It’s all about names. It is referred to as ‘the third leg of climate finance’, after mitigation (i.e. reducing emissions) and adaptation (preparing for the worst before it happens: for example, reinforcing the banks of rivers in danger of overflowing). So-called loss and damage is the set of policies put in place when the climate disaster has happened, and we have to sit down and take stock of the damage. Yes, but who pays? 

At the crossroads 

A new international fund could provide the answer. Decided in the final stages of the COP27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, it should be christened in December at the Conference of the Parties in Dubai. But it is not yet time to open the champagne. 

We find ourselves at the crossroads of history, international law, economics and geopolitics, a mixed salad that allows for loopholes or – and it is basically the same thing – diluting the time to the bitter end. 

There is a rush to get the first transfers underway, but understanding the complexity of such an agreement is not easy for those who do not master international relations. 

The problems begin with definitions. Industrialised countries, led by the United States of America, have historically been responsible for a large part of carbon dioxide emissions, the result of which predominantly affects poorer people. But, in one of the many cautions – some would say ‘hypocrisies’ – that characterise diplomacy, the very people responsible for the climate crisis do not want to hear about ‘reparations’ or ‘compensations’: if there is a flow of money towards the Global South, it will simply be ‘aid’, revocable at any time. The reason lies in the fear of trillion-dollar lawsuits. 

Does this sound unbelievable? Yet, on these three words, negotiators have been fighting each other with the knife between their teeth for years. An unequal confrontation, with Western delegations trained in the best universities in search of loopholes and precedents, sitting opposite colleagues from countries with a few tens of thousands of inhabitants and schools with decidedly unparalleled traditions.

But that is not all. What – the polluters ask – is compensable, and what is not? Is a devastating storm (an event, that is to say, clearly identifiable on the calendar)? Perhaps. But what about desertification, whose temporal boundaries are difficult to identify, and which produces the phenomenon of climatic migrations?

And again. The inhabitants of Tuvalu, a Polynesian state made up of islands halfway between Hawaii and Australia, know that the waters of the Pacific could submerge their territory within a few decades due to the rising of the seas, a slow but-growing phenomenon. The local government has long been looking for solutions to relocate them elsewhere. But who would accept a sovereign state on their territory, able to make agreements and have diplomatic relations even with enemies? And what laws would the new inhabitants follow?  What would become of the maritime borders of the Tuvalu archipelago, of its territorial waters? An outpost in the Pacific would appeal to many, even if it were a largely uninhabitable landing place, but good for anchoring a few aircraft carriers. If a few rare earth deposits were to be discovered under the seabed, the idea of a clash, even an armed one, to grab the resources would not be out of the question. This would not be new history. 

There are, unfortunately, many other questions. What role would China, formally still regarded as a developing country, in reality, one of the biggest polluters on the planet with an average wealth that has risen sharply in recent years, play in the future fund?  And how to make sure that the money paid for loss and damage ends up in serious and credible projects, and not in the pockets of corrupt local elites, as is often the case, who cram it into some tax haven? To ask this question is not politically incorrect: it is pragmatic. 

Urgency and hope

The above anthology may be discouraging but that is not the writer’s intent. Rather, it is meant to be an invitation to realise that there are no easy solutions to problems of this magnitude. There is no leader who can single-handedly set the pace to turn the tide in a matter of months. Biden cannot, and Xi cannot. But “gutta cavat lapidem”, the Latins used to say, the drop digs the stone: and it is time to renew the momentum gained since Glasgow by rolling up our sleeves. 

Now more than ever, slow work is needed to raise awareness that the exploitative development model belongs to a past that will not return. Sometime from now, we will remember the twentieth century as a century of wasteful, even somewhat vulgar, spending: the task of citizens of goodwill is to set an example of moderate sobriety, diluting negativism, defusing polarisations, understanding the point of view of the interlocutors. In short, to act as a levee while maintaining a calm firmness. 

The new fund could really see the light in Dubai in a few months: a draft has already circulated a few weeks ago and signing it would be a start. But so many details are still missing. 

Some are sceptical. The December COP will, once again, be full of expectation, but it will take place in an authoritarian country, with an oil lobbyist presiding: my invitation, our invitation, is not to read it through the eyes of maximalism. To judge it from the sidelines, perhaps with the help of the Italian Climate Network experts and their timely updates; and, above all, not to be discouraged. In the 1990s, the world united to stop the ‘hole in the ozone layer’: it seemed impossible, but that action was successful. The hole has practically closed, and for those who were children then, it remains the best example of what cooperation can do. We try to remind young people today that there is a precedent – and that, however slow, change is possible.

Article by Antonio Piemontese, Wired journalist

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