SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – In Pakistan, flooding this past summer killed 1,700 people and left one-third of the country underwater. In Fiji, entire villages are retreating inland to escape rising seas. In Kenya, persistent drought has killed livestock and devastated livelihoods.
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 neighbour’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 such as the United States and the 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 opened on Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the debate over loss and damage will be front and centre.
Egypt, the host country, and Pakistan, which is leading a group of 77 developing nations, succeeded in placing the issue on the formal agenda for the first time.
Mr Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, said the decision to include it on the agenda “bodes well” for a compromise by the end of the summit.
In 2021, wealthy nations vowed to provide US$40 billion (S$56.3 billion) per year by 2025 to help poorer countries with climate-adaptation measures such as building flood defences. But a UN 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, Mr John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, has agreed to discuss the idea of financing for loss and damage, a move that helped avoid a bitter fight over the summit’s agenda.
But that’s a far cry from agreeing to a new fund.
The US 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. In 2021, Senate Democrats sought US$3.1 billion in climate finance for 2022 but secured just US$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, adding that he believes the US has a “moral responsibility” to address loss and damage.
Europeans 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 north-west 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 US$200 million per year, double the county’s annual budget, said Mr 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 in 2022, 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.”
Although the UN has not 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 300 kmh and 7m storm surges that destroyed homes, roads and an airport. The damage: US$3.4 billion, one-fourth 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.
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?
Mr David Michael Terungwa, president of Global Initiative for Food Security and Ecosystem Preservation in Nigeria, recently learned that 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.”
Mr 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 heatwaves have ravaged his crops by depriving them of the winter “chilling hours” they need to flourish. In 2022, 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.” NYTIMES