December 16, 2022 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Cecilia Timberg | Illustration by Iris Guo

Climate change conversations for years have focused on protecting people from future disasters, but at this year’s United Nations climate conference, developing countries demanded that their rich counterparts pay reparations for the damage they have already caused.

And in recent days, the United States and other parts of Global North have started listening.

Floods, fires, droughts, and other climate catastrophes have dramatically increased in frequency and severity in recent years, with the worst consequences often hitting poorer, more vulnerable countries.

These weather disasters, scientists say, result from greenhouse gasses emitted over the past two centuries by industrialized countries that gradually have heated up the atmosphere. At COP27, this year’s UN climate conference hosted in the Egyptian seaside resort town Sharm El-Sheikh, poor, developing countries called on the countries causing these problems, including the United States, to pay billions of dollars to mitigate the ongoing damage.

The United States, which has blocked the establishment of such “Loss and Damage” funds for many years, agreed on Saturday to create one. The U.S. previously had opposed such funding, expressing concerns that, as the historically highest greenhouse gas emitting country, the government would face an expensive legal liability. The draft agreement proposed Saturday stated that countries would not be legally liable, a concession that won over American negotiators, according to news reports.

This shift in tone came as a welcome surprise to me. I was in Sharm El-Sheikh attending COP27 as a representative for Colorado College, along with 9 other CC students, for most of the two weeks that it was held. I had been in the room as countries debated the details of establishing a facility to receive, organize, and distribute these funds. The arguments would linger for hours on individual sentences, words, or even punctuation. What was at stake was people’s lives and livelihoods, which are being lost to climate change-caused weather disasters.

“At the core of all these arguments is finding solutions for people and putting humans back on their feet as they face the impacts of climate change,” said Pakistan’s party representative in a Wednesday meeting.

Representatives and citizens of poor countries alike spoke passionately about the urgency of making this money available immediately.

“We need instant immediate relief, we currently have no mechanism that allows us to this type of relief,” said a Bangladesh party member, speaking on behalf of the Least Developed Countries. Bangladesh, considered the world’s largest delta, is particularly vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding caused by rapid glacial melting occurring thousands of miles from their shores.

After 30 years of calling for climate reparations, the inclusion of “loss and damage” funds to the COP27 agenda was a historic triumph for nations presently experiencing the destructive effects of climate change. For years, the Global North and developed countries have been setting aside money to prepare for the future effects of climate change, while ignoring the Global South and developing countries, for whom mitigation efforts are far from the priority, as their economies struggle to respond to extreme weather events, such as floods and hurricanes.

“Damage” is the physical destruction resulting from these catastrophes, while “loss” is the financial toll that is taken. The money would go towards rebuilding homes, highways, schools,  hospitals, and other infrastructure that have been lost.

Although many European countries were historically reluctant, this year multiple pledged to fund Loss and Damage. Among major industrialized nations, the United States lagged behind this emerging consensus – until Saturday.

“The Global South still feel that they’re having to come and plead with the rich countries to acknowledge, let alone address, the issue of loss and damage,” said Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s prime minister at a New York Times Climate Forward event last week. “There is a real need to make tangible progress.” Sturgeon pledged $5.7 million dollars to loss and damage funding.

Ireland, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, and Germany have made their own promises to provide financial support to developing countries for climate-change-caused weather disasters.

President Biden requested $11.4 billion in international climate aid from Congress. Some of that money would go towards any commitments made to such a fund.

The draft of the agreement released Saturday would establish a committee to meet over the coming year to work out the details of a “loss and damage” fund, including who would pay, who could receive the money, and how the funds would be distributed.

“Because climate change is not contained within national borders, we are no longer in an era of government, but instead of multilevel governance. If countries only meet once a year, they must make the most of the two weeks,” said Richard Abubakar Umar, a climate activist and educator from Nigeria.

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