Why “Loss and Damage” is Essential to the Fight for Climate Justice
Our global climate crisis has caused enormous harm to our world. While devastating, this crisis is not impacting people equally. We know that the world’s most vulnerable people are being hit hardest by this crisis, both in the United States and across the world, and yet they are doing the least to cause it. The fight for climate justice is not simply about slowing or stopping the environmental damage being done to our planet, but to our people. One step towards doing so is through “loss and damage” funds for countries on the frontline of the climate crisis they did not create.
In historic news, there was just a big win on this front. Just last week, climate leaders from across the world met at their annual convening known as COP27 and announced a historic agreement on “loss and damage” for the first time but before we get into the latest, let’s start with what it means.
What is “loss and damage”?
“Loss and damage” is exactly what it sounds like. It is the idea that the countries most responsible for the climate crisis pay the world’s most climate vulnerable countries for the unavoidable losses and damages they will endure as a result of the current climate.
Let’s first understand how we got to “losses and damages.” It starts with understanding the concept of “climate reparations.” Climate reparations is compensation to those who suffer from past harm as a result of climate change. It is also meant to be cumulative, covering the future economic toll of climate-fueled disasters, such as more frequent and dangerous wildfires and hurricanes, and climate impacts that occur slowly over time, such as sea level rise that already causes regular flooding in coastal cities like Miami, and drowns entire coastlines in coastal nations like Tuvalu. At Seventh Generation, we agree with climate justice activists across the world that climate reparations would get us closer to climate justice.
Unfortunately, many wealthy countries, including the United States, are not currently willing to budge. Having to pay up for past harm can open them up to a can of worms of legal liability that many countries are simply unwilling to consider at this point. That brings us to “loss and damage,” or compensation for future impacts of climate change. It is a compromise brought about in international climate negotiations, and proven to be an important starting point. Later in this post, we’ll cover a major turning point around loss and damage at COP27.
How is it connected to climate justice?
Here in the US, we know that environmental racism is systemic. Factories and pollution causing industries have historically and intentionally been put in communities of color. These communities are also more likely to experience negative health outcomes, such as asthma, and devastating housing impacts from extreme weather. Combatting environmental racism is essential to the fight for climate justice, which is why solutions meant to address the climate crisis must go beyond lowering emissions. In order to address the crisis of climate injustice, we need to boldly and honestly tackle racial inequity.
“Loss and damage” forces us to consider this inequity on a global scale. While this systemic environmental racism exists in its own way in individual countries across the world, there is racism that is happening before our eyes in the way we see the impact of carbon emissions across the world. It is exactly because the world’s richest countries aren’t feeling the most devastating impact of their own increasing carbon emissions that they continue to drag their feet on directing funds into loss and damage. If the US won’t even prioritize funding for communities of color hardest hit by climate disasters in our own country, it is not hard to understand why many would resist doing so in countries across the globe.
And the damage is massive. Record-breaking heat waves, fires, droughts, rising sea levels, and devastating floods have threatened the lives of hundreds of millions of people, destroyed entire communities, robbed people of their livelihoods, and caused irreversible harm to countries’ economies. Some island nation states are on the verge of extinction, others are being forced to relocate from ancestral lands. One-third of Pakistan is under water and changing tuna migration patterns in the Pacific Ocean could sink entire economies.
It has always been true that those who are most impacted by the negative effects of the climate crisis must be at the center of the solutions we seek – that is true for both communities here in the US and climate vulnerable countries across the world. In the case of climate vulnerable countries, they have been boldly advocating for “loss and damage” for some time. Now is the time to listen.
So what was the good news?
Ah yes, back to COP27. For the first time ever there was agreement at COP27 to establish a fund for loss and damage. Just last year at COP26, wealthy nations rejected proposals for a loss and damage fund and it was only after more than 130 developing countries, a coalition known as G77+China, demanded it, that it was successfully added to the agenda for the first time this year. But this is not a new ask. Some climate vulnerable countries have been advocating for this since the 90’s. Getting to an agreement the first year it was on the agenda on an issue that has been known to historically derail and stall negotiations is progress.
While this is a step in the right direction it’s unclear how this is going to play out. It’s not clear how much money will be put into a loss and damage fund, or which countries will contribute how much. Some are already calling the agreement weak and vague. There is still much work to be done to figure out exactly what this will look like and how exactly the world’s wealthiest nations (who also happen to be behind on their promise from 2020 to provide $100 billion a year to help climate vulnerable countries) will actually be able to fund this endeavor. And it's going to cost a pretty penny. According to one estimate from the 2021 climate summit, by 2023 loss and damage from warming could cost the world anywhere from $290 billion to $580 billion a year.
So what now?
We believe loss and damage is essential to the fight for climate justice and remain hopeful that this will lead to change and remain deeply inspired by the bold climate activists from climate vulnerable countries who organized and pushed hard for long overdue agreement on this issue. To start, as one of the biggest historic polluters, we need to show that we’re serious about addressing the climate crisis here in the US. Join us by calling on President Biden to declare a climate emergency, which will unlock urgently needed authority to accelerate America’s transition to a fossil fuel-free economy.