AFP Contributor / AFP via Getty Images
Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley wants richer countries to stop throwing rubbish in her garden and then ask her to clean up.
The waste in this case is greenhouse gas emissions, fueling more extreme storms and hurricanes, causing extensive damage that could cost billions of dollars. At the Glasgow climate talks, Mottley is pushing for richer countries to compensate the poorer for “losses and damage” caused by climate change.
Their argument is this: developed countries, such as the United States and those in the European Union, are responsible for most of the heat-absorbing emissions pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Developing countries have lower emissions, but still carry the bulk of a warmer climate through more severe heat waves, floods and droughts.
“It’s unfair and it’s immoral,” Mottley said at the summit. “It is wrong.”
To help compensate for this, developing countries are asking the richer ones to contribute to a loss and damage fund. The money could offer payment for things that are irrevocably lost, like life or extinction of species. It can also help countries with the cost of rebuilding after storms, replacing damaged crops or endangering entire communities.
While losses and damage were discussed at the Paris climate talks in 2015, progress has been slow. Industrialized countries have been reluctant to commit to financing, worried it could lead to legal liability for the effects of climate change. In this year’s climate negotiations, developing countries say it is a crucial part of climate justice.
“Raising funding for loss and damage is the least that rich countries can and should do,” said Raeed Ali, a climate activist from Fiji and part of the Loss and Damage Youth Coalition. “But to do this, they have to acknowledge that they are responsible for this. And I think that’s something they are not willing to do.”
Get resources to recover from disasters
For countries where a large portion of the population lives in poverty, extreme weather can be a devastating blow. Individuals have few savings to rebuild, while governments with few resources struggle to secure the millions of dollars needed to help communities recover.
“In Fiji, we are at the forefront of the climate crisis,” Ali said. “So every single person knows about climate change because it’s a daily reality for us.”
Ali says that while his grandparents remember only experiencing one Category 5 cyclone in their lives, he has already seen three. And with rising sea levels threatening to make villages uninhabitable, a handful in Fiji have already been relocated and more than 40 are planned to be relocated, he said.
Some countries are hit by back-to-back disasters. In 2015, the Caribbean island nation of Dominica was hit by tropical storm Erika, which caused more than $ 400 million in damage, equivalent to 90% of the country’s gross domestic product. Two years later, Hurricane Maria struck the island, damaging 90% of the country’s housing stock.
In Gambia in West Africa, where the majority of the rural population is dependent on agriculture, crop failure can be catastrophic. Because the country’s main river flows into the ocean, rising sea levels are pushing salt water further and further up the river, making it harder to get fresh water.
“It really affects the agricultural communities,” said Isatou Camara, Gambia’s climate negotiator in West Africa. “Due to sea level rise, we have salt water penetrating our river, which affects agricultural production, especially rice farming, which usually takes place along the riverbank.”
Developed countries have pledged $ 100 billion a year in “climate finance” to help poorer nations reduce their emissions through things like renewable energy and sustainable agriculture. They have not yet fully met this goal, as each country determines its own contribution.
However, many developing countries say that financing does not help with the climate impacts they are already experiencing, which is why a separate loss and loss fund is needed. By 2020, natural disasters caused $ 210 billion in damage worldwide.
Assignment of responsibility for climate change
At the Paris climate summit in 2015, the countries signed an agreement recognizing the need to deal with losses and damage. But developed countries pushed for the inclusion of languages that specified that it “does not provide a basis for any responsibility.” They feared that by acknowledging responsibility for their share of heat-absorbing pollution, they would expose them to paying developing countries whenever a disaster strikes.
“It’s always something developed countries have been very careful about, precisely because they do not want it to set a precedent in international courts,” said Maria Antonia Tigre, a fellow at Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “They really want to avoid that responsibility because it can be endless.”
Recent advances in science on climate change have increased the pressure. While many climate studies are examining long-term trends, researchers at the World Weather Attribution initiative are examining whether climate change has exacerbated an extreme weather event in the weeks or months after it hits.
Hurricane Harvey, which triggered a deluge of rain on Houston in 2017, was made 15% more intense by climate change, they found. Last summer, the severe heat wave in the Northwest Pacific, which caused dozens of deaths, was virtually impossible without the added boost of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
“The fact that we are able to pinpoint the climate fingerprint in specific things that hurt us today, I think, is a very important element in the current loss and injury talk,” said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Center and a scientist with the World Weather Attribution initiative. “It’s changed the conversation over the last few years.”
Van Aalst is quick to point out that blaming is a complex issue. While the destruction of a storm is caused by its strength, it also happens if the buildings and dwellings are not built to handle storms. Some societies are not designed to endure the kind of events that took place even before the effects of climate change began to be felt.
Yet lawsuits are underway around the world to establish liability for climate change, either to seek compensation from governments or fossil fuels.
“The uncertainty of science was one of the main arguments always used by states to avoid responsibility,” says Tigre. “And it’s a bridge that is now crossed.”
No display of financing for loss and damage
At the Glasgow summit, Scotland announced an important milestone to address the need for losses and damage. It offered £ 2 million in funding, the first of its kind.
“It is in the right direction,” said Sonam Wangdi of Bhutan, who is chairing a group of the 46 poorer countries at the talks. “It becomes very clear that there must be separate means of loss and damage, and it must not be mixed with all the other means.”
Yet other financing commitments have not yet been met. While the United States has formally recognized the need to address losses and damage, a senior U.S. official is says the country does not support the creation of a dedicated new fund.
Instead of waiting for voluntary offers, Barbados Prime Minister Mottley proposes to spend 1% tax on sales revenue from fossil fuels, which she estimates could raise $ 70 billion a year. Some simply hope that countries invest in the UN Santiago network, which was set up in 2019 to deal with losses and injury problems. But without enough staffing and funding, it exists mainly symbolically today.
Although developed countries offer new support for a loss and damage fund, they can still be held responsible for the effects of climate change. At a press conference in Glasgow, the island nations of Tuvalu and Antigua and Barbuda announced that they would form a new commission to enable small island nations to seek redress through international courts.