A Powerful Climate Leader From a Small Island Nation

This article is part of our Women and Leadership special report that profiles women leading the way on climate, politics and business around the globe.

At last year’s United Nations climate change summit in Glasgow, Scotland, a powerful new voice emerged in the debate about the warming planet: Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados.

With an impassioned speech on the first day of the 2021 conference, Ms. Mottley portrayed the battle to cope with climate change in moralistic terms, calling on rich nations to help poor countries recover from disasters and adapt to global warming.

“Our people are watching, and our people are taking note,” she said. “Are we really going to leave Scotland without the commitment to ambition that is sorely needed to save lives and to save our planet? Or are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?”

The speech vaulted Ms. Mottley, 57, to the forefront of the global conversation about climate. And in recent years, she has capitalized on her authority.

She worked with the International Monetary Fund and private lenders to restructure the terms of Barbados’ debt; the country was able to lower its interest payments and will be granted more flexibility in meeting its obligations in the event of a severe hurricane.

In September, Barbados unveiled a new project with the Nature Conservancy to offer “blue bonds,” allowing the country to redirect some of the money intended for servicing its sovereign debt toward the conservation of the ocean, instead.

And in November, at the United Nations climate change summit known as COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, Ms. Mottley was back in the limelight, this time presenting an innovative plan she has developed to reform the World Bank and I.M.F.

Known as the Bridgetown Initiative, named after the Barbados capital, the plan calls for a reshaping of the global economic system that has been in place since the waning days of World War II.

The World Bank and I.M.F. were established by the 44 Allied nations at a conference at the Mt. Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, N.H., in 1944. The idea was that the World Bank would offer loans from rich countries to poor countries to help them rebuild from the war, while the I.M.F. would provide liquidity and stability to countries and ensure that they remain solvent.

But nearly 80 years on, Ms. Mottley and her team say those institutions are failing to help countries being battered by climate change. Oftentimes, the interest rates are higher for poor countries than they are for wealthier countries.

Only a fraction of the money needed to help countries like Barbados and Pakistan adapt to a warming world is being made available. And when developing countries do take on loans, they are often forced to accept austerity measures that compromise their ability to meet the basic needs of their citizens.

Mia Mottley, left, and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, during the United Nations climate change summit in November in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

The Bridgetown Initiative, developed by Ms. Mottley and a team of economists, nonprofit leaders and United Nations leaders at a meeting in Bridgetown in July, would overhaul that system and remake the World Bank and I.M.F. While the institutions would remain intact and largely operate as they do today, the terms of their loans would be much more favorable for developing nations working to adapt to climate change, and there would be much more money available for such projects.

In Egypt, Ms. Mottley made an urgent plea for reform of those institutions before the assembled world leaders.

“Yes, it is time for us to revisit Bretton Woods,” she said in a speech at the opening of the summit. “Yes, it is time for us to remember that those countries who sit in this room today did not exist at the time that the Bretton Woods institutions were formed for the most part. And therefore, we have not been seen, we have not been heard sufficiently.”

Her campaign swiftly gained traction, with leaders from France, Canada, the United States and even the World Bank and I.M.F. signaling their support for institutional change. The World Bank has now said it is developing a plan this year, and leaders of the institutions expect to work out the details at a series of meetings planned for next year.

For Ms. Mottley, who was born into a prominent Barbadian political family and became prime minister in 2018 — the nation’s first woman to hold that position — speaking out about climate change also has vaulted her small nation into a position of prominence on the world stage.

“She is speaking with the unique conviction and urgency that come from sitting at the front lines of climate change,” said Rajiv J. Shah, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and one of the executives who helped design the Bridgetown Initiative. “At a time when too many nations are being threatened by both the climate and financial crises, Prime Minister Mottley has sought to not only lead her nation through a challenging time but also look for ways to reform the global economy so it better serves everyone.”

Prince Charles, center left, and Ms. Mottley, center right, at the National Archives of Barbados in Bridgetown on Nov. 30, 2021, when Barbados formally became a republic.Credit…Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Climate is hardly the only issue occupying Ms. Mottley these days. She led Barbados through the Covid-19 pandemic, instituting a series of lockdowns that battered the nation’s tourism economy. Then last year, Barbados formally became a republic, cutting ties with Queen Elizabeth II and moving farther away from its colonial past.

But more than anything else, Ms. Mottley’s legacy is shaping up to be one defined by her commitment to addressing climate change.

“At a time when many are returning to the tried, tested and failed policies of austerity, she has an ambitious vision for Barbados to adopt a green industrial and innovation policy underpinned by a new economic thinking,” said Mariana Mazzucato, an economist who also participated in the meeting in Bridgetown, “and redesign the social contract between her government, business and labor.

“Her legacy will be of knowing how to walk the talk of getting serious on the why and the how of tackling the climate crisis,” Ms. Mazzucato said, “putting climate justice at the heart — not the periphery — of the global policy response.”

David Gelles is a correspondent for The New York Times on the Climate team and covered COP27 in Egypt.

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