Do Rich Nations Need to Be Held Liable For the Climate Crisis?

By Gisele Weishan | Magazine | February 17, 2023

Cover Illustration: Flags. Mathias Reding /Unsplash

Magazine writer Gisele Weishan discusses the COP27 decision to establish loss and damage funding for vulnerable countries. Weishan examines this decision in hindsight to previous climate agreements which failed to aid developing nations. 

The United Nations’ recent COP27 convention saw diplomats from nearly 200 countries conduct climate negotiations across the span of two weeks. Most notably, these talks culminated in the landmark decision to compensate developing nations for the harmful effects they have sustained as a result of the climate crisis. The compensation was provided through new funding arrangements, including a dedicated fund of its own. This action can be counted as a positive step towards collective governing in terms of crisis response. However, it is worth noting that despite the mostly unified increase in financial accountability (with the notable exception of the United States), this loss and damage agreement ultimately makes clear that payments are not to be seen as an admission of liability on the part of developed nations. The specific details and machinations of this fund are still to be decided by a newly established ‘transitional committee’, whose first meeting is expected to take place before the end of March. However, this continued negation of liability presents the possibility for contention, and for initial promises made during the convention to ultimately fall short – as previous fund agreements before it have.

This most recent decision, whilst a significant milestone, is not an unprecedented one. It is based on a decades-long call to action from developing nations to address the unequal divide within the climate crisis between rich, industrialized nations and themselves. More than the simple Samaritan need to assist struggling nations as an act of contrition, research has shown that wealthy countries are indeed most responsible for the exacerbation of the crisis, the resulting effects of which have a drastically higher impact on the developing nations who contribute to it the least. A 2016 study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports stated that “In line with the results of other studies, we find an enormous global inequality where 20 of the 36 highest emitting countries are among the least vulnerable to negative impacts of future climate change. Conversely, 11 of the 17 countries with low or moderate [greenhouse gas] emissions, are acutely vulnerable to negative impacts of climate change.”  Specifically, while rich countries, such as the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe, account for just 12% of the global population, they are responsible for 50% of all the planet-warming greenhouse gasses released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years. 

For example, Pakistan suffered flooding last summer that killed 1700 people and left one-third of the country underwater. The damages from this severe flooding amount to US $30 billion. Pakistan emits less than 1% of global emissions. Other examples include, but are not limited to, Pacific small-island nation-states such as Fiji and Vanuatu, where entire villages have been forced to retreat inland to escape rising sea levels. These island nation-states combined are responsible for a mere 0.03% of global emissions. In Kenya, persistent drought has killed livestock, exacerbated famine and devastated livelihoods. Alongside other African countries, Kenya will have to spend up to five times more on adapting to the climate crisis than on healthcare.

The reason to examine the causes of this fund is not to interrogate the legitimacy of its need, but rather to acknowledge and take note of previous attempts to mitigate  such financial disparities. These attempts have ultimately been insufficient or inadequate. Attempts at funding international climate accords have historically largely failed, notably with the recent broken promise to channel an annual US $100 billion to poorer countries fighting the climate crisis by 2020. This pledge ultimately fell short of US $17 billion with the projected target moved to this year or even later.

Given the latest COP27 pledge, can good faith make up for a lack of formal liability where it hasn’t before? And if there will be none of the latter, will these promises alone, though hopeful, be strong enough without the legal impetus to ensure that real systematic change is made and aid is provided to those who need it most? As was stated by Mohamed Adow, executive director of Power Shift Africa,  “We have the fund, but we need money to make it worthwhile… What we have is an empty bucket. Now we need to fill it so that support can flow to the most impacted people who are suffering right now at the hands of the climate crisis.”

Gisele Weishan is a university student in Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer. 

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