SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — For 30 years, developing countries have been calling for industrialized ones to provide compensation for the costs of devastating storms and droughts caused by climate change. For just as long, rich nations that have generated the pollution that is dangerously heating the planet have resisted those calls.
At the United Nations climate summit last year, only Scotland, the host country, committed $2.2 million for what’s known as “loss and damage.” But this week, the dam may have begun to break.
On Sunday, negotiators from developing countries succeeded in placing the matter on the formal agenda of this year’s climate summit, known as COP27, or the 27th session of the Conference of the Parties.
“The addition of loss and damage on the agenda is a significant achievement and one that we have been fighting for many years,” Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados, said Tuesday. “We have a moral and just cause.”
By the end of the third day of the conference, several European countries had pledged cash for a new loss and damage fund.
The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, appeared at a New York Times event on the sidelines of COP27 after promising an additional $5.7 million.
“The Global South still feel that they’re having to come and plead with the rich countries to acknowledge, let alone address, the issue of loss and damage, for example,” Sturgeon said. “There is a real need to make tangible progress.”
The commitment of direct funding for loss and damage represents a major break from precedent. For decades, wealthy countries, which have emitted half of all heat-trapping gasses since 1850, have avoided calls to help poor countries recover from climate disasters, fearing that doing so could open them to unlimited liability. And as a legal and a practical matter, it has been extraordinarily difficult to define “loss and damage” and determine what it might cost and who should pay how much.
Yet after increasingly destructive fires, floods, and droughts, which have touched every corner of the globe but have disproportionately affected the developing world, Western leaders have changed their tune.
On Tuesday, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, endorsed the idea of new funds for poor countries being affected by climate change.
“The COP must make progress on minimizing and averting loss and damage from climate change,” she said, addressing other world leaders. “It is high time to put this on the agenda.”
Shortly after von der Leyen’s remarks, Prime Minister Micheál Martin of Ireland said his country was pledging $10 million to a new effort “to protect the most vulnerable from climate loss and damage.”
“The burden of climate change globally is falling most heavily on those least responsible for our predicament,” he said. “We will not see the change we need without climate justice.”
Austria’s climate minister said the country would pay 50 million euros, or around $50 million, to developing countries struggling with climate effects. Belgium joined in, promising $2.5 million in loss and damage funding to Mozambique. And Denmark said in September that it would spend at least $13 million paying for loss and damage in developing nations.
Germany made a related move Monday, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledging $170 million to a new program that would offer vulnerable nations a form of insurance in the event of climate emergencies.
Other leaders said the time had come for real loss and damage funding.
“I support governments paying money for loss and damage and adaptation, but let’s be very clear that that’s a matter of billions or tens of billions,” Al Gore, former vice president of the United States, said Monday.
Shortly after Gore spoke, President Emmanuel Macron of France said that Europe was already helping poorer countries and those other Western nations needed to do more. “Europeans are paying,” he said. “We are the only ones paying.
“Pressure must be put on rich non-European countries, telling them, ‘You have to pay your fair share,’” Macron said, in a not-too-veiled reference to the Americans.
But the United States, the world’s richest country and the largest emitter of greenhouse gases was conspicuously absent from the discussions on loss and damage.
John Kerry, President Joe Biden’s climate envoy, has agreed to discuss the idea of financing for loss and damage at the climate conference, but the United States has not agreed to a new fund.
“We are anxious to see the loss and damage issue dealt with upfront and in a real way at the COP,” a spokesperson for Kerry said as the conference began. “We anticipate that it will be an agenda item, and we’re perfectly comfortable helping it to be that — which means, at some point, you’ve got to have an outcome.”
Still, no strategy was offered Tuesday by the U.S. delegation. Instead, Kerry plans to unveil Wednesday a new plan designed to get big corporations to purchase carbon offsets — essentially, credits for their greenhouse gas pollution. The money would go toward driving down emissions in developing nations by retiring fossil fuel plants, creating renewable energy, and building resilience to climate effects.
The initiative has been met with skepticism from some European nations as well as members of the U.N. secretary-general’s staff, because they felt the plan lacked details and was being rushed, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions.
Some of the most influential environmental groups in the United States who were briefed by the State Department on the strategy, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Resources Institute, also do not support the plan because they fear it could actually undermine efforts to drive down global emissions to zero, activists said.
The mixed efforts by Western nations came as leaders from developing countries continued to call for financial compensation.
“We need to put together the loss and damage fund we have been speaking about for years,” President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela said during a fiery speech. He denounced capitalism and the extraction of natural resources as the causes of climate change but made no mention of his own country’s history as an oil producer.
Kausea Natano, prime minister of Tuvalu, said his nation was “the Pacific region’s champion of loss and damage” and called for “a secure, guaranteed loss and damage facility.”
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif of Pakistan detailed the continuing recovery following extraordinary floods this summer that killed an estimated 1,700 people and left one-third of his country underwater. “This all happened despite our very low carbon footprint,” he said. “Loss and damage need to be part of the core agenda of COP27.”
And Cleopas Dlamini, prime minister of Eswatini, previously known as Swaziland, said countries like his were having such a hard time recovering from one climate disaster that it was getting difficult to prepare for the next one.
“We have come to a point where the urgency to mitigate and adapt is being overshadowed by the need to deal with the loss and damage we are already facing and experiencing,” Dlamini said, “hence the need for a loss and damage financing facility.”
Other African leaders made similar remarks, emphasizing that their countries could not afford the cost of adapting to climate change or mitigating extreme weather disasters.
When asked Tuesday if the delegates from nearly 200 nations would end the two-week conference with an agreement on a loss and damage fund, Sturgeon of Scotland was skeptical, despite her country’s pledge.
“I would like to say yes,” she said. “I think, realistically, probably not. I hope I’m wrong about that. But I do think it’s really important that we emerge from these two weeks with something tangible and concrete that people can see the endpoint to an agreement.”
Declining to help the most vulnerable nations, she said, would represent a moral failure on the part of the West.
“This is a really fundamental question of climate justice,” she said. “The rich world has a responsibility here.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.