Now is the time to focus on loss and damage from climate change
The year 2020 will be remembered as not just the year of the pandemic, but also for the experienced human-induced climate change impacts, making loss and damage from those impacts a reality. What this means is that every climate-related hazard such as heatwaves, droughts, floods and cyclones are no longer entirely natural events, but have become more severe because the global temperature increase has already gone above one degree Centigrade over the last century. A good example of this is the super cyclone Amphan that hit Bangladesh almost a year ago, which became a super cyclone while it was in the Bay of Bengal where the sea surface temperature was several degrees higher than normal due to human-induced climate change.
Fortunately, Bangladesh has one of the best cyclone warning and evacuation systems in the world and we successfully evacuated over two million people to cyclone shelters. In previous decades, super cyclones had cost hundreds of thousands of lives. This time, only a few dozen people died, but thousands are still homeless as they had lost their homes or their land has become salinised by sea water intrusion. Hence, while Bangladesh has been good at saving lives, it has still suffered loss and damage to livelihoods and infrastructure.
Similar loss and damage from human-induced climate change is being repeated around the world, with wildfires in California and Australia, floods in Asia, typhoons in the Pacific, and hurricanes in the Caribbean. In the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process, this was anticipated by setting up the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Loss and Damage at the 19th Conference of Parties (COP19) held in 2013 in Warsaw, Poland.
Since then, there has been some progress in addressing the issue of loss and damage in terms of learning about the different impacts like sea level rise versus fast moving events like floods and cyclones. There is also the issue of economic versus non-economic loss and damage (such as loss of graves and architectural heritage sites). At COP25 held in Madrid, Spain in 2019, there was a decision to set up the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage, which is a positive development and needs to be built upon at COP26 in November in Glasgow, Scotland.
However, one of the aspects of the issue that has remained highly politically sensitive is financing, as the developed countries do not wish to acknowledge the notion of liability and compensation that may be associated with loss and damage from climate change. In fact, in the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change, the US government insisted on including a paragraph making it explicit that even though they had reluctantly agreed to include Article 8 on Loss and Damage, they wanted to clarify that this could not be used for liability and compensation. One of the reasons why the developed countries refused to allow this topic to be included was their fear of being held to account for the loss and damage they have caused.
Now that President Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement and has appointed John Kerry as his Climate Envoy, and the US is pitching itself as a global leader in tackling climate change, the issue of loss and damage cannot be ignored. In fact, the vulnerable developing countries have already made it clear that if COP26 fails to address finance for loss and damage, they will consider COP26 to be a failure, despite any other agreements that are reached. It can be argued that a "whole of society" approach to tackling this issue is needed before we even get to COP26 in November.
The first point to make is for developed countries to think of providing funding in solidarity with the victims of human-induced climate change around the world. The scientific community is now in an excellent position to calculate the attribution of the impacts to the fact that global temperature has risen over one degree Centigrade above pre-industrial levels due to the emissions of greenhouse gases over that time. In this way, we can shift the paradigm from liability and compensation to solidarity. Major philanthropic foundations, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the newly established Earth Foundation set up by Jeff Bezos, should also look at ways in which they could provide funds to victims, especially in the poorest developing countries.
With regards to how such funds could be raised and managed, I would suggest that International Non-governmental Organisations (INGOs) such as Oxfam, CARE, World Vision, Christian Aid and others, who are already working with some of the poorest communities, can also help them with the loss and damage that they are now suffering from. I would argue that individual donors in developed countries who contribute to these INGOs would be most willing to contribute to such a fund on the basis of a moral argument for polluters to help the victims of their pollution.
There must also be a focus on the humanitarian sector, whose normal role is to deal with climate-related natural disasters. The good news is that these organisations have already started looking at this issue, with pre-finance for potential climate victims by the Red Cross and Red Crescent. These kinds of examples can be expanded and refined to enable climate change victims to reduce loss and damage for themselves.
Finally, the role of young people, who have already built a major global network based on the paradigm of solidarity, is crucial. For example, the Fridays for Future movement led by Greta Thunberg has linked school children of developed countries pushing for mitigation actions at home with school children in developing countries who are being impacted by climate change. This kind of global solidarity can be used for crowd funding for a global loss and damage fund.
It needs to be asserted that dealing with the scientifically attributable negative impacts of climate change is now a high priority for the entire world. While there is an important role for the UNFCCC in COP26, particularly in developing the working modalities of the Santiago Network on Loss and Damage, it also has to be taken seriously by key developed countries' governments. In this respect, the upcoming meeting of the leaders of the G7 countries would be an excellent occasion to declare a willingness to provide funds for loss and damage (as distinct from funding adaptation). At the same time, both developing and developed countries need to set up networks of solidarity to provide financial assistance to the victims of climate change.
Let 2021 be the year when the issue of loss and damage from human-induced climate change is recognised with utmost urgency and importance, and that governments and civil societies around the world rise to the occasion for the victims of climate change.
Dr Saleemul Huq is the Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh.