Fernando Fischmann

Who will pay for the damage caused by climate change?

30 December, 2021 / Articles

Talking about who is responsible for climate change is a fraught debate – even more so when it comes to who ought to pay for the damage it causes.

In September 2017, John Mussington was forced to evacuate his home and leave behind his animals when the small Caribbean island of Barbuda was hit by category 5 Hurricane Irma, at 185mph (300km/h).

“It was devastating,” says Mussington, a marine biologist and a high school principal on Barbuda. “People were traumatised, there were many buildings without roofs and we had no electricity. Our immediate concern was: how do we survive the next day?”

Every building was damaged by Irma, with 23% completely destroyed. A 2018 study concluded that climate change worsened destructive hurricanes, including Irma, by increasing rainfall by between 5 and 10%.

The initial shock was compounded when all of Barbuda’s 1,800 residents were ordered to evacuate to their sister island, Antigua, for one month. Mussington says this completely upended his life.

“That was the most traumatic of all, sitting there in Antigua, worrying about our farms, animals and businesses instead of starting the recovery,” he recalls. “I’m a beekeeper and all my colonies were knocked down – I lost my business, as did many farmers and fishermen”

“When countries lose their islands because of sea level rise and extreme events, they are losing their culture and traditions. There is no adapting to that,” says Le-Anne Roper, coordinator for loss and damage at the Alliance of Small Island States (Aosis).

For Barbudans, the destruction of the biodiversity and local environment is a direct violation of their way of life. “Our whole culture, identity and way of life is linked to the environment and natural resources,” says Mussington, adding that many Barbudans spend their spare time outdoors, fishing, hunting and camping in the wild. “It is part of who we are as Barbudans.”

Damaged buildings and job losses aren’t the only victims of extreme weather events caused by climate change. From Barbuda to Fiji, entire cultures are at stake. But with more awareness, new technologies and strong calls for international support, these small island nations are fighting back.

Aosis, which carries out advocacy at global climate negotiations on behalf of 39 small island nations, first raised the issue of loss and damage in 1991, shortly after it was founded, when it called for support for islands facing rising sea levels. Rich nations have strongly resisted these calls, insisting that humanitarian aid is enough to deal with the issue.

For the next 30 years, low-lying small island states and other climate vulnerable countries have continued to ask rich nations to help them cope with extreme events, such as heatwaves, hurricanes and floods, as well as slow-moving climate threats, such as rising seas. They argue that rich countries should pay for the climate-induced losses and damages they are suffering because they are responsible for almost 80% of historical emissions.

At the United Nations’ global climate talks in Glasgow in November, developing countries fought hard for a dedicated loss and damage funding facility, a formal body set up under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to provide new financial support to affected nations. But the final Glasgow climate pact made no reference to climate finance to address the rising costs of losses and damages in developing countries. Instead, rich nations said they would establish “a dialogue” to discuss “arrangements for the funding of activities to avert, minimise and address loss and damage”.

At the climate talks, Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley told world leaders that asking countries on the frontlines of the climate crisis, like small island states, to pay for climate damages is “like asking the passengers of a car crash to pay for damages, rather than the driver”.

“Failure to provide critical finance is measured in lives and livelihoods in our communities,” Mottley said, adding that she felt it was “immoral” and “unjust”.

Vulnerable countries say they urgently need finance and technical support now as they already face deadly climate impacts, which will intensify as the planet gets hotter. According to the latest report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “…every additional 0.5C of global warming causes clearly discernible increases in the intensity and frequency” of extreme events such as heatwaves, heavy rainfall and droughts.

“We can’t ignore [these impacts] anymore,” says Adelle Thomas, senior Caribbean research associate at Climate Analytics. “It’s happening now in developed countries [too],” she says, referring to the floods in Germany in July which killed more than 200 people and caused up to €5bn (£4.2bn/$5.8 bn) in economic losses.

A study by Christian Aid highlights the devastating economic impact climate change will inflict on the world’s 65 most-vulnerable countries: if global temperatures were to rise by 2.9C, their average GDP will fall by 20% by 2050 and 64% by 2100. After the United Nations’ global climate talks in November, policies now put the world on a path towards 2.4C.


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