In the run-up to the 23rd UN Climate Change Conference (COP 23) set for 6 to 17 November, the media headlines have been dominated by extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change. For days there was a flow of dramatic pictures into our living rooms, generated by disastrous storms in the Caribbean and the USA, even as equally catastrophic extreme monsoon rains in the Gulf of Bengal and Mumbai got no more than passing mention in the news. In Italy, this year's disastrous drought was followed by torrential and destructive rains, which were overshadowed by rock avalanches and ice falls in the news here in Switzerland.
We must all grapple with the question of how to deal with loss and damage caused or compounded by climate change. Where is the reconstruction funding to come from? How are we to replace the irreparably damaged livelihoods of people who were already living on the brink of poverty? Or, to cite the laconic headline of an article on the disastrous floods in Asia that took thousands of lives and ruined countless millions of others: Where to go with all the migrants from Bangladesh?
After all, a permanent one-meter rise in the sea level will literally remove the earth from under 30 million Bangladeshis in a few decades' time. They will become «climate refugees». This concept does not (yet) officially exist; people displaced by disasters and climate change have so far not been considered as «genuine» refugees.
All eyes on Frank from Fiji
Given the ever more pressing nature of these issues, all eyes are on this year's climate change summit, which will be presided over by Fiji. But COP 23 is not being held in the Pacific, instead it has been transferred to Bonn (Germany). One is almost tempted to see some kind of pre-apocalyptic symbolism in the transfer of the conference to the more climate-resilient Rhineland.
As COP 23 President, Fiji's Prime Minister Josaia Voreqe Bainimarama has announced his intention to promote the topic of loss and damage. He knows what he is talking about. In Fiji, which comprises 332 atolls most of them just a few meters above sea level, the 2016 hurricane Winston left a trail of damage worth USD 1.4 billion, or the equivalent of one-third of GDP. Already in his first appearance as COP 23 President at this year's G20 Summit, Frank from Fiji, as he loves to introduce himself, pledged to grant all citizens of Kiribati and Tuvalu the right of permanent residence in Fiji. He also called on the USA to approve a similar, open-ended extension of the right of residence that had been accorded to all Marshall Islanders decades ago as compensation for the destruction and radioactive contamination of many of their atolls. That right of residence is currently set to expire in 2023.
As the first country in the world to ratify the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Fiji had already been campaigning on the question of climate-related loss and damage ahead of «Paris 2015», as part of the group of countries making up the Climate Vulnerable Forum. It was successful in that the Paris climate agreement devotes a separate chapter to loss and damage. Despite this diplomatic breakthrough two years ago, the associated issues regarding accountability and compensation by industrialized countries, which are chiefly responsible for climate change, remain taboo.
Yet there are at least two specific items at the top of the global climate agenda. For one thing, the aforementioned loss and damage chapter of the Paris climate agreement finally brought officially to the table the issue of how to deal with migrants or displaced people who lose their livelihoods on account of climate change. For another, the Executive Committee of the Warsaw Implementation Mechanism (WIM) was tasked four years ago with evaluating the significance and scope of loss and damage. It is now time for issues of damage repair or compensation to be placed on the agenda as well.
This also urgently necessitates a funding plan for the benefit of the poorest populations in the global South, who are being harmed largely through no fault of their own. After all – in contrast to climate funding and the USD 100 billion already decided on as annual payments for mitigation and adaptation – the Paris climate agreement contains no decision on financial support for loss and damage suffered. This major flaw was spawned by the taboo surrounding the question of accountability.
Much is bound up with the diametrically opposed interests at play, starting with the distinction made between loss and damage on the one hand, and adaptation on the other. The proposals by those mainly responsible, primarily industrialized countries like Switzerland, are a far cry from the needs of the people affected, especially small developing island States like Fiji.
COP 23 must at last put an end to this unseemly manoeuvring at the expense of the weakest. In the light of the disasters of recent weeks and months, firm action must be taken in Bonn. For the public has long grasped the urgency of dealing justly and fairly with loss and damage associated with the climate crisis.