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Hard slog ahead for loss and damage at climate talks

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 November 2013 09:03 GMT

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

Rich states aren't keen on a new mechanism, fearing it may be used to make them pay compensation for the impacts of their emissions

In his opening statement at the U.N. climate talks in Warsaw, the Philippines’ lead negotiator Naderev “Yeb” Saño - some of whose family members were still missing after super typhoon Haiyan - pleaded for action on climate change, and a way of dealing with his country’s increasing losses and damage from extreme weather.

“We find ourselves in a situation where we have to ask if we can ever achieve the main objective of the (talks), which is to avoid dangerous anthropogenic climate change,” he said. Already, “the most ambitious reductions of the developed countries will not be enough to avert a climate crisis.” Negotiators, he said, must “stop this madness”.

But developed-country negotiators, asked on the first day of the Warsaw climate talks how a mechanism to deal with climate “loss and damage” might shape up here, made clear it’s going to be a tough task.

Vitalijus Auglys of Lithuania, which holds the current presidency of the European Union, answered vaguely about the need to create “relevant bodies”. His colleague Jurgen Lefevre of the European Commission suggested that creating a new body to deal with the problem wasn’t the right answer, and that integrating loss and damage into existing efforts to prevent disasters would be better.

Trigg Talley, senior negotiator for the United States, said his country was “highly sympathetic to countries that are vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change” and had spent $90 billion on humanitarian assistance over the last decade.

But his country has “technical and political issues” with any loss and damage mechanism, he stressed. Richer countries, including the United States, fear it could become a vehicle for payment of compensation by rich carbon-emitting countries to those worst damaged by that pollution.

Backers of new “institutional arrangements” for loss and damage – which negotiators agreed to establish at last year’s Doha talks – say they should address issues apart from compensation for countries worst hit by climate change.

“We are trying to negotiate a mechanism that will address what happens if food production is no longer feasible, or people have to leave their homelands because of climate change,” Juan Hoffmaister, a Bolivian and the lead negotiator on loss and damage for the group of G77 and China, said in a statement on Monday.


Representatives of some small island states fear their homelands could become uninhabitable as a result of rising sea levels and worsening storms. Many of the most threatened islands are already trying to make plans for their citizens to emigrate to other countries if necessary, putting their continued nationhood at risk.

Small islands are “put in a position of having to deal with loss and damage from climate change impacts that cannot be adapted to”, said Malia Talakai, a spokeswoman on loss and damage for the Alliance of Small Island States.

A loss and damage mechanism would be aimed at assisting particularly climate-vulnerable countries with losses that occur despite their efforts to adapt to climate shifts, experts say.

It “does not raise liability and compensation (questions), although some countries could argue for this”, noted a recent paper by FIELD, the London-based Foundation for International Environmental Law and Development.

Help to cope with losses and damage, FIELD notes, could take other forms, such as a global no-fault insurance plan that could fund reparations for losses.

“We are not merely discussing economic costs,” said Elia del Carmen Guerra, a negotiator from Panama, in a statement. Instead, it “is about the human face of climate change impacts”.

Still, it remains difficult to draw a line between economic and human costs, as the disaster in the Philippines made clear this week.

“We appreciate the sympathies of the world. They offer their hands and hug us and show commiseration,” said Alicia Ilaga, a negotiator for the Philippines. At Warsaw, “I hope those are really translated into something more real, something more helpful.”

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