An Island Nation’s Fight for Climate Justice

Trapped between debt and disaster.
Photograph by Erika Larsen/Redux, for The New York Times.

In poor nations around the world, rising sovereign debt is becoming a hidden but decisive aspect of the climate crisis. This is particularly true in Caribbean countries. They carry more debt, relative to the size of their economies, than almost anywhere else on the planet, a burden that makes it virtually impossible for them to pay for the infrastructure necessary to protect them from the climate disruptions to come.

Mia Mottley, the first woman to lead Barbados, is fighting to end this fiscal spiral. In May 2018, she made her pitch to Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Barbados, she said, was going to default on the debt it owed to private banks and investors. She wanted Lagarde's support in persuading them to renegotiate its terms.

Mottley's goal was to reduce Barbados's total debt load while avoiding some typical austerity measures. She needed to persuade her creditors to take what's known as "a haircut," reducing what they were owed. But Mottley didn't just want a discount on her debts. She wanted the one thing she'd learned would begin to make her public debt resilient to the shocks of climate change — a "hurricane clause" building in relief if the country was hit by a major storm.

Read our cover story, produced in partnership with ProPublica, on how Barbados took on international finance — and stood up for climate justice.

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