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Loss and Damage as a common climate cause

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People are already losing their homes, livelihoods, and lives to the effects of climate change

COMMENT | NAVEEDA KHAN | As this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) starts, those leading it continue to inspire concern and even indignation. After all, the host will be the United Arab Emirates, among the world’s largest oil-producing countries, and the head of the state-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, Sultan Al Jaber, will be running the proceedings. But is that really so bad?

The Middle East is not exactly the climate champion of our time. Regional leaders have historically doubted climate science and often refused to help poorer countries suffering from climate-related damage. But it is the role of Al Jaber himself that is most controversial. As U.S. Representative Ro Khanna put it, having the head of a national oil company as the president-designate of a climate conference is a “slap in the face to young climate activists.”

This explains why, earlier this year, over 130 members of the U.S. Congress and the European Parliament signed a letter calling for his removal. But while the developed world has largely balked at Al Jaber’s appointment, many developing countries openly support it.

The UN-sponsored global climate negotiations are intended to keep countries – both friends and rivals – engaged with one another and aware that, despite our differences, we all share a planet. While they tend to be dominated by the actors one might expect – developed countries like the United States, as well as rising powers like China – they are also one of the rare multilateral forums where questions of historical responsibility might be raised.

To be sure, the advanced economies do not exactly reckon with their legacy of violent and extractive colonialism at COPs, even though that history directly enabled their industrialisation and all the associated greenhouse-gas emissions. But, to some extent, they do acknowledge their disproportionate contributions to climate change. Meanwhile, smaller, poorer countries are granted a kind of moral authority and, often, the opportunity to exercise greater political voice than they have elsewhere.

My country, Bangladesh, is a case in point. In recent years, Bangladesh has been battered by severe cyclones and floods, which will only worsen as sea levels rise. And yet it accounts for just 0.4% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

Countless well-meaning academics and activists have underscored this imbalance, though often in simplistic and unconstructive ways. I distinctly remember watching with dread as a Western climate scientist recounted the real-world effects of climate change – and, in particular, the horrors that lay ahead for vulnerable countries at a 2015 conference at the University of Oregon. When she brought up Bangladesh, she began to sob as she repeated her desperate question: “What have they done to deserve this?” Heads swiveled in my direction  I was the only Bangladeshi person at the conference but I could only sit slumped at my seat, skewered by a lance of pity and liberal guilt.

As an anthropologist who has studied COPs for nearly a decade, I have watched developing countries approach climate negotiations in surprising and creative ways. And I can assure you Bangladesh is not as hapless as that panel speaker implied. As the sociologist Kasia Paprocki has observed, the highly market-friendly Bangladesh has turned climate-change adaptation into an economic opportunity. Similarly, the anthropologist Jason Cons has pointed out that Bangladesh has managed to cultivate the contradictory image of a country on the brink of ruin from climate change and one flush with economic opportunity.

At COPs, Bangladesh has distinguished itself as a leader on the issue of loss and damage. While the emotional theatrics are unnecessary, it bears repeating that, in countries like Bangladesh, people are already losing their homes, livelihoods, and lives to the effects of climate change. Even if the world begins to reduce emissions rapidly, these losses will not be undone.

Loss and damage makes developed countries nervous. If they acknowledge that climate change cannot be fully mitigated, and that there are limits to human and ecosystem adaptation, the next logical step could well be to seek legal means of pressuring them to pay far more to compensate climate-vulnerable countries.

Recognising this, Bangladesh initially took a diplomatic approach to the issue of loss and damage: instead of pushing developed economies to assume liability, it advocated protections for climate-displaced refugees, such as a resettlement policy or a refugee-coordination agency. A Bangladeshi delegate was involved in the creation of the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damage in 2013, and Bangladeshi voices contributed to the agreement to establish a Loss and Damage Fund at last year’s COP.

Bangladesh is also a member of the Like-Minded Developing Countries, established in 2012 to keep the needs and interests of the Global South on the COP agenda. Not all the LMDC’s members, from Pakistan to China, have the moral authority of Bangladesh when it comes to climate change. Hearing Saudi Arabia, for example, weigh in on historical emissions or debt distress is a bit rich. But wealthier Middle Eastern countries lend a certain rhetorical and political heft to the LMDC’s cause. This might explain why so many poorer countries, including Bangladesh, are coming out in support of a COP host that continues to woo oil companies even as it advocates for green energy.

In this sense, the leadership of the UAE and Al Jaber may not be out of line with the goals of young climate activists after all. On the contrary, the future these activists seek to avoid is already the reality for countries like Bangladesh. Effective action on loss and damage today – the action the Global South is fighting for – would thus serve everyone’s interests. Any effort by the UAE to use its position to advance progress on this front should be welcomed.


Naveeda Khan, a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University and author of `In Quest of a Shared Planet: Negotiating Climate from the Global South’ (Fordham University Press, 2023).

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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