Who Will Speak for the Islands?
Lia Nicholson, a native Antiguan, serves as climate advisor to the Alliance of Small Island States — a job which carries troublingly existential stakes but one for which she is eminently well suited.
The numbers alone can be abstract, clinical. It is difficult, when considering climate change, to envision the difference between a global temperature rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the preindustrial baseline and a rise of 2 degrees. “But for us, it’s existential,” says Lia Nicholson ’14 MEM. “We all need to recognize that the difference in those temperatures has huge costs for small islands.”
Nicholson traveled to Glasgow at the end of 2021 to attend the 26th annual Conference of the Parties — or COP26 — hosted by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. There, she served as lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States. This bloc of 39 small island nations, which together comprise 20% of all U.N. member states, joined forces 30 years ago in an effort to amplify common concerns around the changing climate. (AOSIS has since adopted positions on issues of sustainable development and ocean conservation.)
Nicholson was born and raised on Antigua, where one of her early childhood memories is the world-ending intensity of a Category 5 hurricane passing over her house. She was involved in environmental issues from a young age and, in college, wrote her thesis on the problem of soil erosion due to colonial grazing practices. She was drawn to the Yale School of the Environment because of its focus on the applied management of environmental policy and principles. There, she worked with several “excellent professors,” she says, and shifted her concentration to the concern of climate change.
After graduation, Nicholson returned to Antigua and began a job in the island nation’s Department of the Environment. Although most of her efforts centered on local environmental issues, the work had an international feel, as Antigua is part of a “mini-EU of regional islands,” as Nicholson puts it. She also found herself increasingly enmeshed in the world of international institutions as she pushed to secure $30 million of climate finance for Antigua for adaptation and restoration measures.
“My YSE education was a perfect primer for working in a small island, where you have to be a jack of all trades. I relied on everything from GIS (geographical information systems) to policy synthesis training, mock climate negotiations, and green finance coursework,” Nicholson says.
After four years in Antigua, she spent two years with the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group as technical advisor in West Africa, based in Lagos, and then in early 2021 rejoined the Antigua and Barbuda government in her current role at AOSIS — a two-year term that is halfway done. When thinking about the recent work at COP26, Nicholson describes success on some fronts despite the conference’s sprawling nature.
“I was inspired by the way Lia was able to take in all the information at an event like COP26 and respond in a rational and thoughtful way,” says Jillian Aicher ’23 MEM, who worked alongside Nicholson at COP26 by way of the class “International Organizations and Conferences.” (Nicholson also took this class and served as a teaching assistant for one semester.) “With all that was happening, she remained an incredibly effective advocate for the goals and mission of AOSIS.”
Most notably, Nicholson points to the call to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. But even with this win, huge questions of financial responsibility and moral accountability remain unanswered, and to these she continues to commit her energies.
“The COP is a moment, but as soon as 26 ended we started to plan for 27,” she says.
The gains of last year propel the demands of this year.
“How do we cut emissions faster and make more climate finance available to small islands? We’re on a trajectory to overshoot 1.5 degrees, but 1.5 must be our ceiling,” Nicholson says.