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Climate change negotiator talks priorities and setbacks ahead of UN conference

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Tomorrow, the U.N. climate conference, known as COP 27, will kick off in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. It's a follow-up to last year's gathering, where countries set targets for cutting greenhouse emissions in an effort to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Despite those targets, a recent U.N. report showed the world's nations are far from reaching their goals. Joining me now to talk about the conference and what we can expect is Janine Felson. She's an ambassador and climate negotiator from Belize who negotiates on behalf of small island nations. Ambassador Felson, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JANINE FELSON: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be with you.

FLORIDO: The climate conference starts tomorrow. What are one or two of your main priorities heading into these talks?

FELSON: It's very important that we move from just plain promises and commitments that we've heard in Glasgow to actual results. I think this will be a big issue coming out of Sharm el-Sheikh, whether we can see results given the fact that we are in a very complicated, complex political environment with many issues cropping up with diversion of attention on the multilateral agenda to matters that veer away from climate. Whether or not we can see results from Sharm el-Sheikh is the big question for us. But we're certainly looking at priorities around finance, around raising ambition and finally addressing issues on loss and damage.

FLORIDO: Can you say a little bit more about what loss and damage is?

FELSON: Loss and damage is one of these terms that we use in the context of the climate change process that basically refers to what we in small island developing states refer to as permanent and irreversible losses - so cultural, territorial and even health-related losses. But what we're seeing really with the impact from climate change is the fact that islands are being submerged, cultures are going to be decimated with the mere movement of people from places where their national heritage is connected to. And these are issues that have not yet been addressed by climate change regime.

FLORIDO: One huge difference from last year's climate conference is the war in Ukraine. It's led to a big spike in energy prices that's led some countries to consider tapping new sources of fossil fuels. How is this new reality affecting negotiations this year?

FELSON: It's a very important issue because we've listened to many claims of ambitious action being taken, and yet we now see a regression and a call on fossils as a new type of bridge in fuel. And I think there have been quite a number of reports out already that have stated that if you turn to gas, if you revive coal, you continue to put money into other fossil fuels, this is not going to be a bridge to a future that sees limits on 1.5. What you could see are stranded assets or just further locking in a global warming that will exceed 1.5 and create absolute chaos for the world.

FLORIDO: You know, I'm seeing a lot of pessimism among experts in the press about how much this conference can actually achieve this year, given high inflation, the war in Ukraine. You represent small island nations, which aren't the most powerful nations at these conferences. How do you hold bigger nations accountable and apply the pressure for them to set the kind of targets you want to see?

FELSON: I think it's fair to say that this is a very difficult context to take major political decisions. And I think it's also important to recognize that this conference will be taking decisions on processes that are aimed to address the concerns of how exactly do we support countries make those breakthroughs on - in sectors like energy or transportation? How exactly do we support countries tap into finances that could better support a resilience? So I think it will be a lot more process based rather than those big political commitments that we saw in Glasgow.

FLORIDO: How will you know if you've been successful this year?

FELSON: I think the test of success is where we land on the reaffirmation of the commitment to 1.5. I think there's a really important narrative that has to come out from COP 27, and that's where governments agree that we're not going to be stepping backwards from where we ended in Glasgow, but we will be going forward. For small island developing states, the litmus tests will be having the opportunity to put loss and damage finance on the agenda of the COP once and for all.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with Janine Felson, a climate negotiator and ambassador from Belize. She joined us from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where she's attending the U.N. climate conference on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States. Ambassador Felson, thanks for your time.

FELSON: Thank you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.