One of the big talking points at COP26 so far is the lack of representation of Pacific Islands. Travel from small island states in the Pacific is challenging and costly at the best of times, but COVID restrictions coupled with the uneven distribution of vaccines globally has made it extra difficult for delegations to make it to Glasgow. Yet despite these difficulties, the archipelago nation of Tuvalu has not only sent a delegation to COP26, but also set up an eye-catching pavilion that’s attracting delegates thanks to its large and vivid artworks.
A sculpture consisting of polar bears sporting lifejackets while standing atop a melting iceberg sounds like it’s come straight out the climate cliché playbook. But the bold colours and slightly playful expressions on the bears’ faces, coupled with the black humour of a penguin hanging from a noose, mean the work is impactful enough to make delegates stop to take a photo – and then think a bit.
Dig a little deeper into the context of the work, though, and a fascinating story emerges – because the sculpture was produced by the Government of Tuvalu’s Advisor for Climate Emergency. Vincent JF Huang has been part of the Tuvalu COP delegation for the best part of a decade, and has been working with the Government of Tuvalu for even longer. As an artist, Huang’s work has a strong focus on raising global awareness of the threats Tuvalu faces under a changing climate. As a low-lying small island state, Tuvalu could simply disappear without stringent climate action.
Another interesting angle to the Tuvalu Pavilion and delegation is that Huang himself is a Taiwanese artist, based in Taipei. Tuvalu is one of only a handful of countries globally to recognise Taiwan, which is not included in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and hence does not have an official presence at COP26. Whilst keeping the focus firmly on Tuvalu and on how wealthier nations can and should support the countries at most risk of climate change, Tuvalu’s COP26 presence is therefore also a good example of the kind of informal alliances Taiwanese actors can form to foster international cooperation outside of the UN.