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Special envoy John Kerry on helping small island nations dealing with climate change


In small island nations, people know how climate change feels. They know how it smells. Climate activist Brianna Fruean is from Samoa.

BRIANNA FRUEAN: When the flood drains back into the ocean, it leaves piles and piles of mud.

SHAPIRO: When I met Fruean at the U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow last year, she told me about the stench when floodwaters recede.

FRUEAN: I 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: On another Pacific island nation, Palau, people from all over the world recently gathered to secure commitments on preserving the ocean's health and fighting climate change. John Kerry is the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate. He helped start the first Our Oceans Conference in 2014, when he was U.S. Secretary of State, and he has just returned from Palau.


JOHN KERRY: Thank you very much - delighted to be with you.

SHAPIRO: This was the first time the conference took place in a small island nation. Palau spans hundreds of islands in the Pacific. What does the climate path that the world is on right now mean for Palau's future?

KERRY: Well, Palau will be less affected than atoll states - nation-states that are basically built on a reef ledge, if you will, that's above water - because it has mountains. It has elevation. So - but its connections, its infrastructure will be enormously affected because it'll lose their causeways at certain times. And ultimately - definitively, the connections between there - the islands will become more complicated. And low-lying houses in the harbor and so forth will all be affected.

SHAPIRO: And when you look at the commitments coming out of this conference, what immediate impact would those promises have on these small island nations?

KERRY: Well, very dramatic on those that will be able to have serious adaptation or even some building of resilience. And those are things that were on the table in the discussion. I mean, we wanted to have a conference for the first time ever in a small island state - a developing state - because they are the frontlines of this crisis. And for many, there are literally nations - today defined nation-state - that will disappear unless we move more rapidly to hold the Earth's temperature increase to the 1.5 degrees limit Celsius that was arrived at in Glasgow.

Right now, the latest IPCC report - that's the scientific report that comes from the U.N. scientific panel - has made it clear we're not getting the job done as a world, as a group of nations united. And 20 countries, the United States included - 20 countries - the largest economies in the world are responsible for 80% of all the emissions in the world. So if those countries don't move, there's no prayer of avoiding the worst consequences of the crisis, which is what we've been giving a warning about. So really, what we're trying to do is...

SHAPIRO: And these small island nations say that those large countries that are disproportionately responsible for climate change owe the smaller, less responsible countries, specifically money. You mentioned adaptation and resilience. And coming out of the Glasgow Climate Summit, these developing countries did not get as much as they wanted. Do the commitments from the Our Oceans Conference that you've just returned from - do those promises provide the sorts of resilience measures that were lacking coming out of Glasgow?

KERRY: Some of them do. Some of them are commitments to do enforcement on fishing in the economic zones of the high seas where people are strip mining the ocean with these massive nets and there's no control whatsoever. Some of the commitments go to, you know, resilience and efforts to understand better what the damages will be. Some of them go towards early warning systems so that people will better understand what's coming at them and how to build and adapt in ways that could avoid some of that damage - early warning systems, for instance. So there's a lot on the table. There were 15 plus billion dollars' worth of commitments made at this conference with over 70 nations taking part in this small island state in the Pacific and about 400 individual commitments by NGOs, by countries, by corporations to do all kinds of...

SHAPIRO: Let me ask you about how dependable those commitments are because when the U.N. released its latest climate report earlier this month, the secretary general, Antonio Guterres, basically said countries and businesses are not keeping the promises they've already made.

KERRY: Some aren't - absolutely true. Some are not. And one of the things that was discussed in Palau was how to have a better accountability structure, more transparency. One of the things that's changing - has changed already - is that there are new satellite systems that are currently circumventing the planet that are instantaneously reporting on methane leaks, on CO2 levels. So companies previously have been able to make - or an individual supply chain or so forth - even a country has made a plan. And they've known there won't be a lot of accountability. Now there's a new accountability. You can - the old saying, you can't - you know, you can run, but you can't hide. Well, now you can't hide.


KERRY: And so I think there's going to be a new level of accountability.

SHAPIRO: That is former Secretary of State John Kerry. He is now the U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Thank you for joining us again.

KERRY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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