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How Can People Harmed by Climate Change Be Compensated?

Should people harmed by climate change be compensated?

From typhoons and flooding to heatwaves and drought, research has shown that many disasters are already being made worse, or more likely to occur, due to climate change. Slow onset climate events like sea level rise, ocean acidification, loss of agricultural land or glacial retreat are also already taking place—sea level rise is now in the region of 3 to 4 mm per year.

All countries will be affected by climate change, but some of the most impacted countries have done very little to cause it in the first place. These countries are also often the very ones that most lack the resources needed to deal with these disasters.

The imbalance has been acknowledged by the leaders of developed countries and historic polluters, who have set up mechanisms to transfer financial support to developing countries to help them cut emissions and adapt to the consequences of climate change.

But support for another issue, known as “loss and damage,” has long been a politically fraught topic, and so far has only minimal support. The term refers to the consequences of climate change that can no longer be adapted to, explains Chikondi Chabvuta, Southern Africa region advocacy adviser at the nonprofit CARE. “It is really about reparations, and climate justice,” she says. “It's these damages that are taking place within countries in the global south that are stretching their capacity to adapt and absorb the shocks. In the end, they are left with lost communities, lost livelihoods, lost lives, that cannot be put on an adaptation program.”

The issue of finance for loss and damage blew up at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow last month, where developing countries representing the vast majority of the world’s population supported the creation of a financial mechanism for it, but which eventually fell through. A network has been set up to support “technical assistance” for dealing with loss and damage, but rich countries such as the US have been very resistant to putting money on the table to actually help countries recover from climate disasters.

“Right now, the United Nations system has agreed to channel finance from richer countries to lower income countries so that those countries can transition to greener pathways, and so that they can become more resilient to future impacts,” Teresa Anderson, a climate policy campaigner at ActionAid, told me during COP26. “But if you're destroyed by a climate disaster, and have to pick up the pieces and rebuild and recover, then you're on your own.”

Speaking last month at a press conference as COP26 concluded, John Kerry, the US special presidential envoy for climate, said his country remains “always thoughtful about the issue of liability.” He added: “What we think is, in the next few years, we have to work through what is this all about? How much money is needed for what? What's the legality of it?”

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Loss and damage means two things for small island states, says Sabra Noordeen, special envoy on climate change for the Maldives. “It’s the short-term immediate impacts of a natural disaster, and then there's the more slow onset events like the destruction or death of our coral reefs.”

Noorden thinks progress at COP in terms of climate movements, civil society, and the positions of the global south means there is now no going back to the historical obstructions to examining the issue. “We can't talk about climate action and climate justice without addressing loss and damage.”

But she also believes thinking about the issue only in terms of compensation or liability can make it more difficult to move these conversations forward. “Then it just feels like there's no kind of incentive for the polluter, in a sense, to invest in climate finance or mitigation other than just to make up for the losses that they've caused. It should be seen as an investment for everybody to provide climate finance that addresses adaptation and loss and damage, because it has this impact on everyone. And that's the way to move it forward.”

At COP26, Scotland broke a taboo when it offered £2 million for loss and damage, making it the first developed country to ever put forward this kind of finance. “As with anything else, if you want others to listen to your rhetoric, you must be prepared to lead by example,” said Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, at a press conference during the negotiations. “It is no longer excusable or acceptable to close our eyes to the loss and damage that is being done to countries around the world already.”

Chabvuta was pleased to see Scotland taking this lead. “We hope that they've created a momentum that we could carry over to COP27,” she says. “When you come from the global south, these climate negotiations are really about justice: those responsible for the damages that are being created in [our] daily lives.”

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