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Climate deal could bar poor from seeking compensation for losses

by Laurie Goering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 11 December 2015 16:53 GMT

A woman holds her child January 15, 2015 in the coastal part of Tacloban that was destroyed by Typhoon Haiyan. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

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"This pretty clearly throws poor and vulnerable people under the bus," rights analyst says

By Laurie Goering

PARIS, Dec 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Poor countries could be barred from seeking compensation for losses and damages from rising seas, worsening storms and other climate impacts under a proposal in the latest draft of a new global climate change deal expected to be agreed this weekend.

The "loss and damage" proposal, backed by the United States and other countries, could help vulnerable nations gain access to insurance and other support to cut their financial risks from climate stresses, experts said.

But the proposal, one of two, would explicitly rule out the prospect of poor countries that suffer devastating losses from climate change seeking compensation under the agreement from rich nations, whose emissions have been largely responsible for causing the problems, they said.

"This pretty clearly throws poor and vulnerable people under the bus, and it has really troubling legal implications," said Brandon Wu, a senior policy analyst for ActionAid USA and a longtime tracker of finance and justice issues at the talks.

His colleague Harjeet Singh, ActionAid's global lead on climate change, said the provision, if adopted, could push climate-affected countries to sue for compensation under general international law, instead of dealing with loss and damage under the agreement.

Michael Jacobs, a political and economic scientist at the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations, agreed that "the possibility of that in international law is not removed by this deal".

But for island nations that may see their land disappear to rising seas, and other vulnerable countries that could face huge financial losses from climate change, "we are taking away their right forever to demand justice" under the new agreement, Singh said.

Without the threat of lawsuits to drive aggressive action on climate change, "the pressure is off" on wealthier polluting nations, he said.

Climate justice activists said the move to block liability for emissions was a particular affront by wealthy countries because poorer nations earlier this year had stopped calling for compensation, in an effort secure a place for a loss and damage mechanism in a binding Paris agreement.

Now, poorer countries might prefer to see efforts to deal with loss and damage excluded entirely rather than settle for a deal that permanently limits their rights, said Sven Harmeling, climate change advocacy coordinator for CARE International.

"Loss and damage is still totally at risk in this agreement," he said.


Wu said one worry if the proposed language was adopted is that it could have implications for the success of climate lawsuits outside the U.N. climate deal, and could "narrow the scope of what loss and damage can do" even within the deal.

Early lawsuits or human rights complaints seeking damages from oil, gas and coal companies have recently been filed in countries from Germany to the Philippines. These could help drive divestment from fossil fuel companies, as investors fret over the implications for their reputations and profits, lawsuit backers say.

Any kind of legal precedent that polluters are not liable for climate damage could potentially threaten that divestment push, which would be "really unfortunate", Wu said.

Similarly, the provision - if included in the final deal - could have a "chilling effect" on discussions around ways to deal with loss and damage that could be seen as evoking liability or compensation.

"People will say, 'This is going to lead us down the path to (talking about) liability, so we can't have this conversation,'" he said.

(Reporting by Laurie Goering, additional reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Megan Rowling; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)

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