SHARM EL-SHEIKH – It was a total loss — the type that is usually glossed over in big impersonal statistics like $40 billion in damage from this summer's Pakistan floods that put one-third of the nation underwater.
“We lost everything, our home and our possessions,” said Taj Mai, a mother of seven who is four months pregnant and in a flood relief camp in Pakistan’s Punjab province. “At least in a camp our children will get food and milk.”
This is the human side of a contentious issue that will likely dominate climate negotiations in Egypt this month. It's about big bucks, justice, blame and taking responsibility. Extreme weather is worsening as the world warms, with a study calculating that human-caused climate change increased Pakistan’s flood-causing rain by up to 50%.
While Pakistan was flooding, six energy companies — ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell,BP, Saudi Aramco and Total Energies — made $97.49 billion in profits from July to September. Poorer nations, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Europe’s leaders and U.S. President Joe Biden are calling for fossil fuel firms to pay a windfall profits tax. Many want some of that money, along with additional aid from rich nations that spewed the lion’s share of heat-trapping gases, to be used to pay countries victimized by past pollution, like Pakistan.
The issue of polluters paying for their climate messes is called loss and damage in international climate negotiations. It is all about reparations.
“Loss and damage is going to be the priority and the defining factor of whether or not COP27 succeeds,” said Kenyan climate activist Elizabeth Wathuti, referring to the climate talks in Egypt . United Nations top officials say they are looking for “something meaningful in loss and damage" and were “certainly encouraged” by negotiations Friday, Saturday and Sunday that put the issue on the meeting agenda.
Money for loss and damage is different from two other financial aid systems already in place to help poorer nations develop carbon-free energy and adapt to future warming.
Since 2009, the rich nations of the world have promised to spend $100 billion in climate aid for poor nations, with most of it going toward helping wean them off coal, oil and natural gas and build greener energy systems. Officials now want as much as half of that to go to building up systems to help adapt to future climate disasters.
Neither financial pledge has been fulfilled yet, but both don't address the issue of paying for current and past climate disasters, such as heat waves in India, floods in Pakistan and droughts in Africa.
“Our current levels of global warming at 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) have already caused dangerous and widespread losses and damages to nature and to billions of people,” said Climate Analytics scientist Adelle Thomas of the Bahamas.
“Losses and damages are unavoidable and unequally distributed” with poorer nations, the elderly, the poor and vulnerable hit harder, she said.
After years of not wanting to talk about reparations in climate talks, U.S. and European officials say they are willing to have loss and damage discussions. But the U.S. — the No. 1 historic carbon polluter — won’t agree to anything that sounds like liability, special envoy John Kerry said.
U.S. emissions that created warmer temperatures caused at least $32 billion in damage to Pakistan’s gross domestic product between 1990 and 2014, according to calculations by Dartmouth climate researchers Christopher Callahan and Justin Mankin based on past emissions. And that's only based on temperature-oriented damage, not rainfall.
“Loss and damage is a way of both recognizing past harm and compensating for that past harm,” Mankin said. “These harms are scientifically identifiable. And now it’s up to the politics to either defend that harm or remunerate for that harm.”
The United States in 16 days puts more carbon dioxide into the air from burning fossil fuel than Pakistan does in a year, according to figures by the Global Carbon Project.
American Gas Association CEO Karen Harbert said Americans won’t go for such payments to faraway nations and that’s not the way to think of the issue.
“It’s not just Pakistan. Let’s talk about Puerto Rico. Let’s talk about Louisiana. Other things that are happening here at home that we also need to pay attention to and help our fellow Americans,” Harbert said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“If there was an opportunity to talk to people in Pakistan, I’d say ... the solution is first of all, you have the opportunity with natural gas to have a much cleaner electric system than you have today,” she said.
But for Aaisa Bibi, a pregnant mother of four from Punjab province, cheaper cleaner energy doesn’t mean much when her family has no place to live except a refugee camp.
“With less than 1% of the global emissions, Pakistan is certainly not a part of the problem of climate change," said Shabnam Baloch, the International Rescue Committee Pakistan director, adding that people like Bibi are just trying to survive floods, heat waves, droughts, low crop yields, water shortages and inflation.
In semi-arid Makueni County in Kenya, where a devastating drought has stretched more than three years, 47-year old goat and sheep farmer John Gichuki said: “It is traumatizing to watch your livestock die of thirst and hunger.”
Gichuki’s maize and legumes crops have failed four consecutive seasons. “The farm is solely on the mercies of climate," he said.
In India, it's record heat connected to climate change that caused deaths and ruined crops. Elsewhere it's devastation from tropical cyclones that are wetter and stronger because of the burning of fossil fuels.
This global issue has a parallel inside the United States in at times contentious discussions about paying for damages caused by slavery.
“In many ways we’re talking about reparations,” said University of Maryland environmental health and justice professor Sacoby Wilson. “It's an appropriate term to use" he said, because the rich northern countries got the benefits of fossil fuels, while the poorer global south gets the damage in floods, droughts, climate refugees and hunger.
The government of Barbados has suggested changes in how the multinational development banks loan to poorer nations to take into account climate vulnerability and disasters. Pakistan and others have called for debt relief.
It's "about putting ourselves in everybody else’s shoes,” said Avinash Persaud, special envoy to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley.
Persaud suggests a long-term levy on high oil, coal and natural gas prices, but one done in reverse. At current high energy prices there would be no tax, so no increase in inflation. But once fossil fuel prices decline 10%, 1% of the price drop would go to a fund to pay victims of climate loss and damage, without adding to the cost of living.
United Nations' chief Guterres, who has called movement on loss and damage a “litmus test” for success for the Egypt climate conference, has named two high-level national officials to try to hammer out a deal: Germany's climate envoy and former Greenpeace chief Jennifer Morgan and Chile’s environment minister, Maisa Rojas.
“The fact that it has been adopted as an agenda item demonstrates progress and parties taking a mature and constructive attitude towards this,” U.N. Climate Secretary Simon Stiell said in a Sunday news conference. "This is a difficult subject area. It’s been floating for thirty plus years. So that the fact that it is there as a substantive agenda item, I believe it bodes well.''
“What will be most telling is how those discussions progress in the substantive discussion over the next couple of weeks,” Stiell said.
Climate data journalists Mary Katherine Wildeman in Hartford, Connecticut, and Camille Fassett in Seattle; Wanjohi Kabukuru in Mombasa, Kenya; Frank Jordans in Berlin; Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington; Shazia Bhatti in Rajanpur, Pakistan; Aniruddha Ghosal in New Delhi, and Megan Janetsky in Havana, Cuba, contributed.
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