Editor’s note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor, climate journalist, and independent filmmaker whose work has won the Livingston Prize, the IRE Prize, and others. He was recently named the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media at George Washington University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. See more opinions on CNN.
In 1991, the small island nation of Vanuatu raised a question on the world stage that wealthy nations have shunned ever since: who should pay for climate catastrophe?
At the time, Vanuatu – on behalf of an alliance of small island states – quite reasonably argued that polluters should pay the costs of their pollution.
It was an urgent matter – with remarkable foresight. Vanuatu sits in a low-lying archipelago in the Pacific Ocean, and its territory is under threat as rising global temperatures contribute to rising sea levels around the world.
Indeed, entire nations could be lost if fossil fuel pollution continues unabated.
There should be an “insurance pool…used to compensate small island countries and the most vulnerable low-lying coastal developing countries for loss and damage resulting from sea-level rise,” it said. proposed Vanuatu Ambassador Robert Van Lierop to United Nations climate negotiators, according to a 2019 article in the journal “Climate Policy.”
More than 30 years later, this issue of irreversible “loss and damage” from the climate crisis is set to be one of the central issues as diplomats and world leaders gather in Egypt for the COP27 climate negotiations in from next week.
After decades of deviation, it is high time for high polluting countries like the United States to take this issue seriously. It is clear that polluters should be held responsible for these losses of territory, culture, life and property.
Yes, it is also absolutely essential that the world move away from fossil fuels as soon as possible. This is another central talking point at COP27, and the world is well behind its goal of keeping warming to 1.5 or at most 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages. (We’re on track for about 2.7 degrees of warming, based on current policies; recent climate bills passed by the US Congress are a step forward, but not enough).
The less carbon we emit into the atmosphere, the less we put the climate system at risk, with significant consequences for sea levels, storms, drought, biodiversity, and more.
Yet there can be no justice without action for loss and damage.
Arguments against action have taken many forms over the decades. The laughable thing, in retrospect, is that this was a problem for the future rather than the present.
We now see clearly that the climate crisis is amplifying extreme weather events around the world. Look no further than the deadly floods in Pakistan this summer or Hurricane Ian in Florida in September. Disasters are getting more costly as they become more intense as humans continue to burn fossil fuels and flood the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases.
It may seem like a new phenomenon, but it has been brewing for decades. Scientists have linked the deadly 2003 heat wave in Europe, for example, to human-caused warming. This heat wave killed around 20,000 people.
The onslaught of ever-worsening heat waves, droughts, wildfires and storms can feel both urgent and numbing. The truth is that since humans are burning fossil fuels, we are making the planet more dangerous.
Other arguments against payments for loss and damage must be seen clearly for what they are: excuses and stall tactics. The harm is undeniable at this point, as is the cause. Oxfam estimates that these climate losses will total $1 trillion a year by 2050.
What is more delicate is to regulate the mechanism of payment.
The UN secretary general called in September for a tax on fossil fuel profits.
“The fossil fuel industry is feasting on hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies and windfall profits as household budgets shrink and our planet burns,” Guterres said.
“I call on all developed economies to tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies. These funds should be redirected in two ways: to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis; and people struggling with rising food and energy prices,” he added.
The oil and gas industry has raked in $2.8 billion in profits a day for the past 50 years, according to recent analysis. That includes more than $31.3 trillion in profits for fossil fuel companies between 2000 and 2019, according to a recent report, “The Cost of Delay,” published by the Loss and Damage Collaboration and backed by two dozen organizations. .
According to the report, these $31 trillion in benefits are about 60 times what would have been needed to cover economic losses from climate-related disasters in the world’s most vulnerable countries over the same period. These profits should be considered immoral given what we know – and have known for decades now – of harmful fossil fuel burning around the world.
Last year’s COP26 in Scotland resulted in promises to continue discussing the issue of ‘loss and damage’, but there was no real action. Vanuatu and other vulnerable countries should not be put on hold for additional years or decades. It is clear that this bill is way overdue.
In the absence of international efforts to fund a loss and damage process, countries and individuals turn to the courts. A Peruvian farmer, for example, is suing a German fossil fuel company over a melting glacier that threatens his home and farm. The lawsuit, filed in 2015, reportedly claims Germany’s RWE should be liable for its share of damages, in line with the proportion of the world’s fossil fuel pollution it created. (RWE is contesting the lawsuit and saying it shouldn’t be liable for damages.)
And in 2021, Tuvalu and other countries formed the Small Island States Commission on Climate Change and International Law. The aim is to explore claims before international tribunals.
“Litigation is the only way to be taken seriously while the leaders of big countries dither,” Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said last year, according to The New York Times. “We want to force them to answer in court.”
These efforts need to be supported, but the right and proactive thing is for rich countries to impose taxes on fossil fuel profits. This can be done within the framework of the UN climate negotiations.
It won’t solve the crisis, but it would help establish a sense of climate justice.
Thirty-one years is quite a long time to wait.