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Small island nations threatened by climate change seek voice in U.N. negotiations


World leaders are preparing for the major U.N. climate conference, COP26, that starts in Glasgow later this month. And there's one group of countries that hopes to have an outsized influence on the negotiations. That's the small island nations, places like Fiji, the Maldives and the Solomon Islands. These countries have a low carbon footprint but have already begun to experience severe effects of climate change - flooding, erosion, in some cases, the threat of utter submersion.

These small nations are facing a diplomatic challenge as well going into Glasgow. They don't have the influence of places like the U.S., China and Europe. Their mission is to convince powerful nations to curb their emissions sharply, but they're also asking wealthier nations to pay large sums to mitigate the damage that small islands have experienced.

To learn more, we reached out to Ambassador Janine Felson. She's an adviser to the Alliance of Small Island States and the deputy head of the delegation from Belize that's heading to the Glasgow conference. Belize, of course, is not an island; it's a coastal Caribbean country between Mexico and Guatemala. But as Ambassador Felson explains, Belize is dealing with many of the very same catastrophic climate issues as some of its island neighbors.

I started by asking Ambassador Felson to describe some of the changes she's been seeing in Belize.

JANINE FELSON: So it's definitely been noticeably warmer, not only the warmer sea temperatures but certainly the changes or the differences that we've seen in the coral reef. The coral reef is often quite vibrant, a colorful garden under the water. But now, we've seen evidence of bleached areas, brown areas. And that's something quite, you know, distinct. We don't have seasons in the same way that you experience in North America, but we do have a dry and a wet season, and it feels as though that dry season has certainly been extended.

FOLKENFLIK: Before we talk about the conference ahead, talk to me a moment about the stakes, why climate change is such a big issue for these small countries.

FELSON: It's existential. If you think back to the massive hurricanes like Dorian, Maria and Irma that just ripped through the entire Caribbean and also impacted the United States - when you think of that and you think of the relative size of these countries, you recognize immediately what is at stake. It's our lives. It's our children's future. It's the entire nation. One hurricane can expand over an entire island.

In the case of Bahamas, with Hurricane Dorian, that hurricane sat over that island for many, many hours. And this - that is some - one of the more spectacular incidents of climate change, but don't forget that we still have sea level rise that's accelerating, that's going to inundate. And if it doesn't inundate, it will certainly impact the water, the portability of the water. That's something that's critical to life, not only human life but all the flora and the fauna that we depend upon for our survival.

FOLKENFLIK: How do you leverage that moral position into your call not just for wealthy countries to slash deeply their greenhouse gas emissions but, also, for them to pay to mitigate the damage that small island nations have already experienced, something that would undoubtedly cost tens, hundreds of billions of dollars to do? What is the case that you make to people who may not themselves have any connections to these countries?

FELSON: It's easy to overlook the small, but we are the ones on the front line. We are the ones who are experiencing the impacts of others continuing to do things with a business-as-usual approach. And I think by establishing ourselves as the exemplars of what will happen but what we can do because I really wouldn't want it to become this assumption that we are only victims. Small island developing states are, in fact, very much leaders in the fight against climate change. And we have models that we have been developing over the years that have been reliant on nature-based solutions, which is now big on trend in the climate change discussions. So I think in terms of leveraging, we certainly do bring to the fore what our vulnerability is.

FOLKENFLIK: So heading to Glasgow for the U.N. climate conference, what are your top priorities?

FELSON: I think it's very obvious that what needs to happen is that the major countries, like the group of 20 countries that are responsible for 75% of global greenhouse gas emissions - they need to step up their action. They need to raise their ambition. And so one of the things that we expect out of COP26 is that we will set a plan to accelerate that type of ambition within the 2020s.

There's an obligation to provide support to countries like the small island developing states. We are at a disadvantage. We're small. Our economies are small. Belize's is barely over a billion a year in terms of GDP. And yet the costs are way beyond what we are able to mobilize. And we are definitely going to be talking about loss and damage. Loss and damage is the permanence of not having your coral reef, the permanence of not having your home to return to. And we want to see the international community to finally recognize that that aspect of having failed mitigation - that we now need an international response to support countries that are facing that type of consequence from climate change.

So I think success in COP26 is going to be that reckoning by the big countries, the group of 20 countries and a commitment from them that they will take forward more ambitious action. We will eventually have to come back to the table to see where they are. But that commitment to move forward will be a big one. Despite all the challenges that we're going into COP26 with, there is still a lot of momentum, there's a lot of push to get these countries - to get our countries to come out of Glasgow with a credible pronouncement on what we intend to do to ensure that countries that need support will have it. That will be the success that will come out of COP26.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Ambassador Janine Felson. She's the deputy head of the Belize delegation heading to COP26, the upcoming U.N. climate conference. She's also an adviser to the Alliance of Small Island States and an enterprise fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute in Australia.

Ambassador Felson, thanks for your time.

FELSON: Thank you very much, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAC DEMARCO'S "DON JUAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.