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For Brianna Fruean, the smell of mud drives home the need for climate action

Brianna Fruean, a Samoan member of the Pacific Climate Warriors, speaks at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday.
Brianna Fruean, a Samoan member of the Pacific Climate Warriors, speaks at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday.

At the COP26 U.N. climate summit, some of those with the most to lose insist they aren't victims, they're warriors.

"As a Pacific Islander, a lot of people think my role here at COP is to come and cry, like I owe them my trauma, when I don't owe you my trauma," said 23-year-old Brianna Fruean, a climate activist from Samoa.

Fruean opened the first day of the summit in Glasgow, Scotland, speaking directly to the heads of state from all over the world.

"You all have the power here today to be better," Fruean said in her speech.

"To remember that in your meeting rooms and drafting documents there are more than just black and white objects. To remember that in your words you wield the weapons that can save us or sell us out.

"I don't need to remind you of the reality of vulnerable communities. If you're here today, you know what climate change is doing to us.

"The real question is whether you have the political will to do the right thing."

Fruean is part of a group called Pacific Climate Warriors that represents small island nations — some of the countries most vulnerable to a warming planet. For many of these countries, climate change is already happening with visible effects. For Fruean, the smell of mud represents just one example of living with the climate crisis that she has experienced.

"I don't know if you've ever been in a storm or flood, but when the flood drains back into the ocean it leaves piles and piles of mud," Fruean said.

"So I've scooped mud out of my house and sometimes there's so much mud you can't get it all [out] in time and then it starts to smell and that's ... a lived experience I have being from a frontline community."

An aerial view of Cook's Bay in the French Polynesia. Many leaders from pacific island countries were unable to attend the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, raising concerns that their voices would not be heard even as they are experiencing the climate crisis firsthand.
/ De Agostini via Getty Images
An aerial view of Cook's Bay in the French Polynesia. Many leaders from pacific island countries were unable to attend the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, raising concerns that their voices would not be heard even as they are experiencing the climate crisis firsthand.

Island nations often punch above their weight at climate summits

It's common for representatives from these island nations to work together and use their collective voice to make an impact.

They did this six years ago in Paris when many of the speakers talked about keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius. But representatives from island nations chanted "1.5 to stay alive." At this year's conference the emphasis is now on keeping warming below the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark.

But this year there is concern these voices won't be heard because only three leaders from the Pacific island nations were able to attend the conference. Many were unable to attend because of pandemic-related restrictions in their home countries.

Satyendra Prasad is Fiji's ambassador to the U.N. and chair of the Pacific Islands Forum. With so few representatives from the smaller Pacific nations, Prasad said he felt the stakes were higher and there was more pressure on him.

"There's so many negotiations taking place ... It would be different if there were 14 leaders from Pacifica present here," he said. "Of course we are listened to. I'm not sure that we are heard."

Fiji produces far fewer greenhouse gases than countries like the U.S. and China, yet like many other island nations it is already bearing the brunt of climate change. Prasad said even if global temperatures only rose 1.5 degrees Celsius, small island nations would still lose 30% to 70% of their economy.

In Fiji, at least 50 communities will have to be relocated no matter what happens. The government has already started to move six of them, but that scale of relocation takes time and money.

Bigger countries are being asked to provide monetary support

This year in Glasgow, the island states are calling on wealthier nations that contribute more to greenhouse gas emissions to help provide monetary support for relocations like these and other mitigation measures.

"We constantly have to go on the world stage and make a show to be able to say that, 'Listen, we have not contributed to this problem, but yet we are suffering the disproportionate impacts, and yet you, developed world, are not doing your part to be able to mitigate the harms that we are facing'," said April Baptiste, a professor at Colgate University.

Baptiste researches Caribbean environmental movements and her family is from Trinidad and Tobago. She said that dynamic reinforced patterns that had always existed between these islands and more powerful nations.

"It goes to this history of colonialism, right? And the history of exploitation," Baptiste said. "A lot of these island states, because by definition, they may have been perceived as being sort of dispensable, right? Small island states were always the playground for the more powerful within our global economic system."

But in Glasgow, representatives and activists like Fruean are working to change that by refusing to wear the mantle of "victim". They want the world to know that they're not drowning, but rather fighting for their future.

"We wanted to reclaim this narrative that we are just like passive beings waiting for handouts," Fruean said.

"We wanted to show the world that actually if you go to an island, you'll see that we have some of the most innovative resilience projects happening. We have traditional knowledge holders doing this adaptation work that aren't seen as climate scientists but are very much doing climate science."

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