Deadly, devastating floods in Pakistan and Nigeria and a looming famine caused by prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa are the latest signs that the climate crisis has propelled us into an era of loss and damage. The extreme nature of these human-caused, fossil fuel-driven disasters, as well as slow moving yet relentless impacts like sea level rise, are quickly exceeding the bounds of ordinary adaptation measures. As world leaders gather for the annual United Nations climate talks, COP27, in Egypt, it’s imperative that richer countries like the United States take responsibility for harms their heat-trapping emissions are imposing on people in low-income, climate-vulnerable nations.
At the international level, addressing the climate crisis requires deep, rapid cuts in major economies’ heat-trapping emissions and robust climate finance for low-income countries to cut emissions and invest in climate adaptation. Recent global climate reports show the trajectory of emissions dangerously off-track, requiring transformative action to sharply cut emissions by 2030. Meanwhile, richer nations never met their collective 2009 promise to deliver $100 billion in annual financing by 2020 and won’t do so until 2023.
Because nations have delayed action for so long, a third priority is now equally urgent: protecting people from impacts where adapting is becoming impossible. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change noted in February, “With increasing global warming, losses and damages increase and become increasingly difficult to avoid, while strongly concentrated among the poorest vulnerable populations.” Lives, livelihoods, critical ecosystems, and cultural heritage are all in the bull’s-eye. Millions of people face the prospect of being forcibly displaced from places that are becoming too dangerous — or even disappearing — because of climate change.
At COP27, richer nations must agree to establish a fund for loss and damage supported by public finance and a clear, near-term timetable for operationalizing it. They should pursue all avenues to resource it, including through a tax on fossil fuel companies that are currently making record-breaking profits. Unfortunately, the United States is among the nations that have long blocked loss progress on loss and damage negotiations, an unfair posture that more than 140 groups urged the Biden administration to abandon in a recent letter. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry’s recent comments signal a welcome shift in tone that must now be followed up by action. Also critical is a human-rights centered framework to address climate displacement.
The United States arrives at COP27 with one significant contribution: the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which will help cut national heat-trapping emissions about 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, getting it closer to its pledge of 50 percent to 52 percent reductions. While flawed and not nearly enough, the law and the infrastructure bill passed last year go a long way toward accelerating domestic deployment of renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, and electric vehicles, while also ensuring billions of dollars in investments in environmental justice, good-paying jobs, and resilient farmlands.
However, the Inflation Reduction Act is far from sufficient on the global stage. As a rich nation, and the single largest historical contributor to global heat-trapping emissions, the United States bears a large responsibility to provide funding for climate mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage in low-income countries. Despite a promise from the Biden administration to provide $11.4 billion annually by 2024, Congress has failed to appropriate anything close to that and must step up in the upcoming budget cycles. The United States can marshal funds when they’re urgently needed, as clearly demonstrated in the context of Russia’s unjust war on Ukraine; addressing loss and damage requires the same resolve.
While wealthy countries have advanced proposals to support global adaptation and risk-management efforts, including the Biden administration’s PREPARE initiative and the Global Shield championed by Germany, these efforts are woefully inadequate to address the scale of the challenge. Moreover, such measures won’t protect the poorest, most marginalized people in places where risks are rapidly outpacing adaptable or insurable levels. And emergency humanitarian aid, while urgently needed in places like Somalia and Pakistan, cannot help nations get ahead of looming climate catastrophes and is subject to donors’ whims.
The burgeoning global energy and economic crises, colliding with climate disasters, are imposing an inequitable toll on low- and middle-income countries, pushing millions into poverty and setting back hard-won development advances. Many countries are caught in a spiral of untenable levels of debt and lowered credit rating, exacerbated by climate shocks. Calls for renegotiating crushing debt owed to multilateral banks and reforming their institutional mandates to align with climate realities are growing. The stark, unjust fact is climate change hits the poorest and those who have contributed the least to the problem the hardest, significantly worsening long-standing economic and political inequities.
As these international climate talks begin on the climate-vulnerable continent of Africa, political leaders from richer nations should need no reminder of the stakes at hand and their responsibility to deliver successful outcomes. Securing a clear pathway for climate loss and damage funding will be a litmus test for success at COP27, and the Biden administration’s actions on this front will be critical. This isn’t about guilt or liability; it’s about justice and recognizing our common humanity.
Rachel Cleetus is policy director of the Climate and Energy Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.