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$6 TRILLION CLIMATE DEBT: U.S., 4 Other Big Emitters Could Face Litigation for Harm to Other Countries

Fossil fuel burning by the United States, China, Russia, India, and Brazil caused more than US$6 trillion in economic harm to other countries between 1990 and 2014, according to a study team that set out to lift the “veil of deniability” that has shielded big emitters from “climate liability and national accountability” for their actions.

The tally includes $1.91 trillion in damage caused by the U.S., $1.83 trillion by China, $986 billion by Russia, $809 billion by India, and $528 billion by Brazil, the Guardian reports. Canada placed tenth on the list, at $247 billion in damages.

“It’s not surprising that the U.S. and China are at the top of that list but the numbers really are very stark,” said lead author and Dartmouth College geographer Christopher Callahan. “For the first time, we can show that a country’s emissions can be traced to specific harm.”

“Do all countries look to the United States for restitution? Maybe,” co-author and Dartmouth climate scientist Justin Mankin told The Associated Press. “The U.S. has caused a huge amount of economic harm by its emissions, and that’s something that we have the data to show.”

The study may be the first to connect dots between emissions and impacts in a way that would stand up in court, Callahan and Mankin write.

The lack of a clear link from individual emitters to downstream climate “has been a principal evidentiary gap in climate litigation,” they explain in their paper this week in the journal Climatic Change. In any attempt to assign responsibility for climate harms, “uncertainties compound at each step from emissions to global greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations, GHG concentrations to global temperature changes, global temperature changes to country-level temperature changes, and country-level temperature changes to economic losses, providing emitters with plausible deniability for damage claims.”

But now, their study combines historical data with various climate models to “quantify each nation’s culpability for historical temperature-driven income changes in every other country.”

The two researchers conclude that harm attributable to the five biggest emitters over the 15-year study span was equal 14% of global GDP, with many other countries responsible for billions more in losses. And “the distribution of warming impacts from emitters is highly unequal,” they add. “High-income, high-emitting countries have benefited themselves while harming low-income, low-emitting countries, emphasizing the inequities embedded in the causes and consequences of historical warming.”

The study finds that the world’s biggest carbon polluters also benefit the most from that activity and see the least economic harm. “Conversely, poorer countries, such as those found in the tropics or low-lying Pacific islands, have done the least to harm other nations and yet are suffering the brunt of the economic damage from climate change,” the Guardian says. “The research didn’t factor things not included in GDP, such as biodiversity loss, cultural harm, and deaths from disasters, meaning the damage is in reality far greater.”

“There is this huge inequity,” Mankin said. “Countries like the U.S. have disproportionately damaged low-income countries in the global south and disproportionately benefited cooler, higher income countries in the global north.”

A separate study by an international non-government organization, Tearfund, concludes this week that the 11 countries least responsible for the global climate emergency are spending up to 22% of their GDP to deal with the economic effects, the Guardian reports. On average, the 11 African nations in the study emit 27 times less per person than the global average. And in all cases, their climate adaptation spending dwarfs their investment in health care—the worst-off country on the list, Eritrea, devotes 22.7% of its economic output to adaptation compared to just 4.47% for health.

The research adds one more set of data to the push for international payments for the inevitable loss and damage vulnerable countries face, now and in the future, as a result of the GHG emissions that cause climate change. That discussion gained prominence but yielded very limited practical results at last year’s COP 26 climate summit in Glasgow, and is expected to take centre stage again at this year’s COP 27 conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

“Scientific studies such as this groundbreaking piece show that high emitters no longer have a leg to stand on in avoiding their obligations to address loss and damage,” Bahamian climate scientist Adelle Thomas of Climate Analytics told AP. Recent studies “increasingly and overwhelmingly show that loss and damage is already crippling developing countries,” she added.

“We are moving slowly towards some sort of accountability for this,” Carroll Muffett, CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, told the Guardian. “The costs of climate damages are mounting and ultimately someone will have to pay that cost. The question is who will that be and how it will be done.”