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At COP26 in Glasgow, Biden speaks to Congress—as the Maldives beg for help

November 1, 2021, 6:20 PM UTC

In his opening statement at COP26, U.S. President Joe Biden directed his pleas for unity and action on climate change squarely at a familiar audience: American politicians.

Biden spoke about his Build Back Better climate plan, urging his colleagues to support the $1.75 trillion program that would shift the U.S. economy, devoting more than half a trillion dollars explicitly to green jobs and climate commitments.

“This is a chance, in my view, to make a generational investment [in] our economic resilience and our workers and our communities throughout the world,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do in the United States,” he said, running through the plan’s funding.

He wasn’t alone. Leaders of many major countries spoke in their own languages and ultimately to their home audiences, issuing defenses of their own policies and politics on climate action.

The audience was also clear from the front row. While the opening statements were delivered to a packed sea of national leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the national statements were delivered to a sparse crowd, said one photographer who was there, intended not for absent fellow leaders but swaths of TV and photo cameras.

By contrast, the world’s small island nations, on the front lines of rising sea levels, frequently spent much of their national statements appealing directly to larger economies for collective action—and for those governments to make good on a unfulfilled pledge: to provide lower-income countries, those least responsible for climate change itself, with $100 billion to adapt to the impacts of rising temperatures.

Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, president of the Maldives, opened his speech by noting, plaintively, that he would say once again what he had said several times before.

“I have no choice but to keep on repeating it. What will it take for you to listen to us?” he asked.

His people are already living the “steady onset of this reality,” he said, with every one of the archipelago’s major islands experiencing severe erosion.

“Our islands are slowly being eaten by the sea, one by one. If we do not reverse this trend, the Maldives will cease to exist by the end of the century,” he said.

It was a quiet moment at the end of the day, scarcely watched, that still managed to cut through the political bluster.

“Please,” he pleaded, “please do not let this opportunity go to waste.”

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