Interview: climate litigation looms

| 11th December 2018
Dr Saleemul Huq
Dr Saleemul Huq explains we must stay below 1.5ºC - and why loss and damage compensation, and litigation, are the next big agenda items at COP24.

It is not just poor vulnerable countries that need to worry. It is the whole world that needs to worry, and not want to get to 2ºC. 2ºC is bad for everyone! 

Nick Breeze (NB) for The Ecologist: When we are talking about the increased frequency of extreme weather events in the last few years, do you feel concerned about where we are heading?

Saleemul Huq (SH): Absolutely concerned. We have a 1℃ temperature rise already and we see these extreme events getting worse and worse. Even if we go up to 1.5ºC, they are still going to get more extreme and frequent. If we go up to 2 degrees, they go off the charts, and higher, they are off the charts, and we are still going to have to deal with and adapt to that.

That is where I come in. The work that I do is in adapting to climate change in Bangladesh, which is, I argue, the country that is furthest ahead in tackling climate change.

NB: Last year at COP23 you had the message that fossil fuel polluters had to pay their share of the climate bill. Is that still a focus for you this year?

SH: In the negotiations, there are 4 groups: the vulnerable countries group which I speak for, the Small Island States, the Africa group and the Latin America group. These 4 groups have agreed that loss and damage is happening already. It is not something that is going to happen. It is not something we need to start worrying about in the future, it is something we have to worry about right now.

Although there is no decision to be made here at COP24 on Loss and Damage, there will be one next year at COP25, when the Warsaw International Mechanism comes up for review. We feel that compensation of financing loss and damage is something we need to talk about. 

So we are talking about it, raising the issue, talking informally with everybody, and hoping that by next year at COP25 we can actually get a consensus around a decision to start compensation for loss and damage, under the UN Framework on Climate Change.

NB: So you think that will happen within the UN Framework?

SH: We are lobbying for that. We are asking for that. We are looking at opportunities to find ways of putting polluter-pay levies on polluters to raise the money. So there are two aspects: one is agreeing that there should be a fund for loss and damage, that is what the UNFCCC does, and the other aspect is where does the money come from?

We are saying then, on the one hand, let’s agree to have the fund and on the other hand let’s get the money from the polluters!

NB: Do you think litigation as a tool is going to become more prominent?

SH: I think so. I think litigation’s time has come. Especially as we are now in a position to very scientifically and validly attribute harm caused due to human-induced climate change. The recent events we saw like the wildfires in California, hurricane Florence in the Atlantic, typhoon Mangkhut in the Pacific; in each of these events, the scientists were able to attribute impacts because of human-induced climate change. 

This is due to the large temperature increase of about 1 degree, that we have already caused! These are human-caused events. They are not happening because of climate change but they are worse because of climate change. It is the fact that they are more severe that causes loss and damage.

NB: If we do go into a litigation process, it is a big change to how we tackle this problem of climate justice, isn’t it?

SH: Going into litigation is an admission of failure. The framework convention was set up to help us avoid us going into litigation, by agreeing on actions before they happen. In essence, the Annex 1 countries accepted, by being named in Annex 1, that they are the ones who caused the pollution. They were the ones who needed to rectify the situation and help other countries. They failed to do that and if they fail to do that then the courts are the only other avenue we can take.

NB: Do you think it is fair to say that litigation is the teeth that the framework doesn’t have?

SH: Precisely! The framework is based on consensus agreements between polluters and victims of pollution, but the polluters have really failed on two counts. Firstly, reducing their pollution; they have not done enough. Secondly, compensating the victims of pollution; they haven’t done enough. The only thing left for us to do is to take them to court.

NB: Where do you see the progress on staying below 1.5ºC, is it still achievable?

SH: The 1.5ºC target that we, the vulnerable developing countries, have argued for in the Paris Agreement, and managed to have included as a target, has now, because of the IPCC special report on 1.5ºC, got huge momentum in this process. 

What they have shown scientifically is that there is a huge difference between 1.5 and 2 degrees. It is not just poor vulnerable countries that need to worry. It is the whole world that needs to worry, and not want to get to 2ºC. 2ºC is bad for everyone! 

So trying to get 1.5ºC now is much much more required, and the other part of the IPCC report is that it can be done. It is difficult but it can still be done. It means that all countries are committing to go to zero emissions by 2050, and you are seeing country after country do that. Specifically many of the vulnerable countries have already committed to do it and we hope others will.

NB: Do you think the timeline will become more pressured as we get closer?

SH: We have to be more and more ambitious, and we need some countries to lead. California, for example, has committed to 2045 to go to zero emissions. So we want more countries to start emulating and leading on this. If we can build momentum then it is possible to stay below 1.5!

NB: What do you think of the growth of the youth movement?

SH: I am an absolute great fan of the youth. I think we are on the cusp of changing the dynamic on tackling climate change from what used to be a rich versus poor, or even left versus right. It is now a young versus old issue and I am on the side of the young… even though I am an old man and one that caused the problem, I have faith in the young and I think we have to support them. And listen to them

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate change journalist, blogs at envisionation.co.uk and is a co-founder of the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series. He can be followed on Twitter at @NickGBreeze.

Dr. Saleemul Huq is a Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University of Bangladesh, a Senior Fellow of the International Institute for Environment and Development, and an advisor in the UNFCCC negotiations.

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