What do big polluters owe?
The most important lesson I’ve learned as a global climate correspondent is this: The most acute impacts of climate change are often felt by those who are least responsible for the problem.
I’ve met families in Kenya who lost all their livestock in successive droughts and who risk losing their very way of life. I’ve met construction workers in India who fall sick in extreme heat and risk falling deeper into poverty. I’ve heard from leaders of countries whose economies were devastated by one terrible storm.
Who owes them what?
This question will be at the heart of a showdown at COP27, the United Nations-led climate conference starting Sunday in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. I’ll be there with a team of reporters and editors from The Times.
The world’s most vulnerable countries, backed up by China, one of its most powerful, say they are already dealing with irreversible losses because rich, industrialized countries have heated Earth’s atmosphere and let loose climate hazards that destroy their homes, their economies, their heritage. They want money to compensate them.
Industrialized countries, led by the United States and the European Union, say they want to help. But they are wary of setting up something that could potentially hold them liable. It’s not politically realistic in their countries, they say.
“The political sensitivities are so high they don’t want to hear it’s actually happening,” said Adelle Thomas, a climate scientist from the Bahamas, referring to the destruction hitting millions around the world. “But it is a lived reality for so many vulnerable people and it’s only going to increase.”
In diplospeak, this debate is called loss and damage. You might think of it as climate reparations.
For a quarter-century, loss and damage has simmered in the background of global climate negotiations. Frustration has built up, reaching a boiling point last year in Glasgow. (I wrote about it from there.)
This year, it’s the main fight. The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, calls it the “number one litmus test” of the negotiations.
“Loss and damage have been the always-postponed issue,” Guterres said on Thursday. “There is no more time to postpone it. We must recognize loss and damage and we must create an institutional framework to deal with it.”
What is it? And what is it not?
“Damage” refers to the destruction of physical things like roads, homes and bridges. It’s relatively easy to quantify.
“Loss” refers to economic impacts: Lost work hours because of extreme heat, for instance, or lost agricultural revenues because rising sea levels flood paddy fields with saltwater, or lost tourism revenues because of a hurricane. That’s harder to quantify.
Some worrying signals are emerging. Leonie Wenz at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research has found that, on average worldwide, 1 degree Celsius of warming reduces economic output by 2 to 3 percent, with far higher losses in hot countries.
Research commissioned by a group of vulnerable countries found that climate hazards had shaved a fifth of their nations’ wealth already.
Loss and damage proponents insist that what they want is not charity.
Science and the weather are making loss and damage harder to ignore
In Pakistan, incessant rains flooded a third of the country in August and caused an estimated $30 billion in economic losses. Madagascar and Mozambique were hit by a series of exceptionally strong storms. India’s heat wave destroyed crops in the country’s bread basket.
Also, the science has become faster and sharper in showing the reach of man-made climate change. Studies showed that each of these events was far more likely because of extra heat in the atmosphere.
There’s also a political play. Pakistan is the rotating chair of a bloc of developing countries, backed by China. And this is a cudgel with which to pound its chief rival, the United States.
The risks are high that there will be no breakthrough.
The fight is over whether to set up a separate “mechanism” (translation: a whole other pot of money) devoted to loss and damage.
It doesn’t help that money promises of the past haven’t been kept. Rich countries haven’t yet delivered on the $100 billion a year that they had promised by 2020.
There are loads of questions.
Is a separate fund the best way to address irreparable losses and damages? What will it look like? How long will it take to disburse money?
Guterres, the United Nations secretary general, proposed that Big Oil’s windfall profits be taxed and go into a loss and damage fund. That’s had no takers.
Loss is hard to measure
This is the hardest part about loss and damage. How do you place a value on something special? A wild berry that no longer grows in the forest? A glacier that has vanished? The receding beach in front of your grandparents’ old house?
Dr. Thomas, the scientist, studied the issue of loss and damage for many years as an academic. Then, it got personal.
Hurricane Dorian, in 2019, smashed through homes, roads, an airport — even the mangroves and coral reefs that had for many years calmed the surge of the sea. The storm ultimately wiped out a quarter of the economy of the Bahamas, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.
Among those damages: The house her late grandparents had built when they retired before was destroyed completely. All that remained was the foundation and one sturdy toilet.
Thankfully, no one had been living there. And no one in her family ever will. They won’t rebuild.
“If you have a climate expert in the family knowing that, in the next 30 years, that place is going to be completely underwater,” Dr. Thomas said, “it doesn’t make sense to build there.”
Related: Frequently asked questions about this year’s climate talks in Sharm el Sheikh.
Register for our COP27 livestream event
We’ll be live from Egypt next week, speaking with global leaders like former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the head of the World Trade Organization. You can check out the schedule and register for free.
Essential news from The Times
Testing a new strategy: Native American tribes are at the forefront of a program designed to help communities move away from areas threatened by climate hazards.
Withering might: Drought has shrunk the Mississippi River to levels not seen in decades. It’s choking shipping lines and endangering water supplies.
Crises collide: World leaders will gather in Egypt next week to confront climate change, while overwhelmed by other emergencies, such as war and inflation.
Arctic wildfires: Scientists say global warming is making fires in Siberia worse and that they expect the trend to continue.
Funding adaptation: The United Nations estimated that wealthy nations need to give as much as 10 times the current levels of funding to help developing countries adapt to climate change.
China is burning more coal: The country’s emissions of greenhouse gases rose last year at the fastest pace in a decade. Leaders are looking for alternatives.
Toxic smoke: Air pollution in India forced schools closures, traffic restrictions and political infighting.
From outside The Times
Before you go: Planning for the end of oil
For decades, Gabon has relied on petroleum to drive its economy. But officials there know their oil won’t last forever, so they’ve turned to the country’s other abundant resource: the Congo Basin rainforest. Unlike Brazil and other countries where deforestation is rampant, though, Gabon has adopted strict forest management rules. The aim is to strike a balance between the needs of a single nation and those of a world facing a climate crisis.
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Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward. Read past editions of the newsletter here.