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As climate costs rocket, Vanuatu seeks allies to sue for damages

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 18:00 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Workers repair the roof of a holiday resort days after Cyclone Pam in Port Vila, capital city of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, March 19, 2015. REUTERS/Edgar Su

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With its infrastructure "totally degraded" by climate change, "we have to find other ways of getting the money we need," says the foreign minister

By Laurie Goering

KATOWICE, Poland, Dec 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As costs soar from fiercer storms and rising seas, the Pacific island state of Vanuatu is forming a coalition of vulnerable nations prepared to sue fossil fuel companies to pay for damage linked to climate change, its foreign minister said on Tuesday.

"This is a real concrete solution for a country like Vanuatu," Ralph Regenvanu said at U.N. climate talks in Poland.

The rugged archipelago is "now on a permanent state-of-emergency footing" from worsening losses, he added.

The Dec. 2-14 talks in the city of Katowice aim to put in place the rules to curb climate change as promised under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

As part of the deal, richer countries have committed to raise $100 billion each year from 2020, to help poorer nations grow more cleanly and adapt to a warming world.

Vanuatu suffered more than $550 million in damages from Cyclone Pam in 2015, twice its national budget.

But it received less than $200 million in assistance from 2013 to 2017, Regenvanu said.

"Our existing infrastructure has been totally degraded by climate change," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

A road circling Vanuatu's main island, built just a decade ago with U.S. funding, is already crumbling as sea levels rise, he said, driving the country to seek help from China to rebuild.

Meeting just the most urgent needs for rebuilding and adapting to wilder weather will require at least $750 million over the next five years, he said.

Disaster insurance payouts under a regional scheme have been disappointing, he noted, while a U.N. mechanism to find ways to cover the growing costs of "loss and damage" caused by climate change has so far made little progress.

"We have to find other ways of getting the money we need," he said. Vanuatu would prefer to see a "climate damages tax", in which fossil fuel production is taxed at its source, he added.

The levy would help hard-hit nations pay for losses from climate change impacts, as well as aiding poorer communities in fossil fuel-producing countries to find new green jobs and afford clean energy.

Regenvanu described it as a "win-win solution" for developed and developing countries alike.

"You don't take (funds) out of budgets. It's a new source of money that didn't exist before," he said.

However, political obstacles mean a global tax on fossil fuels "probably won't be coming anytime soon", he added.


That is why Vanuatu is also preparing to sue the fossil fuel industry, likely in collaboration with other Pacific island nations and climate-vulnerable countries, Regenvanu said.

Potential partner governments will meet on Wednesday at the U.N. climate conference to work out how to team up on the effort, which could be announced at the talks, he said.

The alliance would look at pursuing class action lawsuits, he added.

Moves to bring lawsuits against fossil fuel companies will likely rely in part on improvements in "attribution science", in which researchers can pinpoint with increasing accuracy how much worse a drought, flood or storm was made by climate change.

A report released at the talks by the London-based Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit found at least 73 instances since 2016 where climate change exacerbated fires, floods, storms and other disasters, making them either more frequent or intense.

From drought in Africa to deluges in France, "climate change is already increasing the incidence and severity of extreme weather events in virtually every part of the world", it said.

Vanuatu's foreign minister said legal advice had indicated "we have a very good chance of being successful" with lawsuits built on such research.

About 90 corporations around the world produce fossil fuels that contribute two-thirds of climate-changing emissions, making $80 billion in profits each year, he said.

"There is a strong moral argument that these dirty energy revenues be used for the alleviation and avoidance of the suffering caused by climate impacts in developing countries," he said in an address at the U.N. talks. (Reporting by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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