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Poor countries push for compensation over damage caused by climate change


Developing nations at the international climate summit in Glasgow are there to tell world leaders that they've already experienced more extreme disasters, and they're pushing for wealthier nations to compensate them for the damage. Thing is, though, that is becoming a major sticking point in the negotiations. NPR's Lauren Sommer is here to tell us all about it. Lauren, what case are developing countries making about why they should be compensated?

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: It comes down to who is the most responsible for human-caused climate change. Many poorer countries produce few greenhouse gases. Their emissions are a tiny slice of the overall pie, but they're still facing some of the most damaging impacts, like extreme storms and flooding. And if you add up all the emissions since the Industrial Revolution, the U.S. and the European Union are the largest emitters cumulatively. So developing nations - and this is primarily a group of the 46 poorest countries spanning from Africa to small islands in the Pacific - they're arguing that richer countries caused the problem and should help pay for it.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So it sounds like we're talking about liability. What kinds of things are they seeking compensation for?

SOMMER: So they're looking for two categories, loss and damage. Loss is things that can never be replaced, like people losing their lives or entire species going extinct. And damage could be the homes and buildings destroyed after a hurricane or crops that die in a drought. Right now, many developing countries don't have the hundreds of millions of dollars it can take to recover from a disaster, and some are going deeper into debt every time they get hit. Here's how Mia Mottley, the prime minister of Barbados, described it at the Glasgow summit this week.


PRIME MINISTER MIA MOTTLEY: It is like my throwing garbage into your yard and telling you that you must pay to clean it up, even if it means that you can't pay your mortgage, you can't pay to buy food, you can't pay to do anything because you now have to spend all of your money on the garbage that I have thrown into your yard. It is unjust, and it is immoral.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, hurricanes and storms are getting more extreme as the climate gets hotter, but they also happened before climate change, of course. So is it possible to parse out somehow just how much of a disaster that developed countries might be responsible for?

SOMMER: Yeah, it's a key question. And it's becoming a lot more possible to measure how climate change can amplify extreme weather because of advances in climate science. There's a group of scientists called the World Weather Attribution initiative. And within weeks or months of a disaster, they run complex computer models and are able to narrow in on the climate change fingerprints. So for example, Hurricane Harvey, which hit Houston in 2017, was 15% more intense due to climate change. Now, those scientists point out that doesn't tell the whole story about damage. It's not just about how strong the storm is. It's also how strong your buildings are, so who is at fault is a really complex question.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So how are developed countries responding to all this? I mean, does it look like they're at least open to providing loss and damage compensation at this climate summit?

SOMMER: They've been very reticent. When loss and damage came up at the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, developed countries were very careful to put language in there that says it doesn't mean they're admitting liability for climate change. I spoke to Columbia University legal fellow Maria Antonia Tigre, and she said they're trying to protect themselves from future legal cases.

MARIA ANTONIA TIGRE: It's always something that developed countries have been very cautious about exactly because they don't want it to be a precedent for international courts. They really do want to avoid that responsibility because it can be endless.

SOMMER: There was one big step forward at the Glasgow summit. Scotland says it will put 1 million pounds into a loss and damage fund, but we haven't seen a lot of movement besides that. And for many developing countries, if there isn't progress on this issue in the next few days, they'll see these climate talks as a failure.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR climate correspondent Lauren Sommer. Lauren, thanks a lot.

SOMMER: Thanks.


A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Lauren Sommer covers climate change for NPR's Science Desk, from the scientists on the front lines of documenting the warming climate to the way those changes are reshaping communities and ecosystems around the world.