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David StewartNovember 29, 2023
Pope Francis joins others in holding a banner during an audience at the Vatican June 5, 2023, with the organizers of the Green & Blue Festival. The banner calls for financing a "loss and damage" fund that was agreed upon at the COP27 U.N. climate conference in 2022. The fund would seek to provide financial assistance to nations most vulnerable and impacted by the effects of climate change. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)Pope Francis joins others in holding a banner during an audience at the Vatican June 5, 2023, with the organizers of the Green & Blue Festival. The banner calls for financing a "loss and damage" fund that was agreed upon at the COP27 U.N. climate conference in 2022. The fund would seek to provide financial assistance to nations most vulnerable and impacted by the effects of climate change. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Small nations can make a big difference. Scotland is rightly proud of how much it has given to humanity, and no Scot would fail to enumerate those gifts for you if you asked (and even if you didn’t). And it was on the banks of Glasgow’s River Clyde, at the climate change negotiations known as COP26, convened Oct. 31 to Nov. 12, 2021, that Scotland became the first of the world’s wealthier nations to commit to significant funding for climate-change devastation suffered in the Global South.

Clydeside, as the region around Glasgow is known, is one of the birthplaces of the fossil-fuel revolution. Explicitly acknowledging moral responsibility for that innovation, the Scottish Government announced at COP26 (for “Conference of the Parties”) a widely praised loss and damage fund contribution of two million pounds.

With COP28 in the United Arab Emirates imminent, opinion in the developed world on climate change has become deeply polarized. 

A year later, the then-first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, speaking on the second day of COP27 on Nov. 8, 2022, at Sharm-el Sheikh, Egypt, announced the contribution of an additional five million pounds. “The funding Scotland has announced today,” she said then, “is a small sum in terms of the overall scale of the loss and damage that developing countries face, but I hope that it sends an important message.”

The director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, the recently deceased Saleem Huq, a veteran of every COP summit, noted at that time: “The Scottish Government’s leadership in this area, including this latest funding pledge, is welcome and I hope it will prove an inspiration to other countries to take action to provide funding for loss and damage with urgency at COP27.”

In a breakthrough deal, COP27 concluded with the formal establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund under the U.N. Environment Program to be supported by advanced economies for vulnerable countries hardest hit by floods, droughts and other climate disasters.

Maintaining its leadership role in 2022, the Scottish government hosted a high-level Conference on Loss and Damage in Edinburgh in October of that year. Now it is not just activists but governments that are beginning to acknowledge the urgent need to pay for losses in the developing world caused by catastrophic climate change. But how many wealthy nations will act?

One year later, with COP28 in the United Arab Emirates imminent, opinion in the developed world on climate change has become deeply polarized. Perhaps exhausted by the digital news cycle, many people have developed compassion fatigue.

Because of the focus on the current brutality in the Holy Land, even Vladimir Putin’s illegal war on Ukraine regularly drops off mainstream newscasts; coverage of conflict in places like Yemen and Sudan has vanished altogether. How much less attention is being paid to some of the catastrophes now occurring around the world because of climate change?

COP27 concluded with the establishment of the Loss and Damage Fund to be supported by advanced economies for vulnerable countries hardest hit by floods, droughts and other climate disasters.

But while public attention in affluent societies wanes, in the world’s least economically developed countries, the suffering continues and worsens. Thecurrent global atmospheric increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880 has already caused dangerous and widespread devastation, led to disruptions in nature and affected the lives of billions of people who did nothing to contribute to the crisis. One Catholic agency here in Scotland is striving to keep the public’s divided attention focused on climate changes.

The Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund, part of the Caritas Internationalis network of Catholic humanitarian agencies, is an official effort of the Catholic Church in Scotland. Raising funds for the relief of “majority world” poverty while promoting Catholic social teaching through education and advocacy, the Scottish aid fund campaigns to put the world’s poorest people at the heart of the developed world’s response to climate change.

The aid fund recently co-hosted an important event at the Scottish Parliament that brought together over 60 faith leaders, activists and parliamentarians. The meeting began with a moment of silent reflection and prayer in memory of the late Dr. Huq, the renowned Bangladeshi scientist who had campaigned for decades, urging countries that caused the climate emergency to assist those most affected by it. Participants then learned from expert voices from the Global South by video-link: an academic, Alejandro Aleman from Climate Action Network Latin America, and a primary-care medical practitioner, Akombum Caroline from the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance.

After the session, many participants remarked on the difference it made to hear firsthand from real people from the developing world. We saw that the situation among low-income states, with little capacity to respond, is completely different from that in the developed world, with a menu to choose from of options for mitigating climate-change impacts.

Because of the focus on the current brutality in the Holy Land, even Ukraine drops off newscasts. How much less attention is being paid to the catastrophes occurring because of climate change?

We heard of Central America’s “dry corridor,” where crops regularly fail and “agriculture doesn’t work any more,” according to Mr. Aleman, where communities have not been able to adapt to changing weather patterns. In these states, from Nicaragua to Guatemala, torrential rains often follow long spells of drought, devastating farmlands. There is a clear and growing link, the specialists told participants, with the hemispheric migration crisis. As the most-affected farmers move north, the climate emergency in the dry corridor causes a border emergency in the United States, a phenomenon that will increasingly be replicated around the world.

Dr. Caroline, from Cameroon, spoke of the huge damage already occurring in that central African state, observing that the weather effect on the health of families is not only physical but mental. And many African nations, hamstrung by heavy international debt, struggle to come up with the billions needed to address flood damage.

Both of our witnesses agreed on key points about global loss and damage funding, among them that the developed world needs to stop thinking of its commitments to the fund as a kind of humanitarian relief. Those contributions reflect not an obligation in charity but a repayment in justice to nations most affected but least culpable for the effects of climate change.

Mr. Aleman and Dr. Caroline argued for a “new financial architecture,” one not run by a global elite. If those most affected have no voice in the “new architecture,” resources for dealing with loss and damage will continue to fail to reach those most in need.

We also heard voices from the Global South drawing attention to a profound contradiction in states that claim to be responding to the climate crisis: governments in the West that persist in granting new oil exploration concessions, sending the entirely wrong signals to big oil and the rest of the world.

As the most-affected farmers move north, the climate emergency in the dry corridor causes a border emergency in the United States, a phenomenon that will increasingly be replicated around the world.

In discussions about priorities for COP28, we heard demands that the Global North not impede progress on loss and damage negotiations, and that a sliding scale in funding for loss and damage should be considered, so the worst polluter nations pay the most. We heard that the global financial system must be transformed, not least because low-income states perceive it to be too close to the fossil-fuel industrial complex in the Global North. The World Bank, the source for loans and grants for large infrastructure efforts around the developing world, came in for particular criticism as an “undemocratic” force.

COP26 was not the first time awareness of the need for action on loss and damage emerged. It had first been raised at the landmark Paris Conference in December 2015. At that conference, over two decades of United Nations-led debate on what was then simply called global warming appeared to be on the verge of collapse, like previous attempts to build global consensus.

But negotiators persisted and in the end the Paris Agreement notably committed the world—rich nations and low-income states alike—to limit global warming this century to 2 degrees Celsius, while aspiring to keep the increase in warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The United States under President Donald Trump withdrew from that agreement in 2017 but rejoined under President Joseph Biden in 2021.

In Paris, nations agreed on the need for financial support to developing nations for mitigation of climate change impacts, enhancing resilience and funding adaptation to destructive climate effects. We are now seeing a shift in language and priorities from mitigation and adaptation to straight compensation for loss and damage already suffered. That was the language that dominated COP27, when the Loss and Damage Fund was established.

The shift is now away from trying to prevent the worst consequences and toward accepting that those worst case scenarios are already playing out in many parts of our “common home,” affecting people and places that did little or nothing to cause them. Pope Fancis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’” demands that we listen to both “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” Low-income states have been talking about climate-change reparations for at least three decades, but somehow we in the so-called first world remain insufficiently aware of what it means for vulnerable populations in at-risk countries to be subjected to the crisis’s worst effects.

“Laudate Deum” further underlines the urgency of the crisis we all face, a global “breaking point,” according to the pope. Francis hopes to encourage serious action now among world leaders.

A Caritas Internationalis statement issued prior to COP28 noted a report from the U.N. refugee agency that found that more than 20 million people each year are forced to leave their homes because of extreme weather events, including sea-level rise, prolonged droughts, severe flooding and other environmental degradation. The new general secretary at Caritas, Alistair Dutton, was before that appointment the director of S.C.I.A.F. He argued that a “Loss and Damage fund should not just be symbolic, but one that supports those who bear the brunt of the climate crisis.”

“In the face of the escalating climate crisis,” he said, “this commitment to fairness and accountability should serve as the cornerstone of efforts.”

Scottish Catholics had hoped that Pope Francis would come to COP26. Those plans fell through. On the heels of the publication on Oct. 4 of his apostolic exhortation “Laudate Deum,” Pope Francis planned to attend COP28. Unfortunately a respiratory infection has forced him to cancel a personal appearance. But his pointed update to “Laudato Si’” nevertheless underlines the urgency of the crisis we all face, a global “breaking point,” according to the pope. Whether live or remotely over the internet, at COP28 Francis will encourage serious action now among world leaders.

Besides listening to the pope, we need to listen to the majority world. One voice worth hearing is that of Elizabeth Wathuti, a young Kenyan environmentalist and climate activist. “From devastating flooding to the prolonged droughts in Africa, frontline communities like mine are bearing the burden of a crisis they did not cause,” she said during COP27.

“Rich countries beginning to recognize the need to address loss and damage is a step in the right direction. But to deliver on their promises, real political commitment and collective effort from developed countries through a loss and damage finance facility is crucial,” Ms. Wathuti said. “We need permanent, reliable and sufficient funding.”

Will we in the wealthy Global North, from smaller nations like Scotland to big ones like the United States, finally listen?

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