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Climate justice from below for climate harms

Environment
Climate
The Bonn Climate Change Conference, held from 30 April to 10 May 2018. Above: In-session workshop 2017. Photo: UN Climate Change (CC 2.0)

Tasked with exploring ways in which to avert, minimize and address climate harms, the Suva Expert Dialogue – which took place from 2–3 May during the ongoing Bonn Climate Change Conference – was able only to agree to yet another meeting, theExCom8, for deciding the scope of the next technical paper on loss and damage.

Delegates from Sudan, Botswana and other developing countries insisted on the need for concrete proposals to address already occurring and ‘exploding’ climate risks and harms before the next COP (COP24), to be held from 3–14 December this year in Poland. As has now become natural law, developed countries shielded themselves from responsibility behind bureaucratic processes.

Ideological fervour mythologizes insurance as a cost-effective, determinable, and efficient solution to climate harms

French, Swiss, British, American and Canadian delegates have been silent on financing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events. While Germany’s delegate referred to insurance as a ‘magic’ tool to redress loss and damage, insurance cannot redress harms that arise from slow onset events (since they are largely uninsurable), repair non-economic loss and damage, respond to climate migration, and is often insufficient where it is available and inaccessible to the most vulnerable. Still, ideological fervour mythologizes insurance as a cost-effective, determinable, and efficient solution to climate harms.

Polluters must pay for the cost of repairing harms, and change the systems responsible for causing those harms. Early industrializers were responsible for more than three times as many greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between 1850 and 2002 than developing countries, while developing countries host a much larger proportion of humanity (approximately 85 per cent). As a result, early industrialized nations benefit from economic growth, infrastructure, high standards of living, technology and strong adaptive capacities compared to the rest of the world. Meanwhile, climate change harms are disproportionately distributed among countries least responsible for GHG, in particular, so-called, Least Developed Countries.

Following in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, debris lines the streets of Tacloban, Leyte island, Philippines. Photo: Trocaire (CC 2.0)

With a current global average surface temperature increase of approximately 1.2°C, climate change has already caused harms, from the Philippines to the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea. In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan devastated the Tacloban region of the Philippines. A range of geographical vulnerabilities and insufficient storm defences led to 7,354 deaths, damage or destruction to one million homes, and four million people being displaced. Of the approximately USD$10 billion of damages caused, only a small fraction was covered by insurance (between USD $300 – 700 million).

In Papua New Guinea, on the Carteret Islands, rising sea levels (causing land loss) and salt water inundation (causing crop failure) will soon force 6,000 inhabitants from their homes. Fifty percent of the Islanders will be relocating to Bougainville (a neighbouring island) by 2020. Many communities are seeking to migrate together. Loss of connections to ancestral lands, where families are buried and traditional ways of life are pursued, where a common language is expressed, and a particular way of participating in democratic life is enacted will be unrepairable.

Yearly deaths as a result of heat waves are increasing at an alarming pace. Many small islands in the Pacific and Indian Oceans will be uninhabitable for humans by the middle of this century. Given that it can take 100 years to see 60–90 per cent of the warming response from GHG emissions, we are yet to experience the most significant climate harms as a result of GHG emissions by early industrializers.

International climate processes will not arrive at just solutions in time. Together, companies and developed states have ignored, distorted, or selectively used scientific evidence on climate change, and countries such as the US, Russia, Japan and Canada have dug their heals on international action on climate change since the Kyoto Protocol and its Doha Amendment. These same states – countries historically responsible for GHG emissions – have continued to support GHG industries despite the known risks of progressively severe prospective loss and damage.

People's Climate March, 2014 New York City, NY, US. Photo: South Bend Voice (CC 2.0)

Our task is to avoid the unmanageable (mitigating GHG emissions), manage the unavoidable (adaptation measures) and repair the un-avoided, poorly or un-managed, or unmanageable and inevitable impacts (loss and damage). Yet, together, international processes and reliance on market or technology based magic solutions obfuscate timely action on climate change, and its ensuing harms.

To address the unequal consequences of heavy reliance on GHG by industrialized states, philosopher Simon Caney, has proposed that developed countries voluntarily make contributions to redress loss and damage. But, voluntary systems are prone to abuse. For example, the UN Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture provides direct assistance to victims of torture and their families, wherever torture occurs. While the US has historically been a friendly contributor to the voluntary fund, it has also engaged in decades of illegal torture practices that continue to be litigated in global forums from Guantánamo Bay to Asia and Europe where the CIA ran a secret rendition and torture programmes. Instead, we need corrective justice – reparations and guarantees of non-repetition.

We need corrective justice – reparations and guarantees of non-repetition ... we also need a global justice movement from below

Vanautu, Pacific Island NGOs, and UK politicians, Barry Gardiner MP (UK Shadow Minister for International Climate Change) and Caroline Lucas MP (UK Green Party Co-Leader) have proposed a ‘climate damages tax’ (CDT) on fossil fuel extraction, which could raise billions of dollars per year. Estimates suggest that the CDT could raise between US$75 billion and US$500 billion per year for international loss and damage finance, and would also contribute to the phasing out of fossil fuels, incentivizing fossil fuel companies to diversify their activities.

While important, a tax would not necessarily involve those most vulnerable to climate harms, or transform the systems that have allowed the climate crisis to worsen. Climate change magnifies existing patterns of economic, political, social and material inequity. Climate harms disproportionately affect women, children, older persons, indigenous peoples, minorities, migrants, rural workers, persons with disabilities, the poor and those living in vulnerable areas (small islands, riparian and low-lying coastal zones, arid regions and the poles). While a CDT would go some way to redress the immediate impacts of climate harms, we also need a global justice movement from below. A movement to address the root causes of inequities that have resulted in the exploitation of people and the planet since 1492, and upon which our current climate crisis rests.

Harpreet Kaur Paul is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick's Law School, her research focuses on climate justice for loss and damage.

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