Leadership at the Dubai climate summit

As the 21st century grinds on, as public discourse sinks under the weight of disinformation and personal abuse, and as the onward march of climate change threatens to break into a gallop, what does leadership look like?

Since climate change is a pressing and universal issue and the annual global summit is happening now, surely the place to look is COP28. That rules out US president Joe Biden and our own prime minister Anthony Albanese, both of whom decided not to attend.

But it doesn’t rule out Mia Mottley, prime minister of the tiny Caribbean island nation of Barbados. What her country lacks in size – it’s less than half the size of King Island and has a population a bit bigger than Hobart’s – it more than makes up for in the quality of its leadership.

In the United Nations General Assembly in 2021, Mottley put away her speech notes and launched into an impassioned call to world leaders to act more responsibly in the face of a climate catastrophe. “Our world knows not what it is gambling with, and if we don’t control this fire, it will burn us all down,” she said.

In that speech Mottley called for global, moral and strategic leadership – “global because our problems are global, moral because we must do the right thing, and strategic, because we cannot solve every problem of the world, but we must solve those within our purview immediately.”

A year ago she hosted an international forum attended by UN, Rockefeller Foundation and Open Society leaders to develop her ideas for global climate financial solutions. Fire and flood ravaged communities in Australia should note how Barbados under Mottley’s leadership has managed to get money quickly to people affected in storm disasters to help them back on their feet. 

Last week at COP28, Mottley stood out on a head-of-state panel that included French president Emmanuel Macron and UK prime minister Rishi Sunak, outlining how the world could get climate resources to the places that most need it.

“This is where the rubber hits the road,” she said. We’ve been talking for some time and we’re beginning to see progress. The question is whether it will be equal to what is needed.” 

With insurance proving hard to obtain in wealthy Florida and California, Mottley said, even more vulnerable were small nations which had “a different reality”. She feared that the Caribbean was already being seen as an “uninsurable risk.” 

Mottley argued for the UN’s Loss And Damage Fund, based on the polluter-pays principle, to be extended to support resilience and adaptation. She called for global mechanisms to secure private capital, like a one-percent tax on all air travel and shipping, which she calculated could raise over $100 billion annually. 

She also proposed bringing new players to the table – insurance companies, bank regulators, credit-rating agencies – and international regulation of carbon offsetting to counter greenwashing and market implosion.

“We have enough ideas,” she told COP28. “The problem is where is the decision-making going to be made, and who is going to be at the table to make the decision?” 

Anthony Albanese’s government has sought to give more attention than in past years to the plight of remote, often low-lying Pacific Island nations, vulnerable to rising sea level and more powerful cyclones. Foreign minister Penny Wong pointed last week to Australia’s support for the Pacific Resilience Facility and the need for rapid access to finance for loss and damage.

The financial support has been welcomed by Pacific Forum leaders, but they loudly condemn continued support for fossil fuels, and strongly oppose Australia continuing its massive coal and gas exports which last year were worth well over $200 billion.

Vanuatu’s environment minister Ralph Regenvanu said his country faced an existential threat. Marshall Islands foreign minister John Silk said that while the loss and damage facing island nations was intolerable, “we will not go silently to our watery graves”.

Speaking in Dubai soon after arriving for the summit, climate change minister Chris Bowen offered the vague hope that there would be “a big step forward on the language on phasing out of fossil fuels”, and John Kerry, the Biden administration’s special climate envoy, spoke of the need to “largely, not entirely” phase out fossil fuels “because we can’t get to our goals without that.”

That would be an understatement. One African government delegate told COP28, “the powerful do what they wish, the poor do what they must.” All small island delegates follow the science. But as Mia Mottley says, theirs is a different reality. The real one.

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