The typhoon that killed thousands of people in the Philippines has energized debate about whether rich nations should compensate poor ones for climate-related losses, a proposal the U.S. and European Union are resisting.
Some 130 countries, including islands concerned they’ll disappear with rising sea levels, are pushing for reparations as part of a “loss and damage” mechanism at United Nations climate talks in Warsaw this week. They blame countries that industrialized 200 years ago for damaging the atmosphere.
“Many countries around the world are already incurring losses and damages from the impacts of climate change,” Yeb Sano, the Philippine lead negotiator whose hometown was flattened by the storm, said in an interview in Warsaw. “We’d like to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility.”
The push reflects alarm about the havoc wreaked by the typhoon’s 195 mile-per-hour winds and anger that rich nations seem to be scaling back their ambitions for reducing greenhouse gases. For the first time since the UN started its annual climate talks in 1992, countries such as Japan, Australia and Canada are paring back measures to mitigate fossil-fuel emissions.
For developing countries, the push for compensation is a result of the failure of their wealthy counterparts to cut emissions quickly enough. Loss and damage is an essential piece in the talks involving about 190 nations, which are working on a treaty limiting emission in all nations that could be adopted in 2015 and brought into force in 2020.
All nations agreed a year ago that they would set up a mechanism to deal with loss and damage at the Warsaw meeting. For industrial nations, including the U.S. and European Union, any notion of it dealing with compensation is a red-line issue.
“Compensation for what?” Juergen Lefevere, deputy delegation chief for the European Commission, said in an interview. “We’re turning a discussion on a challenge that we have ahead of us into a blame-game of who’s responsible for what and when.”
The scale of what the cost of the mechanism could be is the first things giving rich nations reason for pause. Annual economic losses from natural disasters have almost quadrupled in the past three decades, the World Bank said in a report.
The average reported losses rose from around $50 billion a year in the 1980s to almost $200 billion a year in the past decade, totaling $3.8 trillion from 1980 to 2012, according to the report released today, which used data by Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurer. Three-quarters of the total was due to extreme weather, it said.
The issue was too thorny for lower-level delegates at the talks to resolve last week. They punted the issue to ministers and other high-ranking officials who arrive this week to grapple with the tougher political decisions. They include U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change Todd Stern, EU Climate Change Commissioner Connie Hedegaard, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, and his counterpart from the Pacific island nation of Nauru, Baron Divavesi Waqa.
“Lectures about compensation, reparations and the like will produce nothing but antipathy among developed country policy makers,” Stern said in a speech last month at Chatham House, a research group in London.
Lack of Trust
Developing countries say the need for loss and damage is the result of not cutting emissions fast enough and the failure of donors to provide sufficient aid for poor nations to adapt their infrastructure.
Those concerns gained ground last week when Japan watered down its plan to cut fossil-fuel emissions, citing damage the earthquake and tsunami in 2011 did to its nuclear power program. In December 2012, Canada said it wouldn’t sign up to a new round of greenhouse gas cuts under the Kyoto Protocol. And Australia last week introduced legislation to abolish carbon pricing, the centerpiece of its effort to reduce emissions.
“This is the atmosphere in which we are negotiating,” Indian envoy T.S. Tirumurti told delegates two days ago. He called this year’s conference, the 19th, “historic” because it’ll be the first time ambition to cut emissions is lower at the end of the two weeks than at the beginning.
Developing nations are looking for other avenues where they can assign blame for global warming. Last week, China and a group of 130 nations known as the G77 backed a Brazilian proposal to examine historical emissions since 1850. The results would be one basis for working out future emissions reductions, a plan also rejected by the U.S. and EU.
Also being discussed is how industrialized nations will deliver on a promise they made in 2009 to boost annual climate-related aid to $100 billion in 2020 from $10 billion a year for the period from 2010 to 2012.
For Brazilian envoy Ambassador Jose Antonio Marcondes de Carvalho, it’s time for rich nations to “put your money where your mouth is.” China’s lead negotiator, Su Wei, joined him, saying, “We want to know what the confirmed financial support is starting from 2013.”
Island nations fear that rising sea-levels could swallow up their territory, leading to losses that should be compensated. Those including loss of sovereignty, culture and the need to migrate, said Malia Talakai, who negotiates for the 44-country Alliance of Small Island States. “This is for what we cannot adapt to,” she said.
The mechanism should help coordinate research into slow-onset changes such as sea level rise, melting glaciers and ocean acidification, according to Juan Hoffmaister, a Bolivian envoy who negotiates for the G77 and China. He said developing nations don’t see the mechanism as a “cash machine,” and envoys shouldn’t get hung up over compensation.
“It’s important we don’t trivialize this issue just to that word,” Hoffmaister said. “The focus is on addressing loss and damage through multiple approaches.”
Sano, the Philippine delegate who hails from Tacloban, started fasting a week ago until he sees “meaningful progress” at the talks. He has been joined in fasting by at least 100 environmental activists at the Warsaw meeting.
“I am still fasting,” Sano said. “We have not seen any substantial movement here.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Alex Morales in Warsaw at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at email@example.com