Aruna Chandrasekhar is a researcher and photojournalist working on issues of development, land alienation, indigenous rights and corporate accountability in India for the last six years. She tweets at @aruna_sekhar.
Bonn: In a huge blow, the Conference of Parties (COP) at the UN climate talks adopted a decision with no concrete support for victims on the frontlines of climate change in developing countries, after strong lobbying by developed countries.
The decision was adopted after the US, Australia, Canada and the European Union (EU) aggressively blocked financial support for impacts that the developing world can’t yet cope with or adapt to. As of now, the extremely weak text only offers “encouragement” for countries to mobilise public funds to deal with the most catastrophic disasters of our times. In its adoption, the COP presidency has yielded to the pressures of negotiators from the biggest emitting nations, who agreed to only a one-off “expert dialogue” in 2018 to talk about support that millions of vulnerable people currently need.
With a small island state, Fiji, presiding over the climate talks for the first time, decisive actions that prioritised vulnerable people on the frontlines were the most anticipated outcome. By not giving these actions and support a permanent place on the agenda, along with the expertise and the means to do so, the Fijian Presidency has failed in its mandate.
“What it would feel like to be in our shoes? What would you hear if you were faced with the total disappearance of your country? Even with the lowest projection of temperature rise, it would be hell on Earth,” said Enele Sopoag, the prime minister of Tuvalu, yesterday. “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in their time of crisis. The climate deniers must go home. Let them be condemned for their ignorance.”
Quoting from Dante’s Inferno in times of unprecedented global warming could never be more appropriate, with different predictions that warming could go up from anywhere between 2º to 5º C within the century. But even at 1.1º C, marginalised communities in developing nations are already seeing the worst impacts. More than 1,200 people were killed in floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal this year. Between November 2016 and mid-June 2017, more than 760,000 people were internally displaced as a result of drought in Somalia, according to a project run by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Australia attempted to block even the mention of natural disasters in the draft of the decision. In a closed door meeting, Australian negotiators reportedly responded to a suggestion to name recent disasters in the text’s preamble by saying, “Well, those are disasters but we do not know if they were because of climate change.”
Science is helping communities who can’t wait to make those attributions, even as negotiators benefit from skepticism and delay. This week, a German court admitted a petition by Saul Luciano Lliuya, a Peruvian farmer who’s suing the German coal company RWE for the impacts of its historical emissions. Luciano’s hometown Huaraz is in the flood path of two melting glaciers in the Andes. He has based his claim on a study by the Institute of Climate Responsibility, which estimates that RWE is responsible of 0.5% of global warming emissions from the beginning of industrialisation, and is asking for 0.5% of what it will cost to deal with flooding and set up an early warning system.
On December 11, 47 major polluters including Chevron, Exxonmobil, Shell and BP will have to meet face to face with typhoon survivors in the Philippines Court of Human Rights for the first time. In 2013, Supertyphoon Haiyan claimed over 6,300 lives and affected millions more. “Four years ago, I found myself trapped in a building in Tacloban when Haiyan hit. I was supposed to go to my friend’s house, but decided not to burden him. It was only later, while I was helping bury bodies that I heard that his house was hit by the storm surge three times,” said A.G. Sano, a Filipino artist and environmental activist. “People say to me that it was my friend’s fault for living in an unsafe area. But it is our fault that the Pacific Ocean rises every year? Is it our fault that the storms are getting stronger?”
Sano’s struggle to find food for his family amidst the debris spurred his brother Yeb Sano, then a climate commissioner from the Philippines, to undertake a two-week fast at the UN climate talks held in Warsaw that year, urging for “meaningful outcome”. “The climate crisis is madness. I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm and those orphaned by the storm,” said Yeb, in one of the most principled speeches the UN climate talks have seen. An outcome did emerge that year: the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Loss and Damage was set up as a dedicated body to study impacts, and support victims and governments in vulnerable developing countries.
However, even after four years of extraordinary weather since WIM was set up, the only tangible task that the mechanism has been given is to produce a technical paper by 2019 and barely meets twice a year. Through this COP decision today, the mechanism has been stripped of any muscle to carry out the most important task at hand- safeguarding the planet’s most vulnerable.
In response, over 50 civil society groups and individuals, including writer Naomi Klein and journalist George Monbiot have called for an equitable fossil fuel extraction charge – or Climate Damages Tax – to be levied on producers of oil, gas and coal to pay for the damage and costs caused by climate change.
“Bangladesh has a climate action plan, has implemented hundreds of climate projects on the ground, and we have invested taxpayers money into a climate change trust fund – all for a problem that we didn’t create. Bangladesh needs somewhere to send the cheque for climate damages,” said Saleemul Huq, the director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development.
Having a Fijian presidency might have been good for the COP’s image and for the many Pacific platitudes. But it’s clear that older power dynamics continue to dominate, and to avoid any damages for the losses they have inflicted over generations.
“Please look into the eyes of the first child you meet outside of this room, and think of what they will see in ten or twenty years, if we didn’t do our work here,” said Enele Sopoag yesterday, urging for more action to meet the disasters outside these negotiating rooms and for blockers to leave the summit. “If you don’t want to do your job, then jump out of the canoe.”