Simon Stiell: A Caribbean man leading the climate fight

If the Caribbean is on the frontlines of this climate change crisis, it is now sending its soldiers to lead the battle at the geopolitical level.

Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley has emerged as the political voice of small island developing states around the world. Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, meanwhile, brought loss and damage funding to the negotiating table as a COP27 agenda item as chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS).

Now, Grenadian Simon Stiell is settling into his new role as United Nations Climate Change Secretariat Executive Secretary.

It is a big but not surprising leap for this former politician. For nearly a decade, Stiell served his country in various ministries such as education, state and agriculture. But no other portfolio connects him with his new job quite like the five years he spent as Minister for Climate Resilience and the Environment.

It’s a long leap from serving a country with a population of just over 113,000 people to now standing at the summit of an organisation overseeing more than 190 countries, each with its own agenda, entangled in the geopolitics of world leaders who are trapped between saving the planet’s future and surviving in the political present.

Loss and damage funding has engulfed COP27. Small island state leaders had not seen it elevated to an agenda item for 30 years before now.

“Having this as part of the conversation is a great start. Ensuring that there is a substantive discussion and outcome are now the next steps,” Stiell told Guardian media in an exclusive interview.

Yet, as negotiators sparred this week over what loss and damage funding should look like, prompting AOSIS to release a statement on Wednesday outlining its “grave concerns” that “some developed countries are furiously trying to stall progress,” Stiell outlined what success will look like for him at this COP.

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Climate Tracker COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellow – Ryan Bachoo – meets Simon Stiell,

“In terms of where we are in terms of the complexities of this trying to bridge expectations of developed countries’ expectations of developing countries, having a robust process that outlines all of the elements that speak to addressing loss and damage, speak to the funding arrangements, that is time-bound, that lays out a roadmap to a final decision as to how this will be treated in the near-term will be a success.”

Understandably, nothing is done quickly at these conferences. Nothing, however, could hide the gulf in negotiations between developed nations and developing nations quite like this COP. Small island states have seen a crack in the door with loss and damage funding being added as an agenda item and are now pushing to break down the barriers stopping them from making polluters pay.

It’s Stiell’s job to bring everyone together and that can often be a hard task when each nation is seeking its own interests.

He said, “Everyone has a part to play in this. We know where the challenges are. We know where the solutions are. If you look within the G20, the G20 are collectively responsible for 80 per cent of global emissions and they constitute 85 per cent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), so the means of significantly reducing emissions so that we stay below 1.5 degrees celsius lie right there.”

There have been small steps toward helping small island states stave off the effects of climate change and recover from loss and damage when natural disasters occur. It was recently announced G7 countries with Global Shield will provide insurance facilities for loss and damage.

At COP27, plans were announced for global early warning systems. On Wednesday, European Union climate chief, Frans Timmermans, announced the union will provide 60 million euros to the Global Shield to help countries affected by loss and damage from climate change.

“Progress is incremental,” Stiell said.

Indeed, it has been slow or often stalled. COP has regularly come under scrutiny as a large talk shop, where ideas are not implemented and actioned and where pledges are made but not kept.

However, Stiell pointed to what is happening with non-state actors he says will ultimately determine the direction emission statistics go. He alluded to the private sector, the investment finance community, philanthropy, civil society, cities and municipalities.

“That’s where we will see significant progress in emissions reduction and significant parts of that fall outside of the process,” Stiell said.

Stiell said a successful conference for him would “show progress on Glasgow.”

He explained, “Every single COP is important. Every COP should show progress on the last.”

As a Caribbean man, Stiell takes his knowledge of the region into his position, saying, “I think the more we are able to move from the abstract to how this impacts people and how this impacts communities, I think will push the process further.”


This story was originally published by The Trinidad and Tobago Guardian, with the support of Climate Tracker’s COP27 Climate Justice Journalism Fellowship.

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Ryan Bachoo

Ryan Bachoo

Ryan is a journalist with over 12 years of experience. He has a keen interest in climate change coverage. He’s progressed from being an intern to a reporter to a producer to an anchor. Ryan’s slugged it out with politicians, gone from reporting on a football game one day to entering the most dangerous parts of the city the next. Out of the workplace, he enjoys writing, playing sports, and supporting Arsenal FC.

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