Should Wealthy Carbon Emitters Foot the Bill for Climate Damage?

Ruobang Wang / EyeEm via Getty
Ruobang Wang / EyeEm via Getty

For the first time, this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) has officially put the topic of “loss and damage” on the agenda for world leaders to discuss in the next two weeks—moving forward the conversation on compensating countries for the damages already wrought by climate change, not just putting money toward disaster preparedness. World leaders, including Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, have praised the inclusion of the topic and called for measurable change to take place.

“We believe that it is critical that we address the issue of ‘loss and damage.’ The talk must come to an end,” Mottley said yesterday.

Loss and damage, simply put, is a catch-all term for helping developing nations hit hard by the effects of climate change. Some small European nations have pledged modest sums toward loss and damage, but there is still intense disagreement over who should receive the aid, the amount provided, and who should be held liable. And it’s extremely unlikely these questions will be resolved at COP27.

There’s a deep power imbalance at the heart of the issue. Wealthy, developed nations are far and away producing the majority of emissions that have raised the average yearly surface temperature of the globe by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the pre-industrial era—but developing nations are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the ensuing extreme weather events. Take recent flooding in Pakistan: 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. To many global leaders, the situation facing countries like Pakistan reeks of unfairness, particularly in the absence of any form of payment from wealthier nations.

Wealthy nations like the U.S. have historically dragged their feet to acknowledge, much less negotiate loss and damage, possibly out of a fear that compensating developing countries could strengthen a legal case holding developed nations liable for future climate-related damages. There’s also uncertainty and cynicism over cost—in September, U.S. Special Presidential 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, cause that’s what it costs,” he told the audience at a New York Times event.

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Reportedly, even slotting loss and damage into COP27’s agenda for discussion was a contentious fight, requiring negotiators to work overnight. Conversations about liability and compensation are to remain off the table, as per the resulting compromise.

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

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