Discussions of compensating Arctic communities for loss and damage are not on the table at COP27, whose focus is on the developing world.
AAs I boarded a British Airways flight from Seattle to London the other day, across the aisle, I overheard a fellow passenger tell the flight attendant he was making his way from Alaska via Seattle and London to Cairo. I gathered he was most likely on his way to the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, which kicked off yesterday.
This year, people from the Arctic have to travel a long way to get to the annual international climate rendezvous. Ironically, those coming from Alaska have perhaps the worst carbon footprints of all delegates. Last year, COP26 was held in the rather more convenient location of Glasgow, Scotland. On September 30 of this year, a 7,767-km non-stop running relay called ‘Running Out of Time‘ set off to wend its way across Europe and the Mediterranean to Egypt, arriving tomorrow – probably right around when that fellow from Alaska will touch down on the dusty ochre runway of Sharm el-Sheikh.
As delegates from over 200 countries gather in the 28°C desert heat just a week before the 8th billionth human will be born, a big item on the table is “Loss and Damage”. The term describes the bleak realities of climate change’s most destructive impacts, which neither mitigation nor adaptation can help avoid. This includes sudden events, such as this summer’s severe floods in Pakistan, and slow onset events, like sea level rise that is gradually inundating low-lying islands and eating away Alaskan coastlines. Loss and damage affects not only physical and environmental assets, but ecological and cultural assets, too. Warming temperatures are leading to a decline in the condition of seals, which provide a crucial source of sustenance to Arctic Indigenous Peoples. Reindeer herders’ animals can no longer reach the grass beneath the snow in winter due to random layers of frozen rain interspersed as a result of a more volatile climate, known as “rain-on-snow events”.
Putting climate reparations on the table – and money where (some) of the mouths are
As lower income countries are both more vulnerable to climate change and less responsible for historic greenhouse gas emissions, wealthier, industrialized nations arguably have a responsibility to help make them whole. One study forecasts that the economic cost of loss and damage could total $1 trillion by 2050.
On Sunday night, COP27 attendees agreed to put climate compensation on the agenda for the first time. This is a big step, for many of the world’s richest countries previously opposed discussion of climate reparations. Underscoring the urgency of addressing loss and damage, in Monday morning’s opening remarks, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres declared:
“We must acknowledge a harsh truth, there is no adapting to a growing number of catastrophes causing enormous suffering around the world. The deadly impacts of climate change are here and now. Loss and damage can no longer be swept under the rug.”
UN SECRETARY GENERAL ANTÓNIO GUTERRES AT COP27, 7 NOVEMBER 23
Guterres did more than just wave his arms. He called for universal early warning systems coverage within five years and for all governments to “tax the windfall profits of fossil fuel companies” in order for the money to be redirected to “people struggling with rising food and energy prices and to countries suffering loss and damage caused by the climate crisis.”
Many hope that COP27 can generate momentum for the world’s richest countries to contribute to climate finance – and the institutional arrangements necessary to organize and distribute any funds. Yet if Guterres’ remarks are any indicator, climate reparations will be delegated on a country-by-country basis, reflecting the Westphalian division of the world into 195 independent sovereign states. While climate change transcends borders, problematically, climate reparations won’t.
Denmark and Scotland: the little nations that could
So far, only three polities have pledged funds for loss and damage: Scotland, Wallonia, and Denmark. Last year at COP26, Scotland pledged £2 million ($2.3 million) for loss and damage, while the government of the Belgian region of Wallonia offered €1 million ($1 million) to assist with administration.
Then, this year in September at the UN General Assembly, Denmark became the first central government to announce it would pay up. Copenhagen will provide provide DKK 100m ($13.3 million) for loss and damage, going against the grain of other wealthy nations. (To put this amount in perspective, the net profits of Denmark’s largest emitter, international cement-producing company Aalborg Portland, were $328 million in 2021).
Of the miniscule but symbolically important sum that Denmark is offering, $5.3 million will be administered to communities in developing countries by civil society groups, particularly in the Sahel region of Africa. $4.7 million will go to insurance schemes that help communities hit by climate disasters to rebuild, though some analysts have criticized this component as not offering direct aid. The remaining $3.3 million from Denmark will be set aside in a “strategic” reserve that hopefully will be institutionalized at COP27.
Will Greenland and Arctic Indigenous communities be left out of international climate reparations?
While it is all well and good that Denmark is assisting developing nations in Africa and around the world, there are two elephants in the room: the country of Greenland and other communities in the Arctic, all of which lie within wealthy nations. Both groups are experiencing the brunt of climate change in severe ways. Just weeks after a third of Pakistan was underwater, in September, the Greenland ice sheet experienced a “massive and unseasonal” melting. At a time when the ice should be refreezing, thousands of periwinkle blue pools opened on top of the ice, as sighted by the European Union’s Sentinel 3 satellite.
Greenland: The responsibility and agency to act on climate
One worry with loss and damage funds is that they may be only accessible by sovereign nation states, leaving subnational governments unable to directly access them. This could leave out places like Greenland, which is a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. The Government of Greenland successfully requested that Denmark effectuate a territorial exclusion for Greenland during negotiations for the second phase of the Kyoto Protocol, which meant that it was exempt from international reduction commitments between 2013 and 2020.
In 2021 at COP26, however, Greenland announced it would join the Paris Agreement. At the time, Prime Minister of Greenland Múte Bourup Egede pronounced, “The Arctic region is one of the areas on our planet where the effects of global warming is felt the most, and we believe that we must take responsibility collectively. That means that we too, must contribute our share.” Rather than seeing itself as purely a victim of climate change, Greenland, which is fast advancing industrial development in the form of airport construction and mining (if not oil, for which the government decided last year to stop issuing new leases “for the sake of our fisheries, for the sake of our tourism industry, and to focus our business on sustainable potentials”), may see itself as having the agency and responsibility to act on climate change.
Siberian Indigenous communities: Left out in the warm
More complicated than Greenland may be the position of Indigenous communities in places like Alaska and, yet more vulnerably, Siberia. These lie in the wealthy, developed nations of the U.S. and Russia, respectively, and may therefore be ineligible for any United Nations loss and damage funds.
Beneficially for those in Alaska, the U.S. government, at least under more liberal administrations, is sensitive to climate change. Programs such as the Alaska Climate Change Impact Mitigation Program provide technical assistance and funding to communities affected by issues such as permafrost thaw and eroding shorelines, in the aim of developing “a planned approach to shoreline protection, building relocation and/or eventual relocation of the village.”
In Russia, however, few, if any, equivalent programs or funds exist. Indigenous Peoples are left to their own devices to mobilize against giant, polluting, state-owned extractive companies like Nornickel, whose operations release more sulfur dioxide into the air than the entire United States.
In the meantime, the Russian government has decided to send conscripts into Ukraine but not send its president to COP27 (nor, for that matter, did China nor India), cementing its status as a global bête-noir.
Loss and damage in the Arctic: 10,000 km³ of sea ice and counting
As the graphic below of sea ice volume and thickness shows, the Arctic now has about a third of the sea ice volume that it did in 1985. How will the region’s communities be compensated for the immense loss and damage to the ice, which is the physical and cultural underpinning of so many northern cultures?
Year-to-year variability with a long-term decline in September #Arctic sea ice volume (bar) and thickness (map). Updated through September 2022 🧊
— Zack Labe (@ZLabe) October 25, 2022
Such discussions may not be on the table at COP27, where the focus is rightly on the Global South and the wider developing world. Discussions of Arctic loss and damage are also often missing in the scientific literature, as Mia Landauer and Sirkku Juhola point out in one of the only articles on the topic. Indeed, the aforementioned study estimating $1 trillion in damages by 2050 tallied amounts in six regions: Middle East and North Africa (the worst affected), Sub-Saharan Africa, China, East Asia, and Latin and Central America. The Arctic was nowhere to be found.
On the one hand, the argument can be made that the national governments of the eight countries in the Arctic – the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Russia – can afford to deal with loss and damage in ways that, say, Mozambique, which is estimated to have lost 12.6% of its GDP in 2019 to climate change-related impacts such as droughts, floods, and cyclones, cannot. But on the other hand, national governments in the Arctic sometimes assist those in other countries while ignoring those in their northern reaches, who then have few other recourses available.
Discussions on Arctic loss and damage and climate reparations at a regional scale are thus crucial. Unfortunately, the most natural venue for supporting such discussions, the Arctic Council, is paralyzed due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Arctic Indigenous communities exist in a double bind. Living in a region warming four times faster than the global average, which the United Nations Environment Programme calls the world’s “climate change barometer,” they face some of the most rapid and radical impacts of a hotter, wetter planet. Yet, living within the borders of wealthy nations, they may not be able to access the new institutions and financial instruments emerging to assist with loss and damage.
Communities in the Russian Arctic face a triple bind amplified by the Russian government’s complete disregard of climate change and, as the U.S. State Department observed following Moscow’s blocking (along with Beijing) of the creation of Antarctic marine protected areas, its opposition to “consensus-based decision-making.”
Lately, the focus at Arctic events tends to be on the “just transition,” or how to ensure that communities do not get left behind as the world shifts to green energy. But we must also consider how to compensate those same communities for what they have already lost – and crucially do so with members of those communities at the negotiating table.
This post first appeared on Cryopolitics, an Arctic News and Analysis blog.
Related stories from around the North:
Canada: Climate conference hears loss of Arctic summer sea ice now inevitable by 2050, The Canadian Press
Greenland: COP27— Indigenous knowledge must be included in policy making say Inuit leaders, Eye on the Arctic
Norway: Norway ups climate ambitions…and boosts its fossil fuels, The Independent Barents Observer
Russia: Russian Arctic coal is looking for way out of sanctions, The Independent Barents Observer
Sweden: Will the green transition be the new economic motor in the Arctic?, Eye on the Arctic