As the number of climate-related disasters almost doubles, and refugee numbers surge, the UN climate summit is finally asking a key question: How do you make the countries that caused the crisis pay? By Mike Seccombe.

What is being decided at COP27?

COP27 signage in Egypt.
COP27 signage in Egypt.
Credit: Mohamed Abdel Hamid / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Shiva Gounden can claim a rare, dispiriting double effort. In March 2015 his humanitarian work saw him in Vanuatu, cleaning up after Cyclone Pam, then the most powerful storm ever in the southern hemisphere. In February the following year he was in the country of his birth, Fiji, in the wake of Cyclone Winston, which was even stronger and more damaging.

Tens of thousands of homes were destroyed, the islands’ infrastructure wrecked by wind gusts faster than 300 kilometres an hour and storm surges up to seven metres. But what he remembers with particular sadness, he says, were the “intangible” losses.

“Like the burial grounds, washed away. Your family members, the remains of your family members, being washed away. Cultural monuments that you’ve … valued and cherished, and [that] spoke to your future generations, being wiped away by climate change.”

Gounden explains the cultural cost by reference to a “beautiful concept” of another South Pacific state, Samoa, where the same word is used to describe both the land and the placenta.

“When a baby is born, the umbilical cord is taken to ancestral land … and is then buried in the ground. It’s like a symbolic thing, so the baby from the beginning of his or her life is connected to that ancestral land … to culture.”

Climate change threatens to break that connection by forcing people across the Pacific to relocate, either because extreme weather makes life untenable or, in the case of low-lying islands, because rising sea levels inundate them.

“And when people have to relocate, that means they lose their culture, they lose the connection to language, they lose the connection to community,” he says. “These are the true impacts of loss and damage, which cannot be adapted against or mitigated against.”

Previous climate negotiations have led to rich countries promising to help the developing world by funding measures to reduce their emissions, or adapt to become more resilient. At last year’s Glasgow conference, for example, developed countries pledged $US100 billion annually for mitigation and resilience.

The global south, beginning with Pacific nations, has long pushed for more – for the industrialised nations that have generated the great bulk of planet-heating emissions to create a fund to compensate the poor nations that disproportionately suffer for it. The rich countries have resisted.

“We have been talking about it for over 30 years,” says Gounden, Pacific adviser and volunteer co-ordinator for Greenpeace, speaking to The Saturday Paper from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP27, began this week.

“And it’s been frustrating for Pacific Islands to voice it year after year after year, [and to have] been ignored.”

This time, after long negotiations that delayed the start, the agenda finally included an item for consideration: “Matters relating to funding arrangements responding to loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including a focus on addressing loss and damage.”

No doubt there are practical difficulties: how to apportion the costs among wealthier nations, how to distribute funds among the poorer ones, whether and how to factor in losses that go beyond infrastructure damage caused by individual climate disasters, to the less easily measurable costs such as lost earnings, social disruption and displacement.

Nonetheless, the fact it is finally on the agenda speaks to a notion of basic fairness that has persisted across cultures and millennia: that when you cause loss or damage to another, you should compensate them.

As the prime minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, told the conference, the poorer countries “were the ones whose blood, sweat and tears financed the industrial revolution; are we now to face the double jeopardy by having to pay the cost as a result of those greenhouse gases from the industrial revolution? That is fundamentally unfair.”

The facts support her. Just 23 rich industrialised nations, including Australia, are responsible for half of all historical emissions of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, according to data collated by the Global Carbon Project. The United States alone accounts for almost a quarter of emissions during the past 170 years.

The burning of fossil fuels is the foundation of their wealth, but it has come at huge environmental and economic cost. Globally, temperatures have risen by an average of about 1.1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial times, and precipitated rapidly growing numbers of extreme weather events.

According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR), the number of global climate-related disasters for the period 2000 to 2019 was 6681, an increase of almost 83 per cent over 1980 to 1999. There were more floods, more storms, more droughts, fires and more extreme heat events.

“While dollar value losses are often greater in high-income countries, it is the poorest countries that sustain the highest relative loss,” the UNDRR said. As a share of gross domestic product, the cost to poorer countries was close to 10 times that of high-income nations.

Last year alone, by the count of giant reinsurance company Swiss Re, global losses to natural catastrophes totalled $US270 billion, the greater proportion of it uninsured.

That is far from a comprehensive accounting of the cost of climate change, which also fuels conflict and the mass displacement of people. Unlike infrastructure damage, this problem has so far almost exclusively impacted poor nations.

It’s estimated there were 21.3 million refugees globally at the end of 2021, more than double the 10.5 million a decade ago. Climate change is not the sole driver but, as Andrew Harper, the special adviser for climate action to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, noted last year, it is a “vulnerability multiplier” that exacerbates and complicates existing drivers of displacement, such as poverty, food insecurity, persecution and conflict. At least 90 per cent of refugees under UNHCR’s mandate come from countries most vulnerable to the climate emergency, Harper said.

Even more people are internally displaced. In 2020 alone, natural disasters drove almost 31 million people from their homes, more than three times the number displaced by conflict and violence.

Mottley warned that the number of people displaced by climate change could climb to a billion by 2050. Some forecasts suggest developing countries could face annual climate damages of a trillion dollars by then.

Such mind-boggling numbers explain not only the sense of urgency felt by the most affected countries but also the concern of rich countries that they could be exposed to potentially unlimited liability for the costs of climate change to poor nations, or alternatively uncontrollable flows of desperate people.

It poses not just an economic problem for rich nations but also a political one. Already we have seen right-wing populists ride into government in the US and Europe on public fears about refugee flows. Conservative parties in this country have used the same issue to their advantage.

But the alternative – offering greater financial support for mitigation, abatement and now loss and damage – is hard to sell politically. We saw evidence of that in federal parliament this week, when Opposition Leader Peter Dutton used the COP27 agenda to whack the Labor government. In question time, he demanded: “The Coalition has ruled out paying compensation to other nations for the effects of climate change. Will the Albanese government also rule out signing Australia up to compensate other countries as part of the deal at COP27 in Egypt?”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese did not, but nor did he rule it in. The fact that he and other ministers have continued to dance around the issue is testament to the delicate situation. The government intends to jointly bid with Pacific nations to co-host COP31 in 2026, yet Australia remains the biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the developed world, and the biggest exporter of emissions, in the form of coal and gas.

“There will be continuing advocacy from Pacific Island countries for serious engagement on loss and damage, and what they’re owed by fossil fuel-powered countries,” says Melissa Conley Tyler, executive director of Asia Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue.

“It’s really deeply felt in the region. There’s a shared sense of loss and damage that climate change is causing and will cause. It’s not some far-in-the-future issue. It’s permeating everything right now.”

Of course, the global conversation about loss and damage payments has only just officially begun. The COP agenda item on the matter carries a footnote: “This sub-item and the outcomes thereof are without prejudice to the consideration of similar issues in the future.”

Meaning: there’s a lot of talking to do before anyone has to commit to anything.

Among the proposals for how to raise the money are a levy on countries according to their historical contribution to greenhouse emissions; taxes on billionaires, fossil fuel miners or air travel; or maybe some form of subsidised insurance scheme.

It’s certainly true that the Australian government will need to take major steps to placate its Pacific neighbours ahead of the planned joint 2026 COP, but that need not involve tipping money into a new global fund, says Richie Merzian, climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute, and a government negotiator for Australia at previous COPs.

“If you ask the Australian government, they’ll tell you on background … the region can be better helped by directly providing support in response to a disaster, or to build resilience ahead of time.

“That’s a better avenue than if Australia just contributes to a big global facility. They can work with the Pacific on a proxy version of this, that directly benefits the Pacific, in a similar way to how Australia often operates. If there is a major disaster in the Pacific, it’s unthinkable that Australia wouldn’t come in with support.”

There are other things Australia can do, Merzian says, and indeed the recent budget made a substantial start with a $375 million boost in aid to the Pacific, on top of an already promised $525 million.

Australia likely will also rejoin the Green Climate Fund, Merzian says. “The sooner they do it, the more credit they’ll get.”

This is the largest UN fund for climate finance, established at COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. Australia pulled out in 2018 – a decision Scott Morrison made on a whim while on air with radio shock-jock Alan Jones.

Apart from demonstrating Morrison’s “intellectual rigour”, says Merzian, that call did more than anything else to “ruin” Australia’s reputation in the region. “That was a fund that Australia helped set up, that it co-chaired for the longest period of any one country, that even had an Australian CEO. Australia had tipped $200 million into this fund, with the goal of trying to make sure that it worked for the Pacific.”

Of course, the best thing Australia could do, says Merzian, “is demonstrate it is willing to transition from fossil fuels, and that starts with stopping new projects”.

The longer this political decision takes, the bigger the costs to our neighbours and to ourselves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 12, 2022 as "Fair COP".

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