WARSAW — After a typhoon that killed thousands in the Philippines, a routine international climate change conference here turned into an emotional forum, with developing countries demanding compensation from the worst polluting countries for damage they say they are already suffering.
Calling the climate crisis “madness,” the Philippines representative vowed to fast for the duration of the talks. Malia Talakai, a negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, a group that includes her tiny South Pacific homeland, Nauru, said that without urgent action to stem rising sea levels, “some of our members won’t be around.”
From the time a scientific consensus emerged that human activity was changing the climate, it has been understood that the nations that contributed least to the problem would be hurt the most.
Now, even as the possible consequences of climate change have surged — from the typhoons that have raked the Philippines and India this year to the droughts in Africa, to rising sea levels that threaten to submerge island nations — no consensus has emerged about how to rectify what many call “climate injustice.”
Growing demands to address the issue have become an emotionally charged flash point at negotiations here at the 19th conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which continues this week.
“We are in a piece of land which is smaller than Denmark, with a population of 160 million, trying to cope with this extreme weather, trying to cope with the effect of emissions for which we are not responsible,” said Farah Kabir, director in Bangladesh for the antipoverty organization ActionAid International.
With expectations low for progress here on a treaty to replace the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, widely seen as having failed to make a dent in worldwide carbon emissions, some nations were losing patience with decades of endless climate talks, particularly those who see rising oceans as a threat to their existence.
“We are at these climate conferences essentially moving chess figures across the board without ever being able to bring these negotiations to a conclusion,” said Achim Steiner, of the UN Environment Program.
Although the divide between rich and poor nations has bedeviled international climate talks for two decades, the debate about how to address the disproportionate effects gained momentum. Poorer nations are pressing a new effort that goes beyond reducing emissions.
While they have no legal means to seek compensation, they have demanded concrete efforts to address the “loss and damage” that the most vulnerable nations will almost certainly face — the result of fragile environments and structures, and limited resources to respond.
The sheer magnitude and complexity of the issue make such compensation unlikely.
It assumes the culpability of the world’s most developed nations, including the United States and those in Europe, and implies a moral responsibility to bear the costs, even as those same nations seek to draft a new treaty during the next two years that would for the first time compel reductions by rapidly emerging nations such as China and India.
As a group, these emerging nations will within a decade have accounted for more than half of all historical emissions, making them, arguably, responsible for the continuing impact humanity will make, if not the impact already made.