At the climate summit in Egypt last week, President Biden pledged that the United States would take the lead on the climate crisis. But his speech was eclipsed the same day by a powerful call to action by Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados.
The next day Mottley delivered the 20th Nelson Mandela Lecture in Durban, South Africa, and was hailed by Mandela's widow Graça Machel as the new leader of the Global South, taking the baton from Mandela to confront this generation's polycrisis.
To his credit, President Biden at least showed up at the COP27 summit, in contrast to his geopolitical rivals in Moscow and Beijing. And he was able to point to significant action on the climate in the Inflation Reduction Act in August.
While that act was a significant step forward for the United States to reduce its own omissions, the central theme of the summit was payment of "loss and damage" to those countries most affected by climate change by those countries most responsible for the fossil fuel emissions causing it. Biden avoided that language entirely, instead pledging to ask Congress for $2 billion to assist developing countries in responding to climate change.
In Durban, Mottley put the case for loss and damages like this:
"If I lived next door to you, and every day I am dumping on your property, dumping on your property, and the money you had to send your children to school or to pay medical care for your wife all of a sudden, now has to be taken up to clean up the property because you can’t sleep at night, you can’t eat food in peace, then you would say that I should be sued and that I must stand responsibility for the fact that then causing you to spend the majority of your earnings on being able just to live."
Addressing the fears of rich countries about "open-ended liability", she added:
"As a former attorney-general I say we don’t ask you for open-ended liability, but what we do ask you for is justice. And this is not a matter purely for the government or the state, but that there are non-state actors, multinational corporations whose balance sheets far exceed that of many countries of the world, and whose balance sheets get there by reason of the same pollution. Who have a responsibility to pay. The Bible talks about tithing and the Koran speaks to us about giving back to those in need. And we simply say that if you are going to make $200-billion in the last quarter alone, then you have a responsibility to put something on the table in a loss and damage fund for those who are now having to pay out and pay out."
Responding to Mottley's speech, Graça Machel praised her leadership and reminded her listeners of their own responsibility.
"It is an African child, a woman from a tiny country who rises in this global crisis of leadership. And she talks to the global community, to the human family and says, yes, there are many crises. But I'm here and ready to lead. Mia, you spoke to us, you reignite our agency, our responsibility for our own future. It's not that anyone else is going to build it for us. You need to count on every single one of us as we did in the past and to make a movement in which everyone will have to accept responsibility."
The quotes above give only a hint of the insight and passion Mottley shows in speaking, which you can sample below in two short videos. The first is her 13-minute speech at COP27, and the second is an excerpt from her full speech at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Lecture, followed by brief remarks by Graça Machel.
It is particularly fitting that this new leader of the Global South comes from Barbados, which was, as Howard French details in his new book Born in Blackness (now available in paperback), the original source of the slave-produced sugar industry that fueled England´s economy in the 17th century.