UNFCCC

Loss and Damage: The Third Era of Climate Change?

Reason's science correspondent sends a second dispatch from the U.N. Climate Change Conference

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WARSAW—The annual U.N. climate change meetings are always all about money. This year's 19th Conference of the Parties (COP-19) of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Warsaw is no exception. The latest ploy by poor countries to guilt money out of rich governments is to claim that it's far too late to mitigate or adapt to climate change, it's now time to pay for the effects of climate change.

"We have now entered the era of climate change induced loss and damage," declares "Tackling the Climate Reality," a new report issued by three aid groups at COP-19. According to the report, "The time when emissions reductions and adaptation could have avoided significant adverse impacts on developing countries and vulnerable populations has passed." In the past, cutting emissions and adapting infrastructure and social institutions might have been sufficient responses to man-made climate change, but no longer. "A new, dedicated international mechanism on loss and damage is therefore needed under the UNFCCC to assess and address the significant residual impacts of climate change on vulnerable countries," the report states. 

The devastation in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan has been repeatedly cited in the hallways and conference rooms of Warsaw's National Stadium as an example of the loss and damage generated by climate change. COP-19 opened last week with an impassioned speech by the Philippines' lead climate negotiator Naderev Yeb Sano citing Haiyan as "an extreme climate event" of the sort exacerbated by man-made global warming. "The climate crisis is madness," declared a tearful Sano. "We have to confront the issue of loss and damage. Loss and damage from climate change is a reality today across the world." Sano is now on a hunger strike until meaningful action is taken to address the global crisis at COP-19.

On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon told conference delegates, "Climate change threatens current and future generations—we need to look no further than last week's catastrophe in the Philippines." And at a press briefing by the Climate Action Network, Harjeet Singh, the International Coordinator for Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Adaptation for ActionAid, argued that a global-warming enhanced Haiyan had overwhelmed the Philippines usual ability to deal with typhoons. Haiyan proved that "loss and damage is in our faces now," declared Singh. 

(For an excellent analysis of Haiyan and the type of policy that would actually enable countries to cope more effectively with weather disasters, see my Reason Foundation colleague Julian Morris' article "The Terrible Toll of Typhoon Haiyan Doesn't Excuse Bad Policy.")

But is Haiyan's destruction the result of man-made global warming? Most likely not. The U.N.'s own Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2012 report on managing the risks of extreme events reported, "Low confidence in any observed long-term (40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity," and noted that there is "low confidence in attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences." Additionally, the report stated that it is likely the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially the same in response to global warming. The report also suggested that average wind speeds may increase later in this century, but not necessarily in all regions.

In September, the IPCC's "Fifth Assessment Report" dealing with scientific issues of climate change also reported there were no long-term trends in tropical cyclone activity and added, "Globally, there is low confidence in attribution of changes in tropical cyclone activity to human influence."

But, never mind the science, let's get to the bottom line: How much money do the poor countries want for climate change loss and damage and how do they want it dispensed? 

During the 2009 Climate Change Conference collapse in Copenhagen, the poor countries managed to extract a promise that rich countries would "mobilize" $100 billion in annual funding to finance climate change adaptation in poor countries by 2020. In the meantime, the rich countries agreed to supply about $30 billion in "fast start" financing between 2010 and 2012 to support developing countries' efforts. The rich countries claim that they have delivered the promised funds.

Now at the Warsaw meeting, delegates from the poor countries claim there has been "no clarity" from the rich countries on what's going to happen with climate change aid until they begin disbursing aid through the Green Climate Fund in 2020. Poor countries insist that, in the interim, the rich countries ramp up climate change financing for poor countries to $50 billion per year. "How can you expect developing countries to show ambition without support?," asked one African delegate. "Ambition" meaning that a country will agree to do something to counteract the effects of global warming. Translation: If rich countries pay for solar panels, we will agree to install them.

For comparison, official development assistance totaled $133 billion in 2011. Keep in mind that the $100 billion annually is for adaptation. Now that the world has supposedly entered "the era of climate change loss and damage," more compensation money is being demanded. And since loss and damage is "beyond adaptation," the  G-77 countries and China are pushing for the creation of a "new mechanism" that would be separately funded under the UNFCCC.

On Tuesday, the United Nations Environment Program issued a report, "Africa's Adaptation Gap," that calculated Africa's current climate change adaptation costs at $7 to $15 billion annually. If the mean global-temperature increase is less than 2 degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, those costs will rise to $35 billion per year in 2040 and up to $200 billion by 2070. However, if the world warms up by 4 degrees centigrade, annual African adaptation costs would be $350 billion per year by 2070. And those are just adaptation costs, not compensation for loss and damage.

Activists and delegates are blaming Australia, Canada, and Japan for blocking the proposal. At 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning, the delegates from the G-77 countries walked out of loss and damage negotiations. The proximate cause was refusal of the Australian delegation to approve a text to be forwarded for consideration of the environmental ministers at the meeting. Apparently, some of the G-77 negotiators were also highly offended by the fact that the Australian team was dressed in t-shirts and were "gorging on junk food." In any case, prospects are dim that a new, formal plan to compensate loss and damage will be adopted.

On Monday, U.S. climate negotiator Todd Stern suggested that the issue is best addressed under existing institutions that deal with adaptation. Tuesday, European Union climate change commissioner Connie Hedegaard said, "We want to find an intelligent way to address this issue, but we don't want to set up a big new institution." Finally, at a press conference on Tuesday, the executive secretary of the UNFCCC Christiana Figueres said, "We do not expect to reach a final resolution on the loss and damage mechanism here in Warsaw."

The environmental ministers arrived in Warsaw on Tuesday for the High Level Segment of the conference. There should be some interesting speechifying to report at least.