Should wealthy carbon emitters foot the bill for climate damage?

Ruobang Wang / EyeEm via Getty

For the first time, this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) has officially put the issue of “loss and damage” on the agenda for world leaders to discuss over the next two weeks—advancing the debate over how countries should compensate for the damage already caused by climate change, not just to allocate money for disaster preparedness. World leaders, including Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, praised the inclusion of the issue and called for measurable change.

“We believe it is critical to address the ‘loss and damage’ issue. The debate has to end,” Motley said yesterday.

Loss and damage, simply put, is a blanket term for helping developing countries hit hard by the effects of climate change. Some small European nations have pledged modest sums for loss and damage, but there is still sharp disagreement over who should receive aid, how much is provided and who should be held responsible. And it is extremely unlikely that these questions will be resolved at COP27.

There is a profound power imbalance at the heart of the issue. Rich, developed countries produce far and away the majority of the emissions that have raised the planet’s average annual surface temperature by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since pre-industrial times—but developing countries disproportionately bear the brunt of the resulting extreme weather events. See Pakistan’s recent floods: Climate change likely drove the floods that have killed thousands and displaced millions of Pakistanis since August, but the country itself is responsible for less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions. For many world leaders, the situation facing countries like Pakistan reeks of injustice, particularly in the absence of any form of payment from the wealthiest nations.

Rich countries like the US have historically dragged their feet to acknowledge, much less negotiate, loss and damage, possibly out of fear that compensating developing countries could bolster a legal case for holding developed nations responsible for future climate related damage. There is also uncertainty and cynicism about the costs—in September, the US President’s Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry made a telling remark about America’s willingness to compensate for loss and damage. “You tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars, why does that cost,” he told the audience at a New York Times event.

Social media is now vital for flood victims

Even the loss and damage to the COP27 agenda for discussion was reportedly a contentious fight, requiring negotiators to work overnight. Discussions of liability and compensation will remain out of the question, according to the resulting compromise.

Some like Mottley have stressed that discussions of loss and damage cannot be limited to conversations between world leaders – they must include large corporate polluters such as profit-driven oil and gas companies, and hold them accountable for their roles them in the ongoing crisis. Otherwise, it’s as UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told COP27 attendees yesterday: “We’re on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the gas.”

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