Lack of progress on loss and damage endangers international climate cooperation

A girl carries her brother as she wades through a flooded road

A girl carries her brother as she wades through a flooded road after heavy rains, on the outskirts of Agartala, India, June 18, 2022. REUTERS/Jayanta

While governments haggle, those people who did the least to cause the climate crisis are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt.

Patrick Watt is chief executive at Christian Aid

It is a long way from Ighembe in northern Malawi to the Bonn negotiating rooms.

The members of the local rice growers' cooperative have not heard of the UNFCCC. But they do know that the climate is changing around them, in ways that make it increasingly hard to sustain a living.

In January, Cyclone Ana hit three of the world's poorest nations: Madagascar, Mozambique, and Malawi. To date, it was the world's second deadliest weather event of 2022. Trees were toppled, roofs were ripped off buildings, and massive flash floods washed away roads and bridges.

This is what the climate crisis looks like.

But there is a huge disconnect between pace at the global negotiations and the urgency of climate action needed now. Specifically, funding for efforts by communities on the frontline of the crisis to withstand climate shocks is lagging far behind the growing scale of need.

At the recent Bonn climate talks, the poorest countries made impassioned calls to put 'loss and damage' on the agenda, recognise the 'polluter pays' principle, and compensate climate-affected communities for the fallout from the crisis.

Yet efforts to establish a Finance Facility were swept aside, with no agreement on how to advance this agenda at the UN climate talks in November, at COP27.  

Loss and damage – those irreversible and uninsurable climate impacts beyond what can be adapted to by communities and countries - is not a future threat.

Between 2010 and 2020 climate and weather-related disasters carried an average annual cost of $170 billion per year – roughly equivalent to global aid spending. Increasingly frequent and severe floods, storms, and droughts are destroying agricultural land, homes, schools, hospitals, and roads. Rising sea levels threaten the assets of millions of people.

Plenty of critics, in civil society and among governments in climate-vulnerable countries, believe that the big carbon-emitting countries are actively seeking to obstruct progress on loss and damage, for fear of signing an open cheque. Yet while governments haggle, those people who did the least to cause the climate crisis are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and debt.

The ultimate test of climate talks will be whether they protect current and future generations from the worst effects of the crisis and keep the world within the 1.5 degree limits agreed at Paris in 2015.

For that to happen, fairness has to be the guiding principle. In a new report Christian Aid, together with civil society partners, has set out what an equitable solution to loss and damage would entail, and its benefits.

Acting now on loss and damage will protect the global economy and preserve precious development gains. It will also be a lot less costly to rich countries than passing the buck and playing for time.

Conversely, failure to act will erode the poorest countries' trust in the Paris Climate agreement will be eroded – something that is already a scarce commodity.

If the official UN process is seen to be failing to deliver, climate legal action will increasingly take its place. Litigation has more than doubled since 2015, with Small Island States using the courts to hold historical polluters accountable.

By providing new and additional loss and damage funds at the necessary scale, developed countries can instead choose to reconcile different interests, and rebuild trust. New payment mechanisms must also be set up for the fossil fuel industry to pay its fair share of the loss and damage they have knowingly caused.

There are countless villages like Ighembe across the world, where the human suffering caused by the climate crisis is deepening and widening. The fact that this suffering is greatest among people who've done least to contribute to the problem is an injustice.

It is time that the richest countries, their wealth built on greenhouse gas emissions, recognise their role in tackling this injustice. Without it, the future of international cooperation on climate change is at risk.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


  • Extreme weather
  • Adaptation
  • Climate policy
  • Climate inequality
  • Loss and damage

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