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Islands Seek Funds for Climate Damage at UN Discussions

By Kim Chipman and Alex Morales
December 04, 2012 6:29 AM EST 29 Comments
Photographer: Torsten Blackwood/AFP via Getty Images
Kirabati, a member of the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, is requesting help from the United Nations, as climate change puts their countries at risk.

Islands that are most vulnerable to rising oceans are seeking an insurance program to protect against damage related to climate change, adding to pressure on industrial nations to increase aid committed to fight global warming to more than $100 billion a year.

The islands are proposing a “loss and damage” mechanism that would insure and compensate countries that suffer from extreme weather, erosion and drought. The request is raising tension levels among more than 190 industrial and developing nations at United Nations climate talks in Doha this week.

“All we are asking is that they help us with these issues that aren’t our doing,” Malia Talakai of Nauru, lead negotiator for the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS, a bloc of 43 island nations, said in an interview in Doha. “We are trying to say that if you pollute you must help us.”

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UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joins the meeting today with six national leaders including Gabon’s President Ali-Ben Bongo Ondimba and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The conference is aiming to streamline its negotiation process this year, paving the way for adopting by 2015 a treaty limiting fossil-fuel emissions that would come into force in 2020.

Industrial nations three years ago pledged to boost aid to $100 billion a year by 2020. Those funds would cover projects including renewable energy and sea walls that would help countries adapt to and fight climate change.

Donor Concerns

The U.S., the European Union and other developed countries are wary of the proposal because it may have the potential to create open-ended financial and legal liabilities, said Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi scientist based in London at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

“Developed countries hear that phrase, ‘loss and damage,’ and they think of an international fund for compensation and liability -- taboo subjects for them,” Huq said in an interview in Doha. “There’s strong push back. The U.S. has said there is no way they are going to do it.”

"Who will address these issues? Is it my government's responsibility? Richer countries can quickly adapt if hit by a climate change disaster. For us, it takes ages. It destroys.

U.S. State Department Envoy Todd Stern dodged a question yesterday on the matter after arriving in Doha, saying there are “some issues that are of concern there, but I don’t want to weigh into that without being certain.”

Not ‘Mature’

EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard said the 27-member bloc has been supportive of the concept, though there are some reservations on how to proceed.

“We think that it’s not really mature enough yet to say this is exactly how we do it,” Hedegaard said in an interview yesterday in Doha. “We need some more work on that, but we have signaled very clearly to them that we are open to find a solution on loss and damage.”

Envoys at the UN talks have yet to nail down details of where the $100 billion will come from and what it will be spent on. Questions remain about how to pay for the Green Climate Fund, which would channel a portion of that aid.

“We should be cautious about saying we are strictly liable for some particular event or some particular change,” U.K. Energy Secretary Ed Davey told reporters in Doha today. “That does not mean we should not work with others to help some of the very poorest adapt to the impacts of climate change.”

Island Demands

At a minimum, the islands want the UN talks to keep studying how a loss-and-damage mechanism might be established. They’d prefer delegates in Doha agree to a system, which Talakai says ultimately would have to be “much more” than the $100 billion already promised.

"Who will address these issues? Is it my government's responsibility?"

AOSIS first proposed the fund 21 years ago, and the request is getting fresh urgency this year because of evidence of increasing damage to the environment from fossil-fuel emissions. Greenhouse-gas concentrations hit a record in 2011 and are on track for another surge this year, according to a Dec. 2 commentary in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The effects of warmer temperatures have stacked up this year. Arctic sea ice shrank to its lowest extent on record, the continental U.S. is heading for its warmest year ever, and heat waves registered across Europe and in China, Russia, Morocco and Jordan. Drought struck almost two-thirds of the U.S. this year.

No Protection

“We don’t have insurance against these things,” Fatou Gaye, Gambia’s environment minister and lead delegate for the group of least developed countries, said in an interview in Doha yesterday. “Richer countries can quickly adapt if hit by a climate change disaster. For us, it takes ages. It destroys.”

Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said last week sea levels are rising at 3.2 millimeters a year, faster than the 2 millimeters forecast by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007.

Island nations from Barbados in the Caribbean to the Maldives in the Indian Ocean and Tuvalu in the Pacific say rising sea levels and intensifying cyclones as dangers to their aquifers, agriculture and in some cases, the very existence of their countries. Tuvalu and the Maldives, for example, have high points that are just a few meters above sea level.

Adao Soares Barbosa of East Timor, coordinator in Doha for the least developing countries on the issue of loss and damage, says his country lost almost 80 percent of its rice production last year because of El Nino.

“Who will address these issues? Is it my government’s responsibility?” he said in an interview in Doha. “We have a right to survive.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Kim Chipman in Washington at kchipman@bloomberg.net; Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reed Landberg at landberg@bloomberg.net

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