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Pacific Island leaders say rich countries are not doing enough to control climate change

BANGKOK (AP) — Pacific Island leaders are criticizing rich countries for not doing enough to control climate change despite being responsible for much of the problem, and for profiting from loans provided to vulnerable nations to mitigate the effects.

Leaders and representatives from Pacific Island nations demanded at a U.N. climate change conference Monday in Bangkok that the world make more effort to put aside differences in combating the environmental impact, especially as their countries emerge from the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Mark Brown of the Cook Islands said the finance model for combatting climate change — giving out loans to reduce the impact — is “not the way to go” for countries in his region with such small populations that produce “inconsequential amounts of carbon emissions” but suffer the most from the effects.

He encouraged a shift toward grants or interest-free loans to help ease the financial burden on poorer countries.

“All we’re doing is adding debt to countries that have come out of COVID with increased debt, and to me it is actually quite offensive that we would be required to borrow money to build resilience, and to borrow from the very countries that are causing climate change,” he told The Associated Press.

Brown said his country lost an estimated 41% of its GDP because of the pandemic, “a loss of a decade’s worth of prosperity.”

He said he will give this message to leaders when he represents his tiny South Pacific nation with a population of about 17,000 at a summit later this week of the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations in Japan, where he hopes to be able to speak on a more equal footing to the leaders than as “a grateful recipient” to “benevolent donors.”

Palau President Surangel S. Whipps Jr. agreed that financing opportunities are “few and difficult,” and criticized wealthy countries for failing to commit to provide the financial help they had promised, which he said represents only a tiny portion of their prioritized expenditures such as the military.

“We didn’t cause the problem, but now they’re going to make money off of us by giving us a loan so we can pay back with interest,” he told The Associated Press. “So now you have to adapt, but we’ll give you money and make money off of you by giving you that money to adapt. That doesn’t make sense.”

Whipps said Palau’s economy relies heavily on tourism, which is greatly threatened by the impact of climate change. The country’s economic security is also a major issue in Palau's negotiations with the U.S. on the “Compacts of Free Association,” a broader agreement that will govern its relations with Washington for the next two decades. Those ties grant the U.S. unique military and other security rights in the islands in return for substantial aid.

Whipps said the administration of President Joe Biden has promised approximately $900 million over the 20-year period. While the amount is “definitely less” than what his country would have wanted, Whipps said he is largely satisfied with the terms, renegotiated from what was achieved during the administration of former President Donald Trump.

While there are some concerns that the U.S. Congress will cut foreign aid and in turn affect this funding, Whipps said he expects Washington will honor the agreement, which he hopes can be signed by both sides in Papua New Guinea next week.

Brown said efforts to tackle climate change and build resilience to its impact, such as better infrastructure and greater water and food security, require lots of money, especially for island nations with small populations. He said $1.2 billion a year for the region to spend on climate adaptation and mitigation measures would be “a starter.”

“The fact remains that the underlying solution to assist countries that are facing the impacts of climate change is to build resilience, and building resilience takes money,” he said.