In Burkina Faso, extreme droughts are killing off livestock and devastating crops. In Micronesia, rising water levels have spurred residents to dismantle ancient ruins for the construction of seawalls. And in the Western Region of Kenya, the aftermath of severe 2011 flooding continues to threaten the livelihoods of thousands.
The impact of climate change on poor and developing countries has, many experts agree, already been profound. Unlike wealthier nations, these countries are largely unable to quickly recover from disastrous weather events, or adequately prepare for the consequences of a rapidly changing climate. Now, around 130 of these nations are demanding that so-called guilty parties — industrialized nations whose development has historically yielded the majority of greenhouse gas emissions — atone for their environmental sins.
The appeal for what's referred to as "climate change compensation" has been ongoing since around 1992, when representatives from the Alliance of Small Island States — an organization of 43 members dedicated to mitigating the impact of global warming on low-lying and small island-nations — articulated such a proposal at the Rio Earth Summit. "They spoke up and said, ‘Hey, we've got a big global problem, we're not contributing much to it, but it could threaten our very existence'," says Koko Warner, an academic officer at the United Nations University who specializes in adaptation to changing climates. "Since then, these communities have been asking for what amounts to some sort of international insurance mechanism."
"We're not contributing much to it, but it could threaten our very existence."
Despite those pleas, ongoing international discussions have yielded few results since that first request. But the concept of compensation is once again garnering attention at UN climate talks currently underway in Warsaw, Poland, as delegates make good on a 2012 agreement to come up with some measure of addressing "losses and damages" incurred by climate change. The discussions are particularly heated in light of Typhoon Haiyan, which is estimated to have killed at least 4,000 people in the Philippines earlier this month. It's unfeasible to link a specific weather event, like Haiyan, to climate change. But that hasn't stopped some delegates from making the connection anyway.
"Loss and damage is an issue that my delegation holds very dearly because of very obvious reasons," said Naderev Saño, lead negotiator for the Philippines at the sessions, in an interview with Reuters. "Climate change is already resulting in massive losses and damages [and] we must come up with an outcome that addresses loss and damage."
It's not entirely clear what that outcome would look like, though financial reparations are one key element. Countries making the request are careful to distinguish any such reparations from existing relief aid. The money would also be separate from the $100 billion in annual funds that industrialized nations have promised in an effort to help poor countries bolster their infrastructure. Some delegates have proposed a "pool" of money to be distributed as deemed appropriate, and others have suggested that each country's historical greenhouse gas emissions be quantified. That data could play a role in determining the extent to which a country be held accountable going forward.
The financial burdens of such proposals threaten to be enormous, Warner says, and largely explain why countries like the US, Australia, and members of the European Union are reluctant to make any commitments. "For those concerned about having to make good, the situation makes them gravely nervous from an economic standpoint," she explains. "So they want to study more, they want to discuss more, they want to buy more time."
Indeed, representatives from wealthier nations this week suggested that any plan for addressing losses and damages should be delayed until at least 2015. And according to US representatives, financial compensation won't be part of the deal. Todd Stern, the US special envoy on climate change, has already said that the country can't (and won't) offer up more money. "The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed countries is not going to allow it," he said earlier this year. Stern also noted that "it is unwarranted to assign blame ... for emissions before the point at which people realized these emissions caused harm to the climate system."
For her part, Warner hopes to see any agreements encompass more than just checkbooks, and focus on international cooperation instead. Though countries remain at an impasse regarding financial reparation, a global agreement on losses and damages might also include collaborative research to anticipate looming risks, secured residency for those whose own countries become uninhabitable, or formal apologies from countries that carry heavy historical responsibility. "We face a scale of challenges we may never have faced before as a human race, and we need to look beyond nation states to confront it," Warner says. "Because fundamentally, this isn't about money. This is about human welfare."