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In international climate discourse, ‘loss and damage’ refers to the destructive and irreversible consequences of global warming that cannot be avoided by mitigation or adaptation. The devastation may arise from extreme weather events or more slow-onset catastrophes, such as rising sea levels, and includes both economic (damage to livelihood and property) and non-economic (loss of life, biodiversity, and cultural heritage) costs. More specifically, the term is used when discussing how to support developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. It has been an area of contention for the past 30 years, pitting the Global North against the Global South. Despite this, ‘loss and damage’ has been added to the agenda for discussion at COP27 for the first time. 

Talk of ‘loss and damage’ dominated the first day of the conference and Labour was quick to back calls for such payments as ‘morally right’. Sunak echoed this language when reiterating the government’s commitment to honouring its climate finance obligations of £11.6 billion. But he maintained a studied reticence on the topic of compensation, implicitly aligning himself with Johnson’s more frank admission that Britain simply couldn’t afford it. The backlash on this issue (from those on both sides of the debate) overshadowed the Prime Minister’s announcement that the UK would also triple funding on adaptation to £1.5 billion by 2025.

Many of the countries worst-affected by climate change emit only a small proportion of the world’s carbon. Understandably, they feel angry that they must bear the brunt of the burden, which may even constitute an existential threat for many small island states. It is without question that Britain and other wealthy nations should help with global adaptation and mitigation efforts, as well as provide timely aid when disasters strike. This is both our moral duty and self-evidently in our own interest.

But those calling for ‘loss and damage’ payments do not only seek to institutionalise an insurance scheme that is wholly separate and distinct from existing conduits of climate financing and support. More problematically, they also appear to presume a right to such compensation based on the assumption that today’s wealthy nations share the collective guilt for industrialising first. As such, it has (despite Ed Miliband’s best efforts) effectively become synonymous with the controversial notion of ‘reparations’. As evinced by the quandary over slavery reparations in the US, this concept is mired in all sorts of political, moral, practical, philosophical, and legal challenges, which are only magnified when applied to climate justice. 

First, it is not at all clear that Britain has a ‘historical responsibility’ to provide reparations because of our pioneering role in the industrial revolution – a revolution that has, for all its many flaws, produced previously unimaginable riches that have improved the lives of billions of people all over the world. Playing such accounting blame games seems neither sound nor fair, and risks opening more dangerous doors (should, for example, Britain demand royalties for her early inventions and innovations?)

In addition, Britain’s cumulative emissions have long since been overtaken by other countries. It is certainly true that we have benefited from structural changes in our economy, particularly the offshoring of manufacturing, and we must not overly greenwash the carbon footprint in our supply chains. Still, other ‘developing’ countries, including China and India, emit substantially more and yet do not face the same pressure or opprobrium. 

Moreover, it is not necessary to be a climate denier to concede that the explanation behind the scale, frequency, and occurrence of adverse weather conditions is multifaceted. It should, by now, be beyond dispute that man-made global warming has made such extreme disasters more likely or more severe. Many were shocked by the severe flooding in Pakistan, which has, unsurprisingly, been a vociferous advocate of the compensation scheme. Yet it cannot be denied that Pakistan has suffered from major (and worse) floods before, nor should its alarming rate of deforestation be ignored. The country is already one of the largest recipients of UK aid, as it struggles to shore up its crumbling infrastructure and support its growing population (which has expanded over sixfold from 33 million to 235 million over the last 70 years) – all the while somehow maintaining an expensive nuclear weapons and space programme. Given all this, how exactly would the UK’s ‘loss and damage’ bill to Pakistan be calculated?

Perhaps most importantly, there would – justifiably – be significant uproar from large segments of the general population at the prospect of paying any reparations. Debt-addled Britain is anxiously bracing itself for the inevitable real-terms and actual cuts in the upcoming Autumn Statement. ‘Crisis’ seems to be the order of the day with regards to energy, education, housing, health and social care. And all this is amidst the backdrop of long-term stagnation in wages and productivity. No party – least of all the party of levelling up, of the 2019 mandate, and of one-nation Conservatism – can lecture struggling, working people about their historic ancestral sins and make them cough up reparations as atonement for their ill-gotten gains. Not unless, of course, it fancies an indefinite stint in Opposition (or worse) and wishes to incur the electorate’s wrath, nurture the most dangerous and irrational wings of extreme populism, and set the climate agenda back by a generation through a needless alienation of the public.

So what should the government do instead? If Britain has any historic obligation, it may be to channel the gusty entrepreneurial spirit of the industrial revolution into achieving net zero. This may include identifying and producing cutting-edge technology (green hydrogen, for example, is set to be a huge growth sector, promising plentiful energy and employment), as well as cutting the Gordian knot when it comes to our restrictive planning laws. We should be generous with sharing new technology with the rest of the world, while ensuring that we scrupulously honour our climate finance and aid obligations in the meantime. Finally, the government should genuinely try to persuade the nation that net zero is in their personal interest by intertwining the climate agenda with both national security and levelling up

Wealthy countries have a moral responsibility to do more and pay up. But sanctimonious rhetoric about reparations is rarely effective and often highly divisive. Tackling climate change is simply too important to be side-lined because of that. 

Sang-Hwa is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Chris Gallagher]