It's time for those who caused climate change to pay for it

Monday, 10 December 2018 11:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: A boy runs past books laid to dry in the sun after the roof of the Central School library was blown away by Cyclone Pam in Port Vila, the capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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Asking nations hit by storms to buy insurance against them is like making victims of car accidents - rather than drivers - pay the costs

Ralph Regenvanu is Vanuatu’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, International Cooperation and External Trade and Avinash Persaud was special advisor to the Prime Minister of Dominica on the recovery from hurricane Maria and is special envoy to the Prime Minister of Barbados on investment and finance.

Our countries face climate change impacts as damaging as a war: a category five hurricane releases energy equivalent to 10,000 times the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945.

Countries in the path of hurricanes and cyclones and submerging coasts are on the front line. Both Vanuatu and Dominica have suffered through multiple and consecutive climate-fueled extreme events in the past years.

In the space of a few hours after making landfall at 9 pm on September 18, 2017, Hurricane Maria caused destruction costing $1.4 billion, or 226 percent of Dominica’s GDP. On March 13, 2015, Cyclone Pam wreaked record-breaking devastation on Vanuatu, wiping out over 64 percent of GDP and crippling livelihoods and the national economy.  

With these events climate change crashed out of theoretical construct into our lived reality, pulling the future into the present. 

The people of Dominica and Vanuatu faced these impacts with great bravery, cultural resilience and enormous resolve. They had little choice but to get back on their feet and rebuild.

And the international community responded warmly – both humanitarian appeals were among the most successful in that year. Grants and loans were made available. But even so, only a fraction of the loss and damage suffered was addressed.  

But despite this new awareness and action around climate change loss and damage, and despite the global climate conferences and heartfelt generosity, humanity continues to avoid the key issue:  Those who gain from the activities that created climate change are not the ones directly suffering its consequences. 

This simple statement lies at the heart of the problem we now face, and unless we respond to this, we cannot embrace a better direction of travel. The solution lies not in science, nor institutions, but in the most straightforward interplay of morality, economics and injustice.  

Solutions that do not solve those variables of the equation have failed. Climate change is not a freak of nature. It is human-made, as human-made as power and greed. If the consequences of climate change were felt disproportionately by those who have contributed to it, it would have stopped long ago. These are the facts.  

Most countries accept the ‘polluter pays’ principle - those who pollute should pay the cost of that pollution. It is a golden nexus of morality, economics, and environmental policy. Presently, however, it is the battered and suffering in the paths of hurricanes and cyclones - not the polluter - who pay.

Take the insurance model championed by many industrialised countries and agencies. Island states on the front line are being asked to take on additional insurance against the future losses and damage of a climate change caused by others. Surely our main response to human-made climate change cannot be to try and make it easier for those on the receiving end to pay for the damage?

Imagine if the only people who had to pay for car insurance were those who were hit by other people, and those that did the hitting paid nothing. Right now the communities paying for climate change are mostly the poor, who live in the world’s most precarious places. This is untenable, indefensible and reprehensible. We need a different approach than the traditional insurance model. 

We call upon countries and the international institutions to establish a meaningful loss and damage funding facility paid into by those who have contributed to climate change, with payouts that go quickly to those who suffer the direct consequences of climate disasters.

The idea of taxing the fossil fuel industry is an economically sensible approach, and a moral approach. This industry has spent decades fueling climate denial while making profits. In 2017 alone the top six oil companies made $134 billion in profit. A climate damages tax should be established forthwith. 

We will only stop climate change by making those who contribute to it pay for it. More talk, more conferences, more insurance where the victims are asked to pay by installment, will not do the job.

We need to end the mismatch between those who gain and those who lose. This is what an international community serious about halting climate change must do.

From the countries on the front line, whose very existence is threatened, from the vanguard of those protecting our common Earth, we urge you to do this. And we hope your feet are swift. Other legal options for addressing loss and damage are not off the table if multilateral international approaches to continue to fail us.  We cannot afford to wait.