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Guyana, facing an existential threat from climate change, welcomes the oil industry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Exxon, the giant oil company, apparently made Guyana an offer they can't refuse. A few years ago, the company struck oil off Guyana's coast. It's now increasing production at the very moment that much of the world is talking of a transition away from fossil fuels. The South American country is taking part, even though it is threatened by rising sea levels. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Most of Guyana's population lives beneath sea level on coastal lands drained by Dutch colonizers. They're protected by a thick seawall that stretches for hundreds of miles. This seawall, just a few feet high in places, is a hangout spot. It offers a fresh breeze after another 90-degree day in the crowded capital city of Georgetown. Kids play, couples flirt, friends chat over beers. They're looking out over a murky, brown ocean filled with sediment carried from deep in the Amazon. For Guyanese singer Jackie Jaxx, this muddy water means home and inspired a song.

JACKIE JAXX: Could I sing a little bit of the song? (Singing) Brown boy, I want to hold you closer.

DOMONOSKE: But for climate expert Seon Hamer, this view inspires bleaker thoughts.

SEON HAMER: Some people would consider it scary.

DOMONOSKE: Sea levels are rising even faster in Guyana than the global average. Already, some high tides spill over this old seawall. And Hamer has seen the worst-case climate models.

HAMER: I do stand up and imagine that by the year 2100, all of this could possibly be gone

DOMONOSKE: From the seawall, it's easy to see how climate change is affecting Guyana. But you have to look past the horizon to understand how Guyana is affecting climate change. Far inland, Guyana is covered in lush, well-preserved rainforests. Because of those forests, it's actually one of very few countries that absorbs more greenhouse gases than it releases.

But out at sea, the drill ships are at work. Guyana recently discovered it has a lot of oil, and it's not planning to leave it in the ground.

BHARRAT JAGDEO: We have a small window to get as much as possible out.

DOMONOSKE: Bharrat Jagdeo is Guyana's vice president, and he's representing the country at the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow. Jagdeo is the opposite of a climate denier. He's won awards for his climate advocacy. But after years of asking the world to cut emissions rapidly, he's not optimistic.

JAGDEO: It's not happening, and we don't see that happening any time soon.

DOMONOSKE: By now, everyone acknowledges that the whole world's reliance on oil is driving devastating climate change. But oil demand keeps going up. So if the world isn't giving up oil, Jagdeo asks, why should Guyana give up its payday? He points out that other richer countries will keep drilling.

JAGDEO: But those same countries will never give us a cent

DOMONOSKE: In the 2015 Paris Agreement, rich countries promised $100 billion a year to help developing countries fight climate change. That promise has not been kept.

Guyana would have developed this oil either way. But given that broken promise, Jagdeo is frustrated that existing producers keep pumping while groups like the International Energy Agency call for no new oil development.

JAGDEO: There's nothing fair in this.

DOMONOSKE: So Jagdeo hopes to wring out billions of dollars from the oil industry, while the industry still lasts, and use it to help Guyana develop. There are a few problems with this plan.

For developing countries, oil cash typically makes an economy worse. It's called the resource curse. It can drive corruption and lead to damaging boom and bust cycles. On the other hand, Guyana might not make big money at all. The country's deal with Exxon is unusually favorable for Exxon.

Vincent Adams, the former head of Guyana's EPA, criticizes the contract's terms. He says his country just doesn't have the expertise to make sure it gets its fair share.

VINCENT ADAMS: All kinds of games and shenanigans could be played, and we have no way of monitoring and verifying.

DOMONOSKE: Adams isn't the only one frustrated. Many ordinary Guyanese question if they'll ever benefit from the money. Others want the drilling to stop in the name of climate change. But even some people you might expect to oppose the deal find themselves in a sort of murky middle, like environmental activist Annette Arjoon-Martins. She's a conservationist and a pilot with a bird's-eye view of how climate change is affecting Guyana. One Indigenous community she worked with has already moved to higher ground.

ANNETTE ARJOON-MARTINS: So if you were to fly over the area where the thriving community once was, that is now half a kilometer in the sea.

DOMONOSKE: She has lots to criticize about the oil deal. But as for stopping production entirely...

ARJOON-MARTINS: You know, look, if the first-world countries would pay us to keep the oil in the ground and compensate us from what we would lose if we didn't extract it, well, that would be the ultimate fix for me, as a Guyanese.

DOMONOSKE: But as long as that's not an option, she says, Guyana needs the money. This ambivalence about oil production is widespread in Guyana. It's a mix of need, hope and skepticism. But one thing is clear. Climate change is already hitting Guyana, and it's not just the ocean rising. Weather patterns are shifting, too.

On his small household farm just east of Georgetown, Lakhiram Raghunauth points to where a papaya tree used to be. Then we arrive at a shriveled brown sapling. These flood-drowned trees will take years to regrow.

What was that?

LAKHIRAM RAGHUNAUTH: Pear.

DOMONOSKE: And it's just totally dead?

RAGHUNAUTH: Yeah. It cannot come back.

DOMONOSKE: This spring, relentless rains caused the creeks to rise. Many houses and farms were already raised to cope with floods, but it wasn't enough. Under feet of water, this area looked like a lake, one filled with rotting livestock and flooded homes. And the waters stayed for three months. No one had ever seen anything like it.

RAGHUNAUTH: I don't really know about climate change, yeah. But you can, you know, just see what is going on.

DOMONOSKE: Raghunauth looks down at the deeply cracked soil beneath his feet. Like many farmers here, he worries about the floods coming back. He plans to hire an excavator to raise his fields higher again. Raised fields, taller dams, higher seawalls - Guyana faces steep costs because of climate change it did nothing to help cause. And now it's joining the world's oil producers to see if adding to climate change pays off.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News, Georgetown, Guyana.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRISTAN DE LIEGE'S "WOODEN LINES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.