater. Yet 20 years ago it had coconut palms and houses. At the moment we are [able to move] people around the islands. But any prudent leader would always have evacuation at the back of their mind."

Given Minister de Brum's words, it is perhaps not surprising that the he is included on the who's who of people tasked to stop climate change. As a fellow ambassador wrote, although engaging with the media has its risks, the greatest risk for diplomats is to be absent from the conversation. Both engaging with the media and rooting climate action firmly into the national interest debate are vital for effective climate diplomacy.  

Brianna Craft (brianna.craft@iied.org) is a researcher with IIED's Climate Change Group.