In Egypt, olive crops are shriveling under relentless heat waves. In Fiji, entire villages are retreating inland to escape rising seas. In Pakistan, flooding this summer killed 1,700 people and left one-third of the country underwater.
They are among scores of developing countries that face irreversible damage from climate change but have done little to cause the crisis. And they are demanding compensation from the parties they see as responsible: wealthier nations that have burned oil, gas and coal for decades and created pollution that is dangerously heating the planet.
Across cultures and centuries, the idea that if you harm your neighbor’s property, you owe restitution is a commonly held notion, found even in the Bible.
But as a legal and practical matter, it has been extraordinarily difficult to apply that principle to climate change. Rich nations like the United States and European Union have opposed the idea of explicitly compensating poorer countries for climate disasters already underway, fearing it could open them to unlimited liability.
As United Nations climate talks open Sunday in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, the debate over loss and damage will be front and center. Egypt, the host country and Pakistan, which is leading a group of 77 developing nations, want it placed on the formal agenda for the first time.
The issue is unavoidable this year, with leaders from nearly 200 nations gathering on the African continent, where millions are at risk of famine because of drought intensified by climate change. And developments in science have allowed researchers to quantify the role global warming plays in disasters, bolstering the argument that rich nations, which have emitted half of all heat-trapping gases since 1850, bear heavy responsibility.
“What we seek is not charity, not alms, not aid — but justice,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said in September, discussing the country’s devastating floods that scientists say were worsened by global warming. “Thirty three million Pakistanis today are paying in the form of their lives and their livelihoods for the industrialization of bigger countries.”
Last year, wealthy nations vowed to provide $40 billion per year by 2025 to help poorer countries with climate adaptation measures such as building flood defenses. But a United Nations report estimates this is less than one-fifth of what developing nations need. That has fueled calls for separate loss and damage funding to deal with the aftermath of climate disasters that nations can’t protect themselves against.
Facing growing pressure, John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, has agreed to discuss the idea of financing for loss and damage — a move to help avoid a bitter fight over the summit’s agenda.
But that’s a far cry from agreeing to a new fund. The United States is already behind on previous promises to help poorer countries shift to cleaner energy or adapt to climate threats by building sea walls, for example. Last year, Senate Democrats sought $3.1 billion in climate finance for 2022 but secured just $1 billion. With Republicans, who largely oppose climate aid, poised to make gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections, the prospects of new funds appear dim.
“The political foundation is simply not there,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, adding that he believes the United States has a “moral responsibility” to address loss and damage.
Europeans, meanwhile, worry that if they agree to a fund, they could be left holding the bag if the next U.S. president repudiates the idea.
What loss and damage looks like
In Turkana, a semiarid region in northwest Kenya that is among the nation’s poorest, loss and damage is far from abstract.
The region is now suffering its fourth straight year of extreme drought, and some scientists see a long-term drying trend. Most of Turkana’s 900,000 people are pastoralists who make a living raising livestock, and they have watched herds perish for lack of water. Half the population faces starvation. Some herders have crossed into Uganda or South Sudan in search of greener pastures, triggering violent conflicts.
Local officials have drawn up urgent plans to adapt: drill more wells to tap aquifers, build dams to store water when rain does come and help people shift to more resilient forms of agriculture. But money is a hurdle. The full plan could cost roughly $200 million per year, double the county’s annual budget, said Clement Nadio, Turkana County’s director for climate change.
That has left Turkana acutely vulnerable in the current crisis. Officials are struggling to provide emergency food aid this year, leaving fewer resources to adapt to future droughts.
“Right now we need to focus on saving lives, dealing with malnutrition,” Mr. Nadio said. “But we also need to focus on making people resilient to future climate shocks. We are trying our best. But we can’t do it all with the funding we have available.”
While the United Nations hasn’t formally defined loss and damage, it could include destruction caused by extreme weather exacerbated by global warming. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian overwhelmed the Bahamas, bringing winds up to 185 miles per hour and 23-foot storm surges that destroyed homes, roads and an airport. The damage: $3.4 billion, one-quarter of the nation’s economy.
It might also include slower-moving losses that are harder to quantify, as in the case of salt farmers in Bangladesh who lose their jobs because tidal surges and heavy rainfall have hindered production, or communities in Micronesia that have watched ancient burial grounds tumble into the encroaching oceans.
“If we had cut emissions early enough, we wouldn’t have to adapt, and if we had adapted early enough, we wouldn’t have loss and damage,” said Avinash Persaud, an adviser to the prime minister of Barbados. “But we didn’t act early enough, so now we have to do all three.”
Because the definitions are broad, it’s hard to calculate exactly how much money loss and damage would entail. One frequently cited study estimated that developing countries could suffer between $290 billion to $580 billion in annual climate damages by 2030, even after efforts to adapt. That could rise to $1.7 trillion by 2050.
In the past, wealthy countries have suggested that such disasters could be alleviated by existing humanitarian aid or insurance.
Developing countries say that’s unacceptable. By some estimates, over half of U.N. appeals for donations after weather disasters already go unfilled. And insurance doesn’t work for homes that will soon be swallowed by rising seas. Instead, poorer nations have been forced to take on debt to rebuild.
Without dedicated loss and damage funding, said Lia Nicholson, a senior adviser for the Alliance of Small Island States, climate impacts will force island nations “into unsustainable debt, arresting development and holding us hostage to random acts of charity.”
A looming political fight
With so much money at stake, discussions of loss and damage in Egypt are certain to prove contentious.
Behind the scenes, U.S. officials say they’re concerned a new fund could be poorly defined and unwieldy.
Some wealthy countries also say China, currently the world’s largest emitter, as well as fossil fuel exporters like Qatar and Saudi Arabia, should contribute. That could spur a major fight, since those countries have not traditionally been held responsible for climate aid.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that each side is dug in: Developing countries and activists view loss and damage as a matter of justice while wealthy nations blanch at the idea of accepting blame.
Mr. Kerry acknowledged the United States, which has burned coal for electricity since the 1880s and is the biggest historical emitter, bears responsibility for climate change. But he also argued that by the 1980s, when governments widely agreed that carbon dioxide emissions from oil, gas and coal were warming the planet, emerging nations were burning fossil fuels, too.
“If you want to measure from there, at the rate we’re going, a couple of countries have the ability to eclipse our historical emissions,” Mr. Kerry said. “So yeah, we burned coal and we did this. But guess who else burned coal? Every single one of those other countries. Are they absolved?”
Difficult issues ahead
If nations agree, at least in principle, to create a loss and damage fund, they will have to wade through difficult issues: Who deserves help and how much? How to guarantee money is spent in ways to benefit people who most need it?
David Michael Terungwa is the president of Global Initiative for Food Security and Ecosystem Preservation in Nigeria. He recently learned a friend’s home had been submerged in Benue state in floods that displaced more than 100,000 people and destroyed 140,000 hectares of farmland.
“I spoke with a young man who lost all his chickens in the floods,” Mr. Terungwa said. “If there was something, climate insurance, it could be recovered and he could start life again or start a business. When we discuss loss and damage, this is what I think of, the local farmers.”
But he also said he worries that governments will use the money to simply rebuild in vulnerable areas that will be washed away in future disasters.
Developing countries say questions like these are no reason for inaction. The first step is agreeing that loss and damage funding should exist; details can be resolved later.
For now, the losses continue.
Hassan Abou Bakr, an agriculture professor at Cairo University who owns an olive grove outside the city, said he has sunk into depression as repeated heat waves have ravaged his crops by depriving them of the winter “chilling hours” they need to flourish. This year, his olives were smaller than ever, and most were rejected in the market.
“Climate change is not something that will happen in the future,” he said. “It is here and now and it is hitting us.”
Restitution would help, but Mr. Abou Bakr’s worries extend beyond that.
“You can give money, but what about the olive trees?” he said. “We need to save the trees.”
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