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A PSR Doctor Speaks from COP26: A Call to Action from Island Nations

PSR climate activist and national board member Laalitha Suarapaneni, MD, is attending the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. She has provided PSR with these first-person accounts to share with us what she has learned and what it means — for us and the world.

I’m writing from Glasgow, Scotland where I’m attending COP26 as a physician who works at the intersections of climate change, health equity, and advocacy.

On day 1, the Prime Minister of Barbados set the tone for needed urgent action: “For those who have eyes to see, for those who have ears to listen and for those who have a heart to feel, 1.5 is what we need to survive, 2 degrees is a death sentence” Since then I’ve heard many leaders and party delegates from island nations speak about how their countries are on the frontlines of climate change.

Today, Day 3, is focused on climate finance. I attended a panel focused on managing climate risk. Ambassador Webson, Ambassador to the UN from Antigua & Barbuda and Chair of the Alliance of Small Island States, spoke of broken promises, of how even the funding made available by developed countries is inaccessible to island nations. “This is an action COP. Your failure to work with us is a failure for mankind,” he said. He urged a scaling up of support for climate adaptation activities commensurate with needs.

I had learned of what sea level rise means for the health of island nations in this excellent article from AMA Journal of Ethics discussing the role physicians should play in the health of Tuvaluans displaced by rising sea levels. Sea level rise, unlike that depicted in climate doomsday movies, is insidious. “Every year,” the article observes, “the islands are inundated by incrementally higher ‘king tides,’ causing destruction and contamination of water resources.” Gradual sea level rise increases salinity of the fresh water supply, making it “nearly impossible to grow the food staple, taro, in some places.” This is similar to what I have learned about increasing freshwater salinity and the rise in hypertension in young, otherwise healthy people, and rising rates of pre-eclampsia, in Bangladesh. Also central to the issue of rising sea levels is displacement of a people and the grief from loss of land, traditions, and history.

But reading articles did nothing to prepare me for how I felt listening to people from island nations describe the destruction to their homelands. At lunch today, I was furiously typing up my notes when I overheard a conversation. A climate activist from an island nation was asked, “How do you feel when they say we cannot achieve 1.5C?” The activist replied (and I’m paraphrasing):

Gutted. Absolutely gutted. We on the island nations are paying the price for the destruction wrought by developed nations. We see no efforts to tackle this crisis meaningfully. We have not received the funds to help us adapt. And when this crisis created by them leads to us being displaced, none of these countries want refugees in their country.

All my climate communications training tells me to make climate change stories “close to home,” otherwise no one will pay attention. But the rightful anger, grief, urgency, hope and courage I heard in the voices of climate leaders from the island nations is a wakeup call all of us need to hear — and a call to action to hold our leaders in the United States accountable.

I leave you with a quote from Minister Alyaz Sayed-Kahylum, Minister of Economy, Civil Service, Communication & Climate, Fiji:

Eleven million dollars are given to the fossil fuel industry in subsidies every minute. How many minutes has it been since the Paris agreement?  How many minutes before we realize the system we built is designed to destroy ourselves?

– Laalitha Surapaneni, MD.  Dr. Surapaneni is a climate activist based in Minnesota and a member of the PSR national board of directors.