In 2013, just a few days after one of the most powerful storms ever recorded struck his country, a Filipino climate negotiator named Yeb Saño spoke before world leaders at a United Nations COP summit in Poland. The Philippines is used to big storms. It has an early warning system for typhoons and an extensive network of shelters. Everyone has a plan. But in Saño’s hometown, plans were upended by Typhoon Haiyan. Shelters collapsed, water rose in places it never had before; his town was flattened. At that moment, Saño told his fellow delegates at the annual climate conference, he did not know whether his family had survived. This was an unnatural storm, he said, one fueled by people who live far from the Philippines choosing to burn fossil fuels. And it was “madness” for those same people to continue adding more carbon to the air, making the world all the more unlivable—if not deadly—for others. Saño pledged to fast during the conference until delegates produced results. He remained seated through a standing ovation, wiping away tears with a red handkerchief.
At the time, to a COP attendee named Saleemul Huq, Saño’s speech looked like a breakthrough. It was long overdue recognition, Huq recalls thinking that “it’s time for the polluter to pay up.” Yet it’s only now, nine years later, at COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, that paying for those impacts, an issue known as “loss and damage,” has become an animating concern of the meeting. Just months after devastating floods in Pakistan killed thousands and caused billions of dollars of damage, many officials from developing nations arrived angry at years of inaction and ready to say so. By the time those leaders departed on Tuesday, they had achieved something that had never happened before at COP: There was a plan to figure out how to put money on the table.
A plan to talk about doing something may not sound like big progress, but in the history of loss and damage, it is. At COP meetings, negotiations between rich and poor nations typically center on how to pay for decarbonization and ways to live in a changing climate. But beginning with early climate talks in the 1990s, Pacific Island nations recognized they could not “adapt” their way out of the path of rising seas. Nor would adaptation help those facing unending droughts that turn fertile farmland to dust and that fuel unstoppable wildfires. Yet for 20 years, very little changed.
In 2013, the COP where Saño spoke had offered a rare moment of progress on the issue—followed by more years of disappointment. The delegates finally came up with a pact to study the issue, but discussions never progressed to how to fund it. Since Saño’s speech, that issue has been put on the backburner by rich nations—chiefly the US—which feared that agreeing to funding would amount to an admission of guilt for their role in worsening climate change. That could make them liable to compensate developing nations for potentially trillions of dollars of impending damage. “We’re not saying it’s a liability. It’s humanity. So far you have not shown your humanity,” says Huq, who directs the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Some, including Huq, hope that humanity will finally be demonstrated at COP27. A straight-talking scientist with a white handlebar mustache, he has attended all 27 COP meetings and is intimately aware of their slow churn. But the reactions of some world leaders to the Pakistan floods gave him hope for action this time. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, visited Pakistan, “and you could see that he was moved,” Huq says. Guterres later opened the conference with a demand that delegates address loss and damage. The movement has also been bolstered by a relatively new science of attribution that helps policymakers determine how much of a disaster’s severity can be tied to the changing climate. For the floods in Pakistan, a recent analysis found that climate change increased the intensity of the rains by up to 50 percent.
Earlier this week, COP delegates agreed to talk about the specifics of loss and damage. Negotiations lasted late into the night in the hours before the conference began, striving to avoid what they call an “agenda fight,” where backroom battles that determine what will be discussed over the next two weeks spill out into the open. The agenda directs the delegates to have a finance plan ready in two years. That left some advocates unimpressed. “The only way I can sum up COP27 so far is: poor start,” said Mohamed Adow, founder of Power Shift Africa, a group pushing for a faster shift to renewables in Kenya, at a panel the next morning. Later that day, Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, had even sharper words for her colleagues, speaking of the legacy of colonial extraction that paid for the polluting industries in wealthy nations. Now those formerly colonized nations were being left to clean up the mess of that pollution. “That is fundamentally unfair,” she said.
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Speakers have frequently invoked the phrase “climate reparation” to describe the responsibility to compensate future generations based on past harms. That reflects a tradition as old as World War I, when certain nations were held responsible for paying for the clean-up, explains Lisa Vanhala, a political scientist at University College London who studies loss and damage negotiations. But wealthy polluters like the US have remained fearful that it could be leveraged to hold them accountable in venues outside the United Nations, despite agreements at past COPs to avoid liability claims. Those countries want to keep the conversation looking forward, away from a litany of past harms, preferring to use the more anodyne and open-ended phrase “loss and damage” at the negotiating table. Worried about alienating the rich nations, countries advocating for finance have largely agreed to speak in those terms—at least in the negotiating room. The UN requires consensus to move forward.
The question remains what the phrase “loss and damage” actually means. One idea, led by Germany ahead of COP, is a sort of insurance program that would pay out when a climate-linked disaster strikes. The program, which the EU calls Global Shield, would likely involve help from wealthier nations to cover the premiums and would supplement ongoing disaster relief efforts. At COP, a number of nations, including Belgium and Ireland, have committed funding to the program.
But other nations want a fund for loss and damage within the UN. Among the fiercest advocates are some of the small island nations that pioneered the idea of loss and damage, who say any insurance plans cannot come at the expense of a grant-based program for affected nations. “As climate impacts become worse, some places will become uninsurable,” says Michai Robertson, who leads finance negotiations for AOSIS, a group of small island states. Plus, he adds, insurance is good at covering sudden disasters but not slow-onset changes like desertification and sea level rise. The group’s member states have plenty of ideas for how to finance a UN loss and damage fund, including grants from polluters or other measures like taxing oil company profits.
By late Tuesday in Egypt, as world leaders departed, leaving negotiators with their marching orders, some appeared slightly more optimistic about the creation of a fund. “Suffice to say that momentum is gathering,” said Mottley of Barbados at a press conference Tuesday. There are challenges ahead, including indications that the United Kingdom may be unwilling to provide funding and uncertainty over the US position as it emerges from midterm elections. Also uncertain is the role of countries, like China and India, that are major polluters now but haven’t contributed as much to the problem in the past. On the sidelines of the talks, Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, emphasized that everyone must step up. “The polluter must pay. I don’t think there’s a free pass for any country,” he said.
In the meantime, more action is taking place outside the UN process. At COP27, New Zealand and other polluters have set up their own loss and damage funds, joining a movement spearheaded last year by Scotland, a non-UN member, which has pledged a total of $7 million to loss and damage. That’s “very, very small” in the context of potentially trillions in losses and damages, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged at an event. Covering the immense costs, she said, could not be tackled only through a “coalition of the willing” that decide to take action on their own, highlighting the importance of finding consensus in the COP negotiations.
She turned to Huq, her copanelist, thanking him for his years of work on making that happen. He replied that he is often asked why he keeps attending COP every year, despite its consistent shortcomings. His answer is relentless optimism. This year, at least, they’ll be talking money, and that’s a start. “We’ve been playing this game for years, and we’ve been losing,” he said later, “but this time we got it.”