Pastoralists and their livestock at one of the few functioning boreholes in Marsabit County, Kenya. Community leaders organize when people and their animals can drink from the borehole, Nov. 3, 2021.`

Who will pay for ‘losses and damages’ caused by climate change? Developing countries make their case at COP26.

Talking about compensation for damages from climate change has been taboo at climate talks. That’s starting to change. 

The World

Pastoralists and their livestock at one of the few functioning boreholes in Marsabit County, Kenya. Community leaders organize when people and their animals can drink from the borehole, Nov. 3, 2021.

Halima Gikandi/The World

While leaders meet in Glasgow, Scotland, to hammer out a climate deal aimed at limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, millions of people are coping with the reality of the 1.2 degrees of warming that’s already happened.

Guyo Ibrae is one of them. Ibrae is a herder in northern Kenya, where drought is killing off livestock and has pushed more than 2 million people toward hunger.

Related: Ongoing drought devastates parts of Kenya

“We do not have water. We also do not have grass or pasture.” 

Guyo Ibrae, Kenya, herder

“We do not have water. We also do not have grass or pasture,” he said last week near a borehole driven deep into the ground to make watering holes.

Herders passed by him after long journeys to water their goats, donkeys and camels, some with ribs sticking out.

At the UN climate summit, or COP26, in Glasgow, developing countries, including Kenya, are asking for financial help for people like Ibrae — those already enduring what the UN calls “losses and damages” stemming from climate change.

Financing for losses and damage wasn't on the official agenda at COP26, which goes through Nov. 12, but it’s emerging as one of the summit’s most contentious issues.

Developed countries, more than a decade ago, pledged $100 billion of climate finance per year by 2020, a goal they haven’t yet met. But that included funding only for mitigation, or projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and adaptation.

This week, coalitions of developing countries, including the Climate Vulnerable Forum and the Alliance of Small Island States, are calling for a specific category of funding for loss and damage to be included in talks about a new climate finance target; and the ability to report their loss and damage needs through the Green Climate Fund, which currently funds clean energy and adaptation projects.

A coalition of the most vulnerable nations have said real progress needs to be made on this issue or they’ll consider the summit a failure. And for the first time ever last week, a government — that of Scotland — has pledged money specifically for losses and damages.

Related: At COP26, island nations push hard for countries to meet goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius

Developing countries have been lobbying for years for money through the UN system to tackle this issue, and for years, developed countries have answered with a firm “no” to financial compensation. Paying for damages would amount, they argue, to an admission of responsibility for climate change that they’re not willing to make.

Now, after a summer of huge losses from extreme weather events in the developed world, developing countries think these damages are becoming impossible to deny, giving them a stronger case than ever.

‘We need to address loss and damage’

Damages here mean things that can be replaced, like Ibae’s livestock.

The seasonal rains in Kenya are less reliable than in the past, and drought is expected to grow worse as the climate warms more.

Ibrae said no one has gotten through this dry spell without losing an animal.

“When the livestock are there, we have food. Without them, we don’t have anything to eat and no milk to drink. It’s scary,” he said.

In the opening days of the summit, world leaders’ speeches were peppered with mentions of loss and damage and the need for increased climate finance.

“Tuvalu and other low-lying atoll nations are sinking. Whatever our progress in combating climate change, there will likely be countries who cannot adapt. And we will see significant loss and damage.”

Kausea Natano, prime minister, Tuvalu

“Tuvalu and other low-lying atoll nations are sinking,” said the prime minister of Tuvalu, Kausea Natano, in a speech at the beginning of the climate summit, adding, “Whatever our progress in combating climate change, there will likely be countries who cannot adapt. And we will see significant loss and damage.”

Given this truth, Tuvalu needs money, he said.

Related: This teen climate activist is blazing a new path to raise environmental awareness in China

Saleemul Huq, director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University of Bangladesh in Dhaka, Bangladesh, serves as an adviser to two coalitions of vulnerable nations.

“These impacts aren't going to happen in the future. They are already happening right now, as we speak,” he told The World in Glasgow.

The world hasn’t been able to avoid these impacts or prevent them, he said, adding, “And so, we need to address it, and that's what the demand from the vulnerable countries in particular here in COP is, is we need to address loss and damage.”

‘Liability’ and ‘compensation’ have become dirty words

Loss and damage have surfaced at climate summits for more than a decade, but the talk has been around research, mechanisms for sharing technical expertise and reducing risk, like special insurance programs for farmers. Compensation has been a nonstarter.

While the Paris Agreement was being negotiated, the US and other developed countries blocked any language that would open the door to legal liability.

“We have made it clear that we are supportive of the concept [of loss and damage], broadly speaking,” the former US climate envoy, Todd Stern, said in a press conference in Paris in 2015. “We’ve also made it clear that we are not at all supportive of, and would not accept the notion of, liability and compensation being part of that.”

“‘Liability’ and “compensation” have really become dirty words in this space, and they’re a bit taboo, and you don’t often hear them uttered in the negotiations themselves,” said political science professor Lisa Vanhala, who studies the politics of loss and damage at University College London.

Related: Why COP26 is the ‘last, best hope’ for fighting climate change 

Developing countries say legal claims aren’t what they’re looking for. But the idea of putting a price tag on climate impacts is dizzyingly complex.

“How do you even start to think about compensating when an island disappears,” Vanhala said. “What does that mean, how do you make that right, what does restitution look like?”

For damages alone, estimates of annual costs by 2030 tally in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

“I think that’s where the nervousness comes from. It’s so broad, and it’s so big.”

A new understanding of climate impacts  

But a lot has changed in the six years since the Paris Agreement was signed.

The science linking climate change to worsening extreme weather events has become unequivocal, highlighted in a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published this summer. Scientists can now say a particular hurricane was made more intense by climate change, or drought was more likely.

Sarah Kew from the Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute said that she and her colleagues at the World Weather Attribution initiative were able to draw an even stronger conclusion for recent heat waves in the Pacific Northwest and Siberia.

“When you look back at the past climate, you would never get events of that extremity. So, you can say then, with very, very high certainty, that that specific event happened because of climate change. And that’s something that we haven’t been able to say before.”

Sarah Kew, Royal Dutch Meteorological Institute

“When you look back at the past climate, you would never get events of that extremity. So, you can say then, with very, very high certainty, that that specific event happened because of climate change,” she said. “And that’s something that we haven’t been able to say before.”

At the summit in Glasgow, observers say the improved science has changed the conversation about losses and damages both inside the negotiating rooms and in public.

“There is a different recognition this time around in terms of what science is telling us, and developing countries have picked up on many of the elements in the IPCC report in terms of the limitation that adaptation efforts will encounter if the temperature rise continues to grow,” said Lorena Gonzalez, senior associate for UN climate finance at the World Resources Institute.

Related: US credibility on climate on the line in Washington

In his opening speech at the summit, President Joe Biden called on countries that have done the most to cause climate change to do more for those who have done the least.

“We have to help. Much more than we have thus far,” he said.

In a recent speech, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon framed the issue as one of climate justice.

“For a very, very long time, we have enjoyed all of the material benefits of the carbon emissions that are causing climate change. And — like so many other developed nations — we have benefited much more than those countries that are now facing and experiencing the worst impacts of the crisis.”

Sturgeon called on leaders at the summit to address losses and damages caused by droughts, floods, desertification, loss of life and population displacement.

“But it can’t simply be discussed — we must see progress. I know this is something I’ll be following closely during the summit.”

Huq, a veteran of these negotiations, doesn’t see money for losses and damages flowing through the UN system, because decisions at these climate summits require consensus.

“That's inside the negotiations. But outside the negotiations,” Huq said, “in the city of Glasgow, in the country of Scotland, stuff is happening.”

Huq hopes that Scotland’s move to earmark 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) for loss and damage, is the beginning of a “coalition of the willing” banding together outside of the UN framework.

“To my mind, the climate change problem now is an ethical problem, and I call it the biggest injustice in the world,” he said.

He blames wealthier people, mostly in wealthier nations, for the adverse impacts of pollution and other activities.

“And poor people around the world are suffering the consequences. That's just morally wrong. And we should do something about it.”

Halima Gikandi contributed reporting from Kenya for this story.