Britain and other small island states call out big polluters
At a closed meeting, the speeches singled out major emitters whose leaders had not shown up.
At a behind-closed-doors meeting at the U.N. on Monday, leaders from small island states excoriated some of the world’s biggest countries, China, India, Russia and the U.S., with blunt lectures about global climate credibility.
It was hardly lost on the small countries that, just weeks ahead of the major COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in November, they were left to direct their disdain at lower level envoys or ministers because leaders who had been invited to the session didn’t bother to show.
Marshall Islands President David Kabua said his country had been the first to raise its climate goal under the Paris Agreement, according to officials in the room who quickly divulged details about the supposedly confidential meeting. “How can it not be clear to us all that it is time for major emitters to show the same leadership?” Kabua said.
“We talk and we talk about ambition … and things remain the same. It is absurd. Gladly this is not a public meeting because it would be weird to talk like this in a public meeting. But it is absurd,” said President of Costa Rica Carlos Alvarado Quesada.
The U.N. General Assembly, which starts its main session on Tuesday, is a moment for countries to signal how much they are willing to do on key issues ahead of COP26, including cutting emissions and raising finance for poorer countries.
Prime Minister of Barbados Mia Mottley said it was “inexplicable the world isn’t taking action and it suggests we in small islands are to remain dispensable and remain invisible.”
Another leader forced to reflect on his own newfound status as a small island state was the meeting’s co-chair and COP26 host Boris Johnson.
The U.K. prime minister and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres had requested the attendance of China’s Xi Jinping, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, India’s Narendra Modi and his ally in the new AUKUS security alliance, U.S. President Joe Biden, only for each of them to send an envoy or minister to listen in. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and his officials snubbed the meeting altogether, despite meeting Johnson later that day.
That left the U.K., ranked 17th on the list of global emitters, as the biggest non-EU polluter to have a leader turn up.
“I confess I’m increasingly frustrated that the ‘something’ to which many of you have committed is nowhere near enough,” Johnson told the gathering, according to a readout. “Too many major economies — some represented here today, some absent — are lagging too far behind.”
Alvarado Quesada, noting Johnson had written a “very good book” about Winston Churchill, called for the emergence of a Churchill figure for climate change. “A single leader can make a difference. So now we need the Boris factor, the Antonio factor … and particularly we need the Biden factor, the Vladimir factor, for things to change.”
An enervated Johnson didn’t hold back. “Climate change is realpolitik,” he said. “And in the years to come, the only great powers will be green powers … So you can look away, you can do the minimum, you can hope that if you feed the crocodile enough it will devour you last. Or you can show leadership.”
Three days after the U.N. warned the world was on track for 2.7 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century, Johnson dropped any mention of “keeping 1.5 alive” — referring to the goal he has set for the COP26 climate talks to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“We’re going to have to demonstrate at COP26 how that gap is going to be closed,” Alok Sharma, the U.K. minister in charge of the climate conference, later told reporters.
But Kabua, whose Pacific atoll nation’s highest point is just a few meters above sea level, said it was clear that with the impacts of climate change already upon us, the world needed to focus more attention on funding projects that adapt to climate change. “Show those of us on the front lines that we are in this together,” he said.
Sharma added that U.S. climate envoy John Kerry had recommended to the meeting that those looking for the U.S. to close a roughly $17 billion hole in climate funding for developing countries should watch Biden’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. “A good announcement from the U.S. will make a difference in terms of getting us over the line,” Sharma said.
Talks on climate change at the annual U.N. meeting risk being overshadowed by the fallout from AUKUS — a new defense pact between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia aimed at countering China that has caused a rift with France over a canceled submarine deal. But Alvarado Quesada questioned any increases in military spending while the planet was still heating up.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “Perhaps, perhaps it is my mistake, I am not getting the point. We are fighting for what? A planet that is not viable? That’s the question: Compete to control what?”
Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.