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‘Put money down and help us’: Barbados first female PM Mia Mottley demands rich nations pay for climate crisis

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Barbados prime minister Mia Mottley is unafraid to lay blame for the climate crisis on wealthy nations – and says it’s long past time for them to compensate countries like her own, who are bearing the brunt of the impacts.

“We’ve been carrying the costs on our balance sheet of your behaviour,” she toldThe Independent during an exclusive interview in New York last month.

“We’re not asking for the world. We’re saying: Look, put some money down and help us,” she said.

Ms Mottley, Barbados’s first female prime minister, has shone a light on the plight of small island and developing nations, demanding resources to help them adapt to climate change. In that effort, she’s become a powerful voice on the global stage, and was named one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world this year.

At last year’s Cop26, the United Nations’ climate change summit, she lambasted an audience including president Joe Biden and prime minister Boris Johnson for failing to meet climate finance goals, and called 2C of warming a “death sentence” for some small islands and developing nations.

Her plainspoken urgency is not misplaced.

Barbados, a Caribbean island nation about three-quarters the size of Chicago, is facing the consequences of the climate crisis, particularly rising sea levels which threaten the water supply and encroach on coastal communities.

And yet, Barbados has not caused this problem. In 2020, the country accounted for less than 0.01 per cent per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

As Ms Mottley notes, it’s the G20 nations – a group including the US, UK, China, Russia and the EU – that have released the vast majority of the emissions heating the planet.

“That’s what’s put us in this position,” she said.

However many heavy polluters are powerful and wealthy nations – leaving them better equipped to deal with the consequences of their actions. Meanwhile, smaller developing nations, like Barbados and many of its Caribbean neighbours, are in the immediate path of climate extremes, with fewer resources to cope.

“We’re happy for those countries that they have been empowered and rich and their citizens have benefited,” Ms Mottley said. “But at what expense?”

Solving such huge problems requires decision-making on a global scale which can be a painfully slow process. But when it comes to the climate crisis, time is not on anyone’s side.

“It would be not so bad if we had 25, 30 years to adapt,” she said. Instead, “we’ve got 12-13 years, according to everyone”.

That’s just 144 months, the prime minister emphasises.

Ms Mottley, whose father and grandfather were politicians, was first elected to the country’s parliament in 1994 and went on to become leader of the Barbados Labour Party. She became prime minister in 2018 after her party won all 30 seats in the chamber, a feat repeated this year.

Significant change has come to Barbados since she took office. Ms Mottley shepherded Barbados’ transition to a republic last year, a move which removed Queen Elizabeth II as the official head of state nearly 60 years after the country gained independence.

The climate crisis has also been a major focus, with good reason. Barbados is facing an existential threat on multiple fronts but particularly when it comes to water. The World Health Organisation has warned that sea level rise and changing weather could put immense stress on freshwater resources in the country.

Its largest city, Bridgetown, also sits on the low-lying southeastern coast of the Caribbean Sea. The location makes it potentially vulnerable to stronger and more frequent tropical storms similar to Hurricane Elsa in 2021, which damaged homes and knocked out electricity across the country.

Barbados is going to have to adapt, Ms Mottley told The Independent during her visit to New York, where she joined a panel on sustainable development at the Global Citizen NOW summit with Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and “science guy” Bill Nye.

Necessary changes could include reinforcing buildings on the island to protect them from hurricanes, and dealing with blooms of foul-smelling sargassum seaweed, she said. (Some scientists suggest that recent blooms in the Atlantic and Caribbean could be partly driven by climate change.)

“Can you imagine going to a restaurant next to a place that’s full of sargassum seaweed that’s smelling?” Ms Mottley asked. “You’re not gonna go!”

But adapting to the climate crisis also comes at the cost of everything else a country needs to do for communities.

“If I’m investing here, then I have less money to invest in education, less money to invest in health care, less money to invest in infrastructure,” Ms Mottley said.

For smaller and developing nations, the cost of adapting to a new reality could leave them without a lot of financial wiggle room. Barbados has a population of about 300,000 people and a GDP of about 10 per cent the size of North Dakota. A severe hurricane with a trail of expensive damages, for example, could decimate public coffers.

These challenges for small and developing nations are already apparent. Oxfam recently reported that the money needed for UN humanitarian appeals on extreme weather has increased more than 800 per cent in the past 20 years.

At Cop26, Ms Mottley called for new climate funding for small and developing nations, including a 1 per cent tax on fossil fuel sales in some countries that would pay for “loss and damage” – essentially, the economic toll from consequences of the climate crisis, like storms and droughts.

That tax didn’t happen but the push for climate mitigation and adaptation will continue at Cop27, being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt this November.

“We have to continue the battles that we’ve been fighting,” Ms Mottley said.

None of this is simple, she noted, nor does it come without obstacles like the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine. But you’ve got to “push past the pain,” she said, and things are moving the right direction.

“The issue is, will we get there fast enough to save those of us on the front line?”

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