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Remembering Saleemul Huq, the man who changed the conversation about climate change

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

World leaders are heading into the final stretch of this year's United Nations climate talks, and one person is especially prominent - a Bangladeshi professor who radically changed the global talk about climate change. Rebecca Hersher from NPR's Climate Desk brings us the story of professor Saleemul Huq.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Saleemul Huq has been name-checked by a lot of powerful people at this year's climate meeting in Dubai, including the man running the meeting, Sultan al-Jaber.

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SULTAN AL-JABER: And allow me here to pause for a moment to honor the memory of our distinguished colleague and my dear friend, Saleemul Huq.

HERSHER: Huq died in October of a heart attack. He was only 71 years old. He had been planning to attend this year's climate talks, as he did every year.

HARJEET SINGH: Oh, my God. First of all, I miss him badly.

HERSHER: Harjeet Singh is an activist with the Climate Action Network and a longtime friend of Huq's. He says Huq transformed these annual meetings by lifting up the voices of people on the front lines of climate change. When Huq started out, few people were thinking about what was owed to such people, including people in his home country of Bangladesh.

SINGH: He was a lone warrior 30 years ago on adaptation. Not many people even knew what adaptation is.

HERSHER: Huq set about educating people. Adapting to climate change is expensive, he argued. You need to build seawalls and hurricane shelters, help people who lose crops to extreme drought or homes to floods. And Huq was unequivocal about who should foot that bill. It should be wealthy countries like the U.S. because the U.S. and Europe are responsible for the vast majority of overall planet-warming pollution from burning fossil fuels. Here he is talking to NPR all the way back in 2007.

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SALEEMUL HUQ: This is the polluter paying the victim of pollution, not the rich paying the poor out of a sense of charity.

HERSHER: Huq was arguing for something akin to climate reparations. Here he is on NPR in 2021.

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HUQ: It's a moral case. You caused the problem. We are suffering because of you causing the problem.

HERSHER: But rich countries, including the U.S., did not agree. It was an uphill battle helping poorer countries go up against the richest, most powerful economies in the world, year after year at these climate meetings. Naveeda Khan is an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University who shadowed Huq as part of her research. Speaking at this year's meeting in Dubai, she told my colleague Nathan Rott that Huq had a special ability to make people listen.

NAVEEDA KHAN: Because you hear other people say the same things. And it's like, yes, it's bad. It sounds bad. But he would speak, and it was quite riveting, you know?

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HUQ: It is adapt or die.

HERSHER: That's from a speech Huq gave at the COP meeting in 2021. He was arguing for the creation of a loss and damage fund to benefit vulnerable countries.

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HUQ: This is not only the morally right thing to do but also the economically smart thing to do.

HERSHER: That year, it seemed like a loss and damage fund might actually be created, but when the talks ended, there was no fund, just a promise to talk about it more. Huq was clearly frustrated in this interview with Britain's Channel 4 News.

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HUQ: I just heard John Kerry trying to spin this as a good thing. It isn't.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Why not?

HUQ: Well...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: I mean, there is some agreement, isn't there? There were some agreements (ph).

HUQ: Well, I'm talking about the most vulnerable people on the planet. They came here expecting to hear something being done about loss and damage, and all we got is a dialogue to talk more about it.

HERSHER: It was a low point, but Huq didn't give up. Harjeet Singh says this is one of the things he admired the most about his friend.

SINGH: Look at the way he kept fighting. And I know there were moments when he was really frustrated. But, you know, he didn't quit.

HERSHER: At last year's meeting, countries finally agreed to create a loss and damage fund. Huq celebrated, but it was just the first step. There was no actual money in the fund yet. The first contributions were announced at this year's meeting without Saleemul Huq. Singh says it hurts to not have him there. But he and others are pressing on, pushing wealthy countries to contribute what they owe.

SINGH: Anything that you want to achieve in your life, you just don't get it in a year or two. You have to continue fighting for years and decades. So look to Saleem and learn from him.

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.