Mohammed Nasheed made global headlines in 2009 by convening the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting. As president of the Maldives, a nation of 1,138 low-lying islands southwest of India, Nasheed donned scuba gear and descended beneath the waves with 13 government ministers. The officials used waterproof pencils to sign a document urging the world to slash carbon dioxide emissions so the Maldives would not disappear beneath rising seas.
“If the Maldives cannot be saved today, we do not feel that there is much of a chance for the rest of the world,” Nasheed told reporters.
Today, Nasheed is the speaker of parliament in the Maldives, and earlier this month, served as the global south’s ambassador to the COP 26 climate conference. He continues to warn that anything more than 1.5°C of global warming “is a death sentence” for his country and other low-lying regions around the world. To illustrate what the last 12 years of rising temperatures have brought, he recalls the lagoon where he held that famous underwater cabinet meeting.
“If you go to the same spot [today], you will see the reef is far more dead, bleached, than it was,” Nasheed said in Glasgow last week. Dead reefs lead to coastal erosion, which wipes out homes and schools and contaminates freshwater sources, he added. The Maldives now spends 30% of its government budget adapting to climate change, including vast sums to desalinate water.
These are some of the human realities behind “loss and damage,” a phrase suddenly in vogue at COP 26. It refers to irreversible harms that result from the higher global temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels and related human activities. The dead reefs of the Maldives, for example, will never come back to life as long as oceans are so hot—they will remain bleached for decades to come, even if countries manage to limit temperature rise to 1.5°C.
It’s scandalous it has taken so long for global climate negotiations to acknowledge the reality of “loss and damage”. Worse yet, even now, COP 26 proceedings are not calling on the main authors of the climate emergency—ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and other fossil fuel companies—to pay for the immense human suffering and economic harm they have caused.
“The principle is easy enough: these companies have to admit they are responsible for loss and damage, and they should pay for it,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.
The formal absence of calls for compensation from fossil fuel companies is not surprising at COP 26; a first draft of the conference’s agreement did not even include the words “fossil fuels” (though a later draft does reference the need to phase out coal and subsidies for fossil fuels). Instead, COP 26’s discussion assumes governments of wealthy countries will cover the costs. Here, too, the reasoning is straightforward: rich countries have emitted the vast majority of the gases overheating the planet, so they should pay for the resulting harm.
Paying for loss and damage, however, is not a proposition most rich country governments have embraced. Scotland is a shining exception: Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, announced last Thursday that Scotland will provide £3 million for loss and damage, an example she urged other nations to follow. Meanwhile, rich countries are still lagging on a related obligation they have accepted: providing poorer countries US$100 billion a year to shift to clean energy and adapt to worsening impacts.
But adaptation is distinct from loss and damage.
“Adaptation is what people do to protect themselves,” for example, desalinating water, said Simon Anderson of the International Institute for Environment and Development. “Loss and damage is what happens to people, with or without adaptation.”
As the Climate Vulnerable Forum’s ambassador to COP 26, Nasheed said loss and damage could determine the conference’s success or failure. “I call on the companies to pay for the damage that’s been done, and for governments to make them pay,” he said of the fossil fuel industry. “Unless they do that, it will be tough to get the confidence of vulnerable countries that these talks are meaningful.”
In a just world, the executives of fossil fuel companies would have to change places with people in the Maldives and experience how it feels to lose the reefs that protect their homes, schools, fresh water, and what Nasheed called “2,000 years of culture”. Short of that, doesn’t simple morality demand that the companies pay for the massive loss and damage they have wrought?
This story originally appeared in The Guardian. It is published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story. Mark Hertsgaard is Covering Climate Now’s executive director.