Justice and the art of the possible

Climate Justice Now Placard
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash:

JRI operations and development manager James Watterson reflects on Loss and Damage:

The key achievement of last year’s COP27 was to finally reach agreement on establishing a loss and damage finance mechanism. It was heralded by many as an important, albeit small, step toward climate justice.  

The argument is simple enough. The richest nations have emitted the lion’s share of all the greenhouse gas pollution in the atmosphere and they continue to have vastly higher emissions in total and per capita than the poorest countries. They have benefited enormously through the process of fossil fuel powered industrialization but the poorest countries stand to pay the highest price for it.

Action and finance are required in three key areas in order to tackle the crisis: Mitigation – limiting the increase in global temperatures; Adaptation preparing for changes which are happening now or are locked in; and Loss and Damage – helping communities which have suffered serious climate impacts – loss refers to things that are lost for ever and cannot be brought back, such as human lives or species loss, while damage refers to things that are damaged, but can be repaired or restored, such as roads or embankments.[1]

It would seem to be only just that rich nations should assist poorer countries in all three of these areas. Helping them to skip quickly past the stage of development powered by fossil fuels, to adapt to their changing climates and to assist in funding recovery and rebuilding from loss and damage. However, actually getting agreement on any element of climate financing has proven difficult. There are a number of obvious reasons for this: The powerful fossil fuels lobby, countries tending to act in a very narrow vein of self-interest, politicians being unwilling to commit to anything that may harm their chances come the next electoral cycle, and more technical questions like what mechanisms decide who pays what to whom and for what. Then, when agreement is reached, as it was at COP15 on a $100bn/yr package for mitigation and adaptation funding starting from 2020, the promised funds only too often fail to materialise.

The process seems to be shaped more by the conflicting demands and dubious motivations of realpolitik than any high minded commitment to real justice. Agreeing a deal and delivering on it is less about achieving ideals than, in the words of Bismarck’s famous quote, “the art of the possible, the attainable, the next best.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the discussion of loss and damage, which is perhaps why it has taken so long to get agreement on setting up a finance mechanism and why there is, as yet, no actual funding. Alongside the problems of self-interest and technical questions as to how a fund will work and how much of any given climate disaster can be attributed to global warming, loss and damage raises the question of justice in a particularly pointed way. A way that brings to mind words like compensation, reparations, restitution, and with them the word that must be avoided at all costs, “liability.”

Many civil society groups would see that language as wholly appropriate but as the Guardian reported near the end of COP27 it is language which is unacceptable to rich nations for much the same reasons that the language of reparations around issues of slavery or colonialism is avoided. These are, of course, complex debates – can current generations be accountable for the actions of their ancestors, or better, should current generations be obliged to use the wealth that they have by dint of the unjust actions of their ancestors to compensate those people who would likely be in a better position today were it not for those actions? If so, who pays what to whom? The loss and damage debate is a little different in that the bulk of all greenhouse gas emissions in history have been made by rich countries well within living memory. In other words, the bulk of the harm, however inadvertent, was done by us not our ancestors, but the bottom line is the same: To admit liability, to issue apologies or talk of reparations is to open the door to trillion dollar lawsuits. Climate litigation is a growing field but it seems all but inconceivable that any rich nation would deliberately open the door to such claims.  

So the debate proceeds by other means. There is still talk of justice but it is tempered by political realities, by an awareness of pursuing the possible, the attainable, the next best. There is compromise and there are mixed motivations. The loss and damage agreement at COP27 came in large part because China pushed strongly with the G77 for such a fund whilst arguing that nations still considered to be developing under the 1992 UNFCCC including, of course, China, should not be liable to pay into the fund. China is the one of the world’s largest historic and current emitters of greenhouse gases. This cynical bit of political manoeuvring was countered by the EU, who having previously argued that there was no need for a dedicated loss and damage fund agreed to the establishment of the finance mechanism, on the basis that it should be funded by a wider range of nations including China, Russia, Brazil and the Gulf oil states. China in turn responded that it was not obliged to pay but would make a contribution.[2]    

So how do these two things come together – the murky world of realpolitik and the campaigners’ lofty goals for real justice? If climate deals are so much at the mercy of vested interests and the vagaries of geopolitics what difference can campaigns for climate justice really make? The answer lies in that word “possible.” Politics may be the art of the possible, but campaigns and social movements have the power to change possibilities. By standing for climate justice we make it possible for our leaders to choose for justice by showing them that a significant and passionate proportion of the electorate is behind them. Similarly, campaigning applies pressure to those leaders who perhaps would not see climate justice as a priority until they realise that it is decidedly in their own interest to act – see for example Rishi Sunak’s abrupt U turn on attending the COP. In fact, it is not only democratically elected leaders who respond to the pressure of people power as the recent Covid protests in China illustrate.

The loss and damage finance mechanism deal may carefully avoid the language of liability and it may have taken a very long time to be achieved (the issue was first raised over thirty years ago by the Alliance of Small Island States) but it takes a significant step forwards that was surely made possible only by the hard work and dedication of individuals and civil society organisations that have consistently worked and called for climate justice. So, it is right that we take a moment to celebrate this victory, before turning again to the task of changing possibilities, of creating a world where we can choose for justice, and praying for a world where we do.

James works for Christian Aid as well as JRI – all opinions in this blog are his own and should not be taken as official positions of either organisation.


[1] https://www.carbonbrief.org/explainer-dealing-with-the-loss-and-damage-caused-by-climate-change/

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/nov/18/eu-reversal-stance-loss-damage-china-cop27