SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – In Pakistan, flooding this past summer killed 1,700 people and left one-third of the country underwater. In Fiji, entire villages are retreating inland to escape rising seas. In Kenya, persistent drought has killed livestock and devastated livelihoods.
They are among scores of developing countries that face irreversible damage from climate change but have done little to cause the crisis. And they are demanding compensation from the parties they see as responsible: wealthier nations that have burned oil, gas and coal for decades and created pollution that is dangerously heating the planet.
Across cultures and centuries, the idea that if you harm your neighbour’s property, you owe restitution is a commonly held notion, found even in the Bible.
But as a legal and practical matter, it has been extraordinarily difficult to apply that principle to climate change.
Rich nations such as the United States and the European Union have opposed the idea of explicitly compensating poorer countries for climate disasters already underway, fearing it could open them to unlimited liability.
As United Nations climate talks opened on Sunday in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the debate over loss and damage will be front and centre.
Egypt, the host country, and Pakistan, which is leading a group of 77 developing nations, succeeded in placing the issue on the formal agenda for the first time.
Mr Simon Stiell, the UN climate chief, said the decision to include it on the agenda “bodes well” for a compromise by the end of the summit.
In 2021, wealthy nations vowed to provide US$40 billion (S$56.3 billion) per year by 2025 to help poorer countries with climate-adaptation measures such as building flood defences. But a UN report estimates this is less than one-fifth of what developing nations need.
That has fueled calls for separate loss and damage funding to deal with the aftermath of climate disasters that nations can’t protect themselves against.
Facing growing pressure, Mr John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, has agreed to discuss the idea of financing for loss and damage, a move that helped avoid a bitter fight over the summit’s agenda.
But that’s a far cry from agreeing to a new fund.
The US is already behind on previous promises to help poorer countries shift to cleaner energy or adapt to climate threats by building sea walls, for example. In 2021, Senate Democrats sought US$3.1 billion in climate finance for 2022 but secured just US$1 billion.
With Republicans, who largely oppose climate aid, poised to make gains in Tuesday’s midterm elections, the prospects of new funds appear dim.
“The political foundation is simply not there,” said Senator Jeff Merkley, adding that he believes the US has a “moral responsibility” to address loss and damage.
Europeans worry that if they agree to a fund, they could be left holding the bag if the next U.S. president repudiates the idea.