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Island nation leader: 'We're the canary' in climate change fight

Saint Lucia Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet at

Saint Lucia Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet at the United Nations on Sept. 27. Credit: Edward B. Colby

UNITED NATIONS — The sun and wind "will never send you a bill," says Prime Minister Allen Michael Chastanet, the leader of the tiny eastern Caribbean nation of Saint Lucia. 

"We think the price of fossil fuels is only the demand and supply. But it's not."

Chastanet's country of about 179,000 people has a far smaller population than Long Island, and is about one-fifth its size geographically. He was one of many island nation leaders seeking urgent climate action who spoke at a United Nations summit in September and a meeting of the Small Island Developing States.

As a group, SIDS is "an incubator. So that the solutions that we find are the same solutions that small towns and the small cities in their country, or in the United States, or in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, can start adapting," he said.

One thing Chastanet thinks could help fight climate change is simply to make consumers more aware of the environmental cost of what they're buying.

"When we're purchasing products, in the same way that they have dietary information, how come there isn't information on carbon? How many carbon points did this tomato cost to come all the way around the world?

So my little farmer could never compete with the economies of scale. The only thing that starts leveling the playing field is if you take carbon emissions, if you say, OK, the value of that tomato and how much it's going to generate, is it worth it to burn X number of carbons to ship it to other places?"

But Chastanet and the other leaders of the SIDS — who represent about 20% of the UN's member countries — aren't holding their breath waiting on Long Islanders or other nations to act.

They intend to move to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

'Mass migration by climate refugees'

About a quarter of people represented by SIDS live 5 meters or less above sea level, and many of the countries are trapped in a cycle of disaster and debt, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said. That's about 16 feet.

"The climate emergency represents the single biggest threat to their survival," he said.

The Paris Agreement aims to hold global warming to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius — while striving for 1.5 degrees. But a new report estimates the planet is already 1.1 degrees warmer than preindustrial levels — and on a path for roughly 3 degrees of warming by 2100.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley said "the increase in 1 degree in temperature has already brought us to where we are today, has already brought us this unacceptable high level of catastrophic damage and loss of life.

"Within less than a decade or two, it will be virtually impossible to contain the temperature increases to 1.5 degrees unless we act now and with absolute dispatch," she said. 

"Make no mistake: There will be mass migration by climate refugees that will destabilize the countries of the world that are not on the front line of this climate crisis. No country can stand up to it alone."

Mottley declared her country will become fossil fuel-free by 2030. She said it would launch the most comprehensive climate resilience initiative by a small state, "from roofs to reefs."

What would be the difference for Saint Lucia between a 1.5-degree world and a 2-degree world?

"Survival," Chastanet said.

"We've said it, we're the canary. So they're the first to die," he said. "So we're out here trying to weather the storm, and if we can survive, then that gives everybody else hope."

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