We need action on ‘loss and damage’ now

Anmol Irfan speaks to climate activists in Pakistan and Somalia about the call for countries who carry much of the responsibility for the climate crisis to take meaningful action at COP27.

A woman who became displaced walks with her baby amid tents, following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Sehwan, Pakistan September 13, 2022.
REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

With the annual UN climate summit fast approaching on 6 November, the question that many climate activists are raising is the extent to which this year’s conference will take meaningful action to address loss and damage caused by climate change.

Small island states and many countries in the Global South, including Pakistan and Bangladesh, have been pushing for loss and damage to have a prominent place on the agenda at the climate conference, which this year is hosted by Egypt. The argument is that the countries that carry much of the responsibility for the climate crisis should provide finance to address loss and damage caused by its impacts.

Pakistan faces over $10 billion worth of damages from climate change-induced super floods, while Somalia – the second most vulnerable country to climate change – has already seen four years worth of drought and now faces the threat of severe famine. Climate activist Abdinour Said Hassan points out that ‘more than 755,000 people have been internally displaced in Somalia because of the severe drought this year’.

‘Reparations’ is quite a loaded term historically; the idea of accountability and blame that comes attached to these kinds of payments seems to be far more of a barrier than the money itself

There is now a solemn understanding that climate change will only make the lives of people in countries like these exponentially worse. Official representatives of countries present at the conference and COP negotiations are carrying forward ‘loss and damage’ as an official term, but civil society has recently somewhat shifted the discourse in the direction of climate justice.

Many campaigners are demanding ‘climate reparations’. Ammar Ali Jan, a Pakistani historian and activist, notes that much like there is now a more general agreement on how colonial rule thwarted development in colonized countries, the same idea applies to the impact the Global North’s climate emissions have had on the Global South. ‘Reparations’ itself is quite a loaded term historically; the idea of accountability that the Global North will have to accept when it comes to their role in climate change – that comes attached to these kinds of payments – seems to be far more of a barrier than the money itself.

‘What’s interesting is that the climate reparations demand is coming from civil society at large, because when the floods happened, a lot of people started asking how the situation had gotten so bad and they found a connection to historical emissions,’ says Imran Khalid, director of governance and policy at WWF Pakistan.

Polluter pays

The concept of compensation for affected countries isn’t new. In 1991 a proposal was made, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, to address the idea at the UN climate summit. By the time the 2007 talks came around, this was being called the ‘polluter pays’ principle. Yet wealthier countries of the Global North have continued to put off the idea of a separate fund for loss and damage by claiming that the adaptation and mitigation funds cover that principle.

Loss and damage was an acceptable term to the Global North, because inherently it doesn't take into account future liability

‘Terminology shifts because of the power dynamics,’ says climate organizer Meera Ghani. ‘It’s come to ‘loss and damage’ because it was acceptable [as a term] to the Global North, because inherently it doesn't take into account future liability, and that's something reparations and debt does, it holds you liable for future liability.’

Following the recent floods in Pakistan, in October US aid to the South Asian State stood at $66 million. The money was given with much fanfare and speeches by the likes of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, yet the amount pledged is equal to only $2 per person affected. In light of the minuscule amount of aid coming in compared to the scale of the devastation, Ghani is one of the many Pakistanis resorting to individual fundraising to contribute in whatever way they can but they are well aware that the human impact of the flooding crisis, and of disasters all over the world is far more than a cheque can cover. It’s why for many organizers, ‘aid’ as a concept is not only limiting but humiliating. ‘They’re playing a white saviour role as if they’re here to save us, but they’re not here to save us, we are frontline fighters,’ says Bangladeshi climate activist Farzana Faruk Jhumu. ‘It’s not about money. It’s the accountability that is important.’

Social justice lens

The countries hit hardest by the impacts of climate change often face many other challenges. Hassan points out that Somalia needs help investing in sectors like social security, healthcare and education if it wants to build a future that can manage the climate crisis. He believes that a key area of investment would be development programmes that include providing training to local communities. ‘We’re losing the meaning of life, and you can never put a financial value on that. It's more than infrastructure. Infrastructure can be rebuilt. What we’re losing is a lot more than that. Keeping the social justice lens is a good way of making sure we have the bigger picture in mind,’ adds Khalid.

They’re playing a white saviour role as if they’re here to save us, but they’re not here to save us

True reparations are not just an amount of money put on the table. They involve the dismantling of a system that has for years kept power dynamics in favour of the few, and for many activists COP is a part of the problem. Nigerian climate advocate Abdulmajid Abubakar points out that governments often send delegates who are removed from the impacts of climate change and the experiences of vulnerable communities to the conference, while those on the frontline of climate impacts are left out due to lack of financing and support.

As a victim of flooding that washed away his rice fields and put an end to his business, Abubakar is just one example of why loss and damage financing is so crucial. Currently the COP27 agenda puts Loss and Damage financing at the forefront of negotiations but it remains to be seen how those negotiations play out. If established the right way, he argues that it could give everyday citizens – including some of the most vulnerable – a fairer shot: ‘It’s not a loan or a gift, it’s our right. We need actions, not negotiations. We are first-hand victims of loss and damage.’

Anmol Irfan is a Muslim Pakistani freelance journalist and the Founder of Perspective Magazine. Her work focuses on global gender justice, climate, media representation and more. She tweets @anmolirfan22.