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How island nations vulnerable to climate change need rich, polluting countries to act

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: When Brianna Fruean was 11 years old, her teacher in Samoa taught the class a lesson on climate change.

BRIANNA FRUEAN: And I remember my teacher saying climate change was this thing that could mean an island like Tokelau could drown.

SHAPIRO: The lesson felt personal. Tokelau is where her grandmother grew up, and imagining that kind of loss planted the seed of a mission.

FRUEAN: I loved following, like, movies where someone, like, hears of a crisis and thinks I'm going to fix it. And that's what I told my parents. I said, I think I want to do environmental work. And I remember my mom being like, OK, honey, when you're older. And I said, no, no, no, like, now. I want to do it now.

SHAPIRO: Brianna Fruean is now 23, and last week, she opened the first day of the COP26 summit here in Glasgow, speaking directly to heads of state from all over the world.

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FRUEAN: In my culture in Samoa, there's a proverb that goes (non-English language spoken). It means that even stones decay, but words remain. A lesson in knowing how words can be wielded. In your words, you wield the weapons that can save us or sell us out.

SHAPIRO: Did the 11-year-old superhero fan who told her parents she wanted to be a climate activist ever imagine she would be speaking to world leaders in Scotland 12 years later?

FRUEAN: No, I've always seen myself as a supporter. Like, I thought, OK, maybe I would be supporting someone who is speaking to world leaders. I never thought it would be me.

SHAPIRO: She's part of a group called Pacific Climate Warriors. They represent small island nations, some of the country's most vulnerable to a warming planet. Yesterday, Brianna opened another session that included COP26 President Alok Sharma and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And I met her afterwards in a stadium-sized room full of activists and academics.

FRUEAN: I always come into COP optimistic because I think if I just think that nobody cares about the Pacific Islands, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning.

SHAPIRO: Tell us how you see climate change today in Samoa.

FRUEAN: I was telling someone earlier this week - like, they were asking, how do you know you live with the climate crisis? And I said, well, I can recall the smell of mud. I don't know if you've ever been in, like, a storm or a flood, but when the flood drains back into the ocean, it leaves piles and piles of mud. And so I've scooped mud out of my house, and sometimes there's so much mud, you can't get it all in time, and then it starts to smell. And that's an experience, a lived experience, I have being from a frontline community.

SHAPIRO: I noted that in this sea of black suits and charcoal gray and navy blue, you are wearing pink and lavender and you have a flower behind your ear. Is there more to that than just representing your country?

FRUEAN: I've always believed in bringing color into COP. These images of dread and a crisis and, like, floods and all these, like, very heartbreaking and a lot of the times ugly images of the climate crisis, I don't think those should be the only images that push us into action. I think images of beauty, of hope, of culture, should be what also push us into action because that's what's at stake. For me as a Pacific Islander, a lot of people think my role here at COP is to come and cry like I owe them my trauma when I don't owe you my trauma. If I want to come here in, like, bright pink and neon colours and be like, I'm a very happy person and this is the happiness I'm trying to save, then that's what gives me the energy to be in this space.

SHAPIRO: Small island nations often punch above their weight at climate summits like this one. Six years ago in Paris, all the banners and speakers talked about keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius.

FRUEAN: A lot of people were scared to say 1.5.

SHAPIRO: But representatives from countries like Samoa, Palau and the Marshall Islands insisted. They chanted 1.5 to stay alive.

FRUEAN: And now I sit here today with a 1.5 badge that was given to me by the U.N.

SHAPIRO: This year in Glasgow, there is another challenge beyond holding countries to their 1.5 degree commitments.

SATYENDRA PRASAD: These are the thinnest Pacific Island representation of any COP.

SHAPIRO: Satyendra Prasad is Fiji's ambassador to the U.N. and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum. Many countries in his region are still locked down because of the pandemic.

PRASAD: Unfortunately, only three leaders from the Pacific small states were able to make it.

SHAPIRO: Do you feel that puts even more weight on your shoulders?

PRASAD: It does. It does. And there are so many negotiations taking place. It would be different if there were 14 leaders from Pacific present here.

SHAPIRO: So the stakes are higher for you than almost anywhere in the world. There are fewer of you here than at any previous climate summit. When you are in the room, do you feel that you're being heard?

PRASAD: So that's a big question. We are listened to. I'm not sure that we are heard.

SHAPIRO: He says even if global temperatures only rise 1.5 degrees Celsius, small island nations will still lose 30 to 70% of their economies.

PRASAD: So beyond 1.5 is a future Pacific states cannot contemplate.

SHAPIRO: His country, Fiji, has already identified 50 communities that will have to be relocated no matter what. They've started moving six of them so far.

PRASAD: We are relocating them at the pace at which we can afford it. If climate finance were available on the scale on which it is needed, we would have relocated all of these communities, you know, yesterday. But the point is, climate finances is the most missing part of the equation still.

SHAPIRO: And that gets to one of the biggest questions of this summit. Will large wealthy countries like the U.S. pay for the damage they've caused?

APRIL BAPTISTE: Think of small island developing states as these really minute contributors to the greenhouse gas problem, but yet they face the brunt of the impacts.

SHAPIRO: Colgate University professor April Baptiste researches Caribbean environmental movements.

BAPTISTE: We constantly have to go on the world stage and make a show to be able to say that, listen, we have not contributed to this problem, but yet we are suffering the disproportionate impacts. And yet you, developed world, are not doing your part to be able to mitigate the harms that we are facing.

SHAPIRO: Her family is from Trinidad and Tobago, and she says today's dynamic reinforces patterns that have always existed between these islands and more powerful nations.

BAPTISTE: It goes to this history of colonialism - right? - and the history of exploitation. A lot of these island states, because by definition, they may have been perceived as being sort of dispensable - right? - small island states were always the playground for the more powerful within our global economic system.

SHAPIRO: But here in Glasgow, when you talk to representatives from small island nations, it's clear that they are refusing to wear the mantle of victim. There's one phrase you hear again and again. Brianna Fruean said it in her opening address at the start of COP26.

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FRUEAN: Pacific youth have rallied behind the cry. We are not drowning. We are fighting. This is our warrior cry to the world. We are not drowning. We are fighting.

SHAPIRO: I asked her where that refrain came from.

FRUEAN: We wanted to reclaim this narrative that we are just, like, passive beings waiting for handouts, that we wanted to show the world that, actually, if you go to an island, you'll see that we have some of the most innovative resilience projects happening. We have traditional knowledge holders doing this adaptation work that aren't seen as climate scientists but are very much doing climate science. We need to keep pushing. We need that disruption. We know that by each little push, we're getting a bit further.

SHAPIRO: The 11-year-old who wanted to be a superhero has grown up to be a warrior.

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SHAPIRO: And tomorrow from Glasgow, around a quarter of the world's carbon emissions come from agriculture. We'll look at the effort to limit the climate impact of the food we eat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.