Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley warned she was going “to say some things that you may not love” as she cautioned that there is no easy solution to the climate crisis on the opening day of the first ever children and young people’s space at Cop27.
The country’s first female leader, who was re-elected in a landslide victory earlier this year, has gained superstar status in the climate movement after her plain-spoken address to world leaders at last year’s Cop26 in Glasgow. She told the leaders of rich countries at the time that their failures were a “death sentence” to small islands and developing nations.
This year, she is a leading voice calling for better funding from developed nations and the fossil fuel industry to help vulnerable countries with the losses they suffer due to the effects of the climate crisis.
On the second, high-profile day for leaders at the climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Ms Mottley spoke at the Children and Youth Pavilion, designed to give a more prominent voice to young people on an issue that is jeopardising their future.
A packed audience greeted her, including many young people from the Caribbean, who waved flags and cheered loudly as she took her seat. “Thank you for the blue, yellow and black,” she said, noting the flag of Barbados on the back row.
Chandelle Nikki Toni O’Neil, 29, from Trinidad and Tobago, told The Independent why Ms Mottley commands so much respect among young people.
“I’m not surprised that she came in to talk to us because that’s what she always does,” the activist said. “The fact that she came here on the second day [of Cop] to talk to youth? That’s a Mia Mottley thing.”
Ms Mottley had some frank advice for the crowd. “The world is at a difficult point,” she said. “And I’m going to say some things that you love, and I’m going to say some things that you may not love. Because that’s the reality of life.
“But the most important thing is I need you guys to read and to become conversant with the issues. Because if you’re not, that is when you’re going to lose the battle.”
She explained that pragmatism is the key to fighting the climate crisis, and that the issues are not black and white, while urging her audience to hold on to the idea that “right is right or wrong is wrong”.
“There’s a lot of grey, and how you manage the grey is really the true test of adulthood, accepting the consequences of your choices,” she said.
She used the example of her own country, explaining that while Barbados has ambitious climate goals – pledging a 70 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030, and going net zero in 2035 – the issues it faces are complex and will not be solved overnight.
“The problem is that Barbados doesn’t manufacture everything it needs. We don’t produce all that we need,” she noted. “We became slaves to a comfortable life without worrying about security of food, and security and independence of energy, and a whole range of other things.
“So we wake up and we want to get there. But we’re not going to get there by a ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ moment. Because it takes time to plan, to grow and to reap.”
But she was also clear about the issues facing small island states and developing nations, and had sharp criticism for oil companies, which recently announced a record-breaking round of profits, and for the World Bank.
“The World Bank needs to recognise that if it is going to be the bank for reconstruction and development – not just in the middle of the 20th century, but in the middle of the 21st century – that it needs to come to [terms with] the realities of the 21st century, which include climate, which include pandemics, which include [the] digital divide, which include inequity in countries,” Ms Mottley said.
The World Bank president, David Malpass, was recently forced to state that he accepted the scientific evidence of the climate crisis after being called out as a “climate denier” by activist and former US vice-president Al Gore.
Following her talk, Ms Mottley said that she was “not in a position to comment” when asked by The Independent if the World Bank needed a new boss.
She concluded her remarks on a note of optimism, referring to the words of former US president Barack Obama that “progress doesn’t come in a straight line”, and said that fighting the climate crisis was like passing a baton in a relay race.
“I will always meet with young people, regardless of whatever I’m doing, because I’m conscious that I can only run for so far in this race, and at some point have to do so,” she said.