Headline: Ways forward for Loss and Damage: An interview with Saleemul Huq

Dr Saleemul Huq is Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh and has participated in the international climate negotiations since their inception in 1992. His current work focuses on the engagement of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). He conducts research on the vulnerability of LDCs to climate change and the impacts of adaptation measures.

Loss and damage is a controversial topic in the climate negotiations. Can you briefly explain what it is about?

There is no universally agreed definition of loss and damage. But “loss” generally refers to the complete and irrevocable disappearance of something such as human lives, habitats, cultures, even species due to climate change. “Damage” refers to something that can be repaired, such as infrastructure.

Is loss and damage still framed as a small island, developing country issue? Or do you see some recognition in the UNFCCC that loss and damage affects poor and marginalized communities in both developed and developing countries?

The fact that climatic events are now occurring with greater intensity and greater frequency all over the world, including developed countries, has already made this very clear. Incidentally, just this year, three hurricanes hit the United States in quick succession: Texas (Hurricane Harvey), Florida (Hurricane Irma), and Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria). These states have done their loss-and-damage assessments and are going to the US Congress to ask for US $350 billion to pay for loss and damage. We may not know how much Congress will grant them, but what is clear is that loss and damage is a reality in the US too. The US accepts that the hurricanes were real, people suffered, there was loss and damage. What the current government won’t agree to is that this was the result of human-induced climate change. The rest of us know it was. The relatively high severity of these hurricanes was clearly due to the higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures at the time.

Would you say that one of the reasons loss and damage has become so politicized is because it is often tied to compensation?

In 2012 at the climate conference in Doha (COP18), we had a lot of disagreement between the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) and the industrialized countries over loss and damage, and it was one of the items that held back agreement toward the end of the COP. Negotiations ran over by four hours into the next day. Developed countries simply did not want the issue to be addressed. We were able to get our ministers from the LDCs to stand united and face this opposition. They were prepared to fly home with no agreement, no COP decision, if they did not get an outcome on loss and damage.

One argument raised by LDCs at the time was that they do not have access to effective compensation. COP18 took place soon after Hurricane Sandy hit the North East of the United States and caused loss and damage to the States of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and the city of New York. These three States and the city put together an estimate of loss and damage of US $81 billion, which they sent to the US Congress. Under US federal law – similar to other federal governments, including Germany – if a disaster occurs and the federal state cannot pay for it, those looking for recourse go to the federal government to seek compensation for loss and damage suffered. Congress gave them US $50 billion to spend on reconstruction.

So the concept of compensating loss and damage is not new; it already happens. The US practices it. All we are saying is that that needs to happen at the global level. Who does Bangladesh send the bill to? It’s not Bangladesh’s fault that we recently suffered a one-in-100-year flood. This is human-induced climate change loss and damage. It cost Bangladesh US $3–5 billion in terms of loss and damage to crops and infrastructure, but where is our central government? Our central government is the UN. That’s where we want them to address this issue.

What about compensating non-economic losses, such as loss of cultures and traditional knowledge?

Non-economic losses and damages and slow-onset events such as sea level rise or desertification are other nuances of the problem that traditional mechanisms to address adaptation, and now loss and damage, are simply not equipped to deal with. Those are areas where further research and further thinking needs to be done. Loss and damage is a relatively new topic. This is a challenge for the research community. But we know enough to now put into effect mechanisms to help people already suffering loss and damage.

Can communities affected by loss and damage actually influence the climate negotiations?

The negotiations, they are an unreal place. Many meetings happen behind closed doors. They don’t talk reality, they talk politics. And you cannot really influence that from the outside. It’s not impossible, but it’s very difficult. The way to do it is by having strength in numbers and a united front. The way we do it – and I do a lot of this in the negotiation process – is by getting the LDC group, the small island states (AOSIS), and the African Group together. They are three independent negotiating groups of vulnerable countries that occasionally work together as one. So whenever they do work together, they make up around 100 countries out of 195 Parties in the UNFCCC and thus have great strength in numbers, provided we remain unified.

You affect the process both from the inside and the outside. On the inside, you have strong negotiators that are technically competent and stick to the line politically. They stand united and say “we won’t accept the way things are going”. On the outside, you have civil society and the media pounding, saying “what’s so difficult, what’s the problem, why can’t you save us?” You put that pressure on them. There are a few countries that cannot be shamed, that don’t care about public opinion. But the Americans, the Germans, even China and India do. They don’t want to be seen as the bad guys.

What is your takeaway message from COP23?

My takeaway is that 2017 is a tipping point. The events that we have seen around the world this year, including the hurricanes in the Caribbean and the flooding in Bangladesh and South Asia that I mentioned, these are unprecedented in intensity. And their intensity is attributable to human-induced climate change. So we are living in a world that is already affected by climate change. It is causing loss and damage on the ground around the globe. And hence the time to find ways of supporting those that are being affected by climate impacts is now. Fiji, a small island developing state, presiding over COP23, has asked the world to address this issue.

So all of these reasons, in my view, make it the right thing to do for developed countries, which so far have been reluctant to go into this area of loss and damage finance beyond insurance. Insurance is not a panacea, and it is particularly bad at reaching the poorest. Those who have very little cannot afford premiums. If you subsidize or underrate the premiums, then that is not insurance anymore; that is giving money away. Which you could do more efficiently and more effectively without insurance. I am not averse to insurance, but it is time to think beyond insurance. And the developed countries are sensitive to this demand. We ask them: Do something about it. Do not just tell us insurance is the answer.

We need to apply the polluter-pays-principle on fossil fuel companies, a small number of companies that are making billions of dollars of profit from polluting the atmosphere and causing loss and damage. How can you let them get away with that? It is morally wrong. So you should impose a loss-and-damage tax on them, specifically on their profits. We need the UNFCCC process to say – yes, do it! And then in every jurisdiction a company is located in, the government of that country takes a tax so that a loss-and-damage fund is raised with billions of dollars. A lot of governments argue that they have limited public resources. We are not asking for public funds, we are saying, tax the polluter, tax the companies.

From the outside, COP23 is a loss-and-damage COP. Who cares about ‘modalities’, the ‘Paris rulebook’? This is the fine print for all the groupies who go to the COPs and work on detailed language. The big picture is about loss and damage. And the average citizen will ask, what was the result of this COP? And they’ll answer something like: “Well, we agreed to meet twice a year on loss and damage instead of once a year”. That is not a result.

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Header image: Salim Reza/Polaris/laif