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What it’s like to run a country that could be destroyed by climate change

The prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda on the lessons of Hurricane Irma.

Antigua And Barbuda Struggle To Recover Months After Devastating Hurricanes
The state of Barbuda in December 2017, two months after Hurricane Irma.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma — a Category 5 storm, the worst kind of hurricane — rocked the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda. The storm utterly devastated Barbuda in particular: 95 percent of its buildings were destroyed, and its entire population had to be evacuated.

Gaston Browne, Antigua and Barbuda’s prime minister, was forced to watch as a third of his country became uninhabitable.

Today, Barbuda is slowly being rebuilt, and hundreds of residents have returned home. But the threat is hardly over. The more the world’s climate shifts, the more frequent Irma-style storms will become. So Browne is trying to convince international leaders that it’s time to turn rhetoric about climate change into action.

Browne and I met in Dubai, where he was attending the World Government Summit — a conference at a swanky resort where the global political and financial elite meet to discuss big-picture issues like education and the future of technology.

When I asked him about American politicians who deny that man-made climate change exists — including, among other people, President Donald Trump — he became openly frustrated.

“They are speaking out of ignorance,” he said. “We cannot be in denial — we’ve suffered the consequences.”

Our conversation illuminated something that you don’t often hear in the US media: the perspective of people whose way of life and national survival is imperiled by our changing climate. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Zack Beauchamp

So what’s the situation in Barbuda today?

Gaston Browne

We’re making steady but slow progress, because of resource constraints. The estimated recovery costs are in the region of $220 million — and that’s our entire budget. We don’t have the kind of resources to fund the recovery costs.

We’re trying to solicit grant assistance and we’re getting some resources, but very small amounts. So far, we’ve had progress in restoring water and electricity; 300 people have returned to Barbuda. We estimate that within six months, we should be able to move back about half the population — if all goes well. It’s a really daunting task, but we’re doing what we can.

Zack Beauchamp

How long do you think it will take to finish reconstruction and move everyone back?

Gaston Browne

It could take years.

Zack Beauchamp

What’s it like to be in charge of a country and have to tell your citizens that a large percentage of the country’s homes are destroyed, and won’t be rebuilt for a very long time?

Gaston Browne

It’s very challenging. We remain very hopeful; our people are very resilient. We’re not unaccustomed to hardships, and I’m pretty sure we’ll rebuild Barbuda bigger and better — no matter how long it takes. Perhaps three years from now, we’ll be having a different conversation; we’ll be looking at a Barbuda that’s climate-resilient, that’s totally green.

Zack Beauchamp

In the long run, though, with intensifying climate change, you have to be worried about another, similar storm. It’s less a question of if than of when.

Gaston Browne

It [climate change] is a serious threat — not only to my country but to all coastal communities, globally. In the United States, you have Florida and Manhattan. I think it requires a strong, global response. Clearly, climate change is the responsibility of all. It’s important for all humans to act to reduce emissions.

In fact, the best way that large countries who rely on fossil fuels can assist us is to reduce emissions. Generally speaking, climate change is an existential threat — perhaps one of the most significant threats facing the planet.

Global Citizen Festival 2017
Gaston Browne.
Michael Kovac/Getty Images

So the issue of climate change needs to be a little more topical. Those of you within the media need to hold your respective governments responsible, so that they not only meet but exceed their climate commitments in accordance with the Paris agreement.

Now, I know the United States — your president has taken a position that doesn’t believe in climate change. But the [US] private sector is taking responsibility, as are many states. The transition [to green energy] is taking place, notwithstanding your president.

Zack Beauchamp

So how does it feel when you hear American politicians say climate change isn’t real, or not man-made, when you’ve lived with the consequences of it?

Gaston Browne

They are speaking out of ignorance.

Sometimes [because of local weather conditions] they tend to think we’re on the right path. But that’s not the case. The science is very clear. Certainly, in the case of the Caribbean, we are feeling the effects of climate change.

We’re living it. We cannot be in denial — we’ve suffered the consequences. We’re minimal polluters, but we’re suffering disproportionate effects from climate change.

These profligate users of fossil fuel — they need to take responsibility. They have a global responsibility to reduce their climate emissions, or at least sequester them so they don’t end up in the earth’s atmosphere. It’s the responsible thing to do, to preserve humanity.

Zack Beauchamp

This is the paradox of climate change: It’s caused by large, rich countries, but the countries that are most affected are small and don’t have the ability to meaningfully change things like emissions on a global scale.

Gaston Browne

You’re right — that’s the paradox. We are suffering disproportionately and remain powerless. Many Caribbean leaders, though, are advocating very strenuously on the issue of climate change, so these countries can understand that there is real suffering happening here and in the Pacific, and that their actions could obliterate longstanding civilizations.

But they’re not only hurting other countries: They have coastal communities that could literally be obliterated as the result of sea level rise.

Zack Beauchamp

Yes — Miami is projected to be underwater in the next 80 years or so. But do you think international climate change legislation, like the Paris agreement, for example, is enough to stop this?

Gaston Browne

Well, it’s a good start. When we met in France, we had 160-something leaders. I thought that was one of the most impressive levels of global cooperation ever seen.

[Then] you had a change of government in the United States, and unfortunately, that resulted in the new administration reneging [on the agreement]. And many countries have not yet met their targets under Paris.

But we remain hopeful.

Zack Beauchamp

That’s the thing that bothers me about the Paris agreement. Even if every country hits every target, which isn’t happening, we’re still on track for a lot of warming — as much as 3 degrees [Celsius], which would be devastating.

Gastone Brown

It means that we’re [imperiling] our own survival. It’s very worrying, it’s frightening — and I just hope that leaders understand the consequences of inaction.

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