With financial responsibility for the unavoidable loss and damage caused by climate change shaping up as a priority issue at the upcoming UN climate conference, November 6-17 in Bonn, small island states on the front lines of the crisis are pointing to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma as examples of the impacts they already face—and calling for individual fossil companies to pay for their share of the impact.
COP 23 Chair and Fiji President Frank Bainimarama had already declared loss and damage a key priority for this year’s negotiation when Irma ploughed through the Caribbean, causing unimaginable destruction on the islands of Barbuda, St. Martin, and Antigua. At the COP, “ministers from island nations will point to the back-to-back storms to pressure negotiators at Bonn to agree to details of a mechanism for addressing loss and damage from extreme weather, as well as slower changes such as sea level rises and desertification,” Thomson Reuters reports. That strategy “will put island nations on a collision course with the United States and other rich countries” seeking to avoid liability for their disproportionate use of fossil fuels.
But the island nations have every reason to stand firm.
“Hurricane Irma graphically shows the destructive power of climate change and underscores that loss and damage isn’t some abstract concept, but the reality of life today for the people who contributed least to the problem,” said Maldives Environment Minister Thoriq Ibrahim, chair of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). “If ever there was a case for loss and damage, this is it,” added Ronny Jumeau, UN ambassador from the Seychelles, another AOSIS member.
Ronald Sanders, Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the U.S, said Irma swept away more than three centuries of civilization, noting that “for the first time in 300 years, there’s not a single living person on the island of Barbuda.”
Yet the high financial stakes on the issue of loss and damage underscore the difficulty of the negotiations ahead. The Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation estimates a price tag of US$300 billion per year by 2030 “to help people who lose their land and culture or are forced to migrate as a result of extreme climate-related problems,” Thomson Reuters notes. “Such spending would come on top of $100 billion a year in funding by 2020 that richer nations have promised poorer ones under the Paris Agreement to help them develop cleanly and adapt to climate change.” (And the $100 billion per year has been hard enough to nail down.)
Small wonder that rich countries have been hesitant to define that responsibility too precisely: while nations agreed to establish some sort of loss and damage mechanism at a meeting in Warsaw, Poland in 2013, “it is unclear exactly what it would cover, who would pay, and how much it would cost,” the news agency writes. “Under pressure from the rich nations, the preamble of the Paris Agreement says the loss and damage mechanism ‘does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.’”
In addition to its own staff coverage, Thomson Reuters published two opinion pieces September 14, providing front-line perspectives on climate impacts and the impending loss and damage debate.
“If Florida, with the infrastructure and financial muscle of an economic superpower, buckles under the pressure of Hurricane Irma, bear a thought for the small islands of the Caribbean which bore the brunt of Irma’s fury and have barely the resources to ensure a decent standard of living for their people, let alone the investment needed to protect themselves from record-breaking hurricanes,” writes Mohamed Adow of Christian Aid – UK.
“Sea walls and flood defences are of little use when your island is already underwater,” he notes, explaining why loss and damage belongs at the top of the agenda for the first UN climate conference to be chaired by a developing, small island state. “Likewise, poorer nations that have 95% of their buildings levelled cannot ‘adapt’ to hurricanes like Irma, nor [can] pastoralist communities, like those experienced by my home region of East Africa, that have their livestock and livelihoods destroyed by lethal droughts.”
While delegates made loss and damage a “third pillar” of the Paris agreement, alongside climate change mitigation and adaptation, “progress has been slow in making it a reality,” Adow writes. “In Bonn, the Fijians should help bring the reality of climate change into the heart of the negotiations and make progress on this a critical issue.”
He adds that “global civil society organizations are calling for rich nations to show solidarity with the most vulnerable communities and countries, and place within their reach the resources to adapt to climate change and to fight the inevitable and increasing impacts.”
Fijians Makereta Waqavonovono and Seini Nabou and UK-based loss and damage consultant Julie-Anne Richards add that the country’s own experience with Cyclone Winston in February 2016 underpins their “heartfelt sympathies, solidarity, and prayers” for people in Texas and Florida. But “we have even more in common with our Caribbean island AOSIS cousins of Antigua and Barbuda, Cuba, St Martin, St Barts and Anguilla, Turks and Caicos, Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic,” they add. “We have experienced the dread and apprehension of a savage storm, barrelling through devastation across our tiny island home,” making islanders “the unwitting canaries in the coal mine” for the impacts of climate change.
While governments are accountable for decisions to sustain and increase their greenhouse gas emissions, “the fossil fuel industry—big coal, oil and gas—have done their utmost to undermine climate science and to pollute political decision-making,” the Fijians note. With attribution studies now making it possible to quantify individual fossil companies’ share of the responsibility for climate impacts, “it’s now up to governments to make sure they phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, and in the meantime, force the fossil fuel industry to pay for their climate damage.”