Loss & Damage: Penultimate Challenge for Successful Climate Agreement

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The latest draft Paris climate agreement was released on Wednesday at 3 p.m. European Time, and it has yet to resolve one of the most crucial and contentious issues, one that, according to experts here in Paris, may take until to the last minute to resolve: Loss and damage.

“Loss and damage means when your preparation fails, or the disaster overwhelms your preparation, because the scale of the disasters is huge or you did not prepare on time,” said Harjeet Singh with Action Aid, adding that this is a major issue for developing countries, which are, mostly, pushing very strongly for the inclusion of loss and damage in the agreement.

The current state is partly a mystery because, at the behest of developed countries, all the meetings about loss and damage have taken place in closed-door sessions, not open to civil society or the press. Right now, the text on loss and damage remains unchanged from Saturday, and may just be a placeholder inserted by the French presidency until a real agreement is hammered out.

“Rich countries are fighting back against loss and damage,” said Julie-Anne Richards with the Climate Justice Program, during a press conference. “They are creating a bogeyman that does not exist,” she added, citing wealthy countries’ continued resistance to any language around liability or compensation, both of which developing countries agreed to remove well before the Paris climate talks began.

Loss and damage is crucial to an equitable and fair Paris agreement. While the biggest focus in climate negotiations up to this point has been on mitigation (stopping emissions) and adaptation (preparing for climate impacts), loss and damage is nearly as, if not more, important.

“These are extremely new challenges – we don’t have much experience dealing with sea-level rise [or] glacial melt at this scale. How do you do that?” Singh asked. “Loss and damage is about investing heavily in social protection systems, helping people when there are disasters and restoring their livelihoods.”

The vast majority of civil society organizations agree with developing countries that loss and damage must have its own section in the agreement and should not be folded into the adaptation section of the text. They also want a strong mechanism to determine how loss and damage is realized over time, as we begin to see more climate disasters.

The United States in particular has been cited as an opponent of a strong loss and damage mechanism. We are, of course, the largest historic emitter of CO2, and we therefore have the largest “carbon debt” to pay to the developing world. But another reason that the United States may so reticent to allow for liability in the agreement is actually quite simple. Fossil fuel lobbies.

Exxon-Mobil, quite possibly the biggest corporate source of CO2 emissions, is facing a lawsuit from New York state for its years of climate-denial support. In fact, a report released on Tuesday by researchers from Canada and Vanuatu, a Pacific island nation that was recently devastated by a super-typhoon, showed how national laws could be used to hold oil, gas and coal companies accountable for climate change-related disasters.

And it should be. If fossil fuel companies knowingly withheld information about climate change, then they are responsible for the impacts that are hitting the poor today.

We all know how much fossil fuel companies donate to political campaigns. Now is the time to remind the United States, Canada and other developed countries at COP21 that they are not there to represent old industries, but to represent us, their citizens, who demand real climate action. Loss and damage must be part of the Paris agreement, and it must be as strong as possible, because it is just fair. We cannot put the burden of climate action on those who did the least to contribute to the problem. We have to pay our fair share.

Negotiations will take place, quite likely, until late tonight. This could be the last chance for there to be real changes made, including ensuring that the final text includes a section on loss and damage that allows for a displacement mechanism – for those who are forced to move due to climate change – and an institution that can used science-based knowledge to figure out how best to assist affected communities.

“At this stage, the important thing is to decide that there should be a mechanism, and then determine it at a later stage,” said Dean Tony La Vina, with the Philippines delegation, one of the strongest advocates for loss and damage.

Let’s hope the United States, Canada and all the other opponents listen and agree tonight, and in the next few days, decide to include this crucially important component in the final text.

Image credit: DFID

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

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