Losing it at COP27

Protester with Just Stop Oil arrested in London ahead of the COP27 conference. Image: Alisdare Hickson

The end of 1.5C and the question of loss, damage and hope.

Hope is fighting for climate reparations, for closing migrant detention centres.

The 27th Conference of the Parties climate talks have started in Egypt. World leaders come into this round of climate negotiations with no credible plan to stay below 1.5C of climate change, with no substantive improvements on the previous pledges at COP26 in Glasgow, and without any guarantee of the finance necessary for adaption for the countries least responsible for the crisis, promises made close to a decade ago.

We come to this COP off the back of years of nightmarish news headlines – of global plagues, and floods, fires in the Arctic circle and everywhere else, of mass animal die-offs and killer heatwaves.

At a time of rising fascism and xenophobia, the world’s wealthy countries seemingly united against the specter of future climate migrants.

Disastrous effects

The climate crisis is emphatically here, with even the 1.3C increase in average global temperatures we are currently experiencing seeming like planetary disaster.

And while the climate crisis appears to have only just arrived in the world’s wealthiest countries in the last few years, its impact has been long felt in the majority world. Climate catastrophe is uneven and profoundly unjust in its progress.

With no new pledges, no real plans, and with a profound lack of concrete action and ever increasing expansion in new fossil fuels, the goal of staying below 1.5C is in any meaningful sense gone. Below 2C is at this point looking heroic, with somewhere between that and 3C likely even under ideal circumstances.

The current reality of the disastrous effects of the climate crisis on the majority world and the catastrophe of likely future climatic changes are profoundly changing climate politics.

The question is no longer about stopping climate change, but finding ways to limit the damage and live with it.

Loss and damage

The demand for compensation for the loss and damaged caused by climate change is on the COP27 finance agenda after being first raised almost 30 years ago, and being rejected just last year at COP26 in Glasgow.

Loss and damage refers to the impacts of climate change – in the past, the present and future. Damage refers to those things like buildings that can be repaired, while losses refer to those things lost completely, such as lives, places and forests.

Loss and damage is more than the promised-but-not-delivered finance for adaption, that US$100 billion promise made to Global South countries to help them cut emissions and adapt to climate change.

Hope is fighting for climate reparations, for closing migrant detention centres.

Finance for adaption was supposed to be delivered by 2020, but fell short by US$20 billion, with the major polluting countries such as the US, UK and Australia not delivering on their fair share. This failed US$100 billion promise is also far too little, with the real cost of cutting emissions and adaption being closer to US$2 trillion per year by 2030.

Loss and damage goes beyond this however. While adaption is a question of money, it’s not only a question of money. Some changes can’t be adapted to. And the longer adaption is left, the more damage and loss mounts. Beyond this, much damage and lost cannot be expressed as a monetary value. What price can be put on a culture? A way of life, a home, autonomy or even for some countries sovereignty?

The issue of compensation for what is lost due to the carbon emissions of a handful of industrial and wealthy nations will be central to COP27, with a number of countries declaring the entire validity of the COP process rests on confirming a mechanism to deal with loss and damage.

So far, while it has made the agenda, and there has been a statement that ‘something’ must be decided and adopted by 2024, it has also been made clear by the COP27 president that any outcome around loss and damage must be based on cooperation and facilitation and will not involve ‘liability or compensation’.

That is, given the track record of failure by the world’s super polluting nation states, and the hints that the US will only pay up on climate finance if African countries agree to become major suppliers of carbon offsets, we can expect very little in the way of concrete binding commitments. What we’ve seen so far is a small amount being committed, with much of it being tied to existing schemes or coming in the form of loans and climate debt, and a general avoidance of any real commitment.

The moral and political argument for loss and damage is unimpeachable. The countries that contribute least to climate change continue to suffer the most. The cost to them has already been high, and with a global recession looming and the growing threat of a massive debt crisis in the Global South, one that the worlds super polluting states are profiting from, there is no ability to pay the billions needed to limit future loss and damage. Clearly those responsible like the UK must pay.

A shift in climate politics

This debate on loss and damage is critical. The strong stance by G77 countries, coupled with geopolitical shifts around the war in Ukraine and the move to a more multi-polar world order, may subtly mark the emergence of a new era in international relations.

And while this is critical, we should also recognize that the rise in prominence of loss and damage, and the conversation around whether or not 1.5C is now ‘out of reach’, indicates a major shift underway in climate politics.

Climate politics is increasing going to be orientated not around stopping climate change before dangerous levels are reached, but limiting the damage. Both by looking for the least bad outcome and peaking emissions before unlivable change sets in, and figuring out how to justly live with some climate change and the hostile environment it produces.

Adaption is still a new conversation, and despite numerous research articles and predictions, it is not entirely clear what living with some climate change means. It is likely that while we need to talk about disaster, we also need to focus more on the slower, less spectacular changes to where we live, how we work and what that means.

These changes will not be confined to the Global South, although the biggest impacts will affect these countries the most. The crucial divide at a global level will be one of wealth and power, with those people in the Global North having the least of both likely to profoundly suffer without political action. The exposure to risk and danger is increasing divided along class lines at a world scale, much like carbon emissions.

This is not to say that the flooding of a third of Pakistan and the planned abandonment of a large number of settlements in Norfolk are the same. The scale is profoundly uneven, but in both instances the outcome is unjust.

And in both places, austerity, cuts to government funding and support, and the impacts of rampant capitalism will undermine people’s ability to adapt. One thing is true: we are yet to fully grasp the scale and depth of loss and damage we now face.

What grounds for hope?

How can we campaign then, given this future? What is left for hope? It could be said climate politics does not need hope, only rage at the injustice and destruction of the world within which we live. Yet hope is critical as a way of carrying us into action and a liveable and just future.

Hope up until now has been tied to the idea that climate change could be stopped. Even now to suggest keeping temperatures to below 1.5C will not happen is to attract the ire of legions of professional climate optimists.

This has long meant climate politics has had two faces – a for-the-public, optimistic one; and one for those quiet private conversations where the future is described in apocalyptic tones.

Climate hope has long been thin, yet despite the fear that losing hope would inspire apathy, it has formed the basis for the resurgence of the climate movement in the UK in many ways. Fear, as much as hope, can and has inspired action.

Yet losing this particular hope does not mean embracing our extinction or the apocalypse. Crossing the 1.5C line does not immediately spell the end of the world. Catastrophe unfolds in fits and starts, and often the violence of climate change comes slowly, unspectacularly, and, as is already happening, erodes people’s lives without photogenic moments.

The reality is people already have been, and are, living with climate change impacts. And as the temperature rises, more will do so. It’s within this reality we need to ground hope. Hope has to adapt along with people.

We need to reconceive of hope in a time of climate crisis. This means finding ways of living with climatic change whilst still fighting to minimise it. Hope can’t be reduced to mere survival – not going extinct is not enough. It’s never enough to just survive. Survivalism is the horizon of an ecofascist future.

The debate around loss and damage pushing us to conceive of hope as solidarity, as a refusal to let places and people be abandoned. Hope is fighting for climate reparations, for closing migrant detention centres; it’s found on blockades and picket lines; at abortion rights demos; it is found where ever we collectively stand together and fight.

This Author

Dr Nicholas Beuret is a lecturer in management and ecological sustainability at the University of Essex. His research has been published in journals including AntipodeScience and Culture and South Atlantic Quarterly.

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