A new social contract for people and planet

To tackle the climate emergency, we need a new way of doing things and a renewed focus on loss and damages, explains Colin McQuistan, Head of Climate and Resilience, Practical Action. By Colin McQuistan, Head of Climate and Resilience, Practical Action. | July 8, 2021

Development charity, Practical Action, with their partners Christian Aid, Stamp out Poverty and Powershift Africa organized a side event at London Climate Action Week on June 28 to discuss the need for a new and ambitious social contract to deliver a prosperous future for all.

Speakers included: Anne Marie Trevelyan, the COP26 champion for Adaptation and Resilience; Her Excellency Saida Muna Tasneem, the high commission for Bangladesh in London; Archbishop Julio Murray, Primus of the Anglican Church in Central American; Fatuma Hussein, the Programme Manager at Power Shift; Avinash Persaud, Special Envoy to the Prime Minister of Barbados; Julie Anne Richards, the Executive Director of CAN Australia; and Professor Saleemul Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

Climate change is happening now. Global temperatures are currently +1.2oC above pre-industrial levels, but despite this seemingly small increase, catastrophic impacts are already occurring.

At our event at London Climate Action week, Archbishop Murray reminded us that while everyone was worried about COVID-19, hundreds of people were killed by climate fuelled Hurricanes, Eta and Iota, in Central America in 2020.

Richards explained that it was not just in the developing world where these impacts were occurring. She recalled that in the Australian summer of 2019-2020, Sydney was invisible under a black pall of smoke for weeks on end, breathing was hard, thousands were admitted to hospital, and 445 people died due to smoke inhalation.

Climate change fuelled the fires and Australia is now facing a fire season that starts earlier and ends later. Areas that never previously burned, such as rainforests, are now burning in bushfires.

We know things are going to get worse. In Bangladesh, H.E. Saida Muna Tasneem highlighted that by 2050 it is predicted that one in seven people will be forced to move, becoming climate migrants. In Bangladesh alone, 19 coastal districts are expected to be submerged by rising sea levels, displacing over 20 million people.

Australia is now facing a fire season that starts earlier and ends later.

Addressing climate loss and damage 

Persaud explained that one of the reasons why we have not had sufficient action so far, the reason why climate change is spiralling out of control, is due to the fact that climate change impacts fall mostly on the countries and peoples least responsible for the problem in the first place.

He reminded us that it is in the tropics that we will see an increase in intolerable temperature levels and where sea levels will rise the most. It is in this region where the combination of these effects will have the greatest impacts: the frontline for climate loss and damage.

Trevelyan maintained that the UK COP presidency is committed to the loss and damage agenda. H.E. Saida Muna Tasneem suggested that to demonstrate this, the UK COP presidency should place loss and damage central to the agenda in Glasgow, and that this should be introduced as a mainstay agenda item for every subsequent COP.

Saleemul Huq went one step further and suggested that the UK COP presidency demonstrate their commitment by designating a Loss and Damage champion to join the UK presidency team to generate momentum on this critical issue in the run up to COP26.

The Climate Emergency is not only predictable, it is also one we know how to reverse. We need to adopt a systems change to tackle the underlying causes of the climate emergency. We need to stop extracting fossil fuels and we need to use the profits of the fossil fuel industry to pay for, and reverse, the damages caused.

If we do not do this, then loss and damage will continue to escalate, and developing countries, and the people hardest hit by the climate emergency, could lose faith in the negotiations process.

For many of the countries on the frontlines of climate impact there has been far more talk than there has been action. Despite the Warsaw International Mechanism for loss and damage being established in 2013 and Loss and Damage being enshrined in the Paris Agreement, much more must be done.

Many of the speakers at the event reiterated the need for urgent action to address loss and damage. Persaud called out the fallacy of insurance, highlighting the case of Dominica. In 2011, Dominica was devastated by Hurricane Ophelia which destroyed 46% of Dominica’s GDP. Four years later, tropical storm Erika destroyed 96% of Dominica’s GDP, then in 2017 Hurricane Maria destroyed 226% of Dominica’s GDP. So the question remains, what kind of insurance premium would you need to pay to compensate you for that level of damages on a recurring basis?

Hurricane Ophelia destroyed 46% of Dominica’s GDP. Image: Wikipedia Commons.

As a result of the extreme bushfires in Australia, Richards mentioned that many of those affected are calling for a climate disasters fund. A domestic fund to be financed by the fossil fuel industry, because the bush fire survivors know that it is the use of coal, oil and gas that is supercharging climate change.

The idea is a climate damages tax that is levied on the fossil fuels mined in Australia. This could fund not only the victims of bushfires and other climate disasters in Australia, but could also be used to assist countries in the region suffering from climate disasters

Richards highlighted that neighbouring Fiji suffered huge impacts from a sequence of climate fuelled storms. On average annually Fiji losses 5% of its GDP due to tropical cyclones and floods (Cyclone Winston in 2016, Gita in 2018, and in 2020 Cyclones Harold and Yasa) and 3% of the population, so 26,000 people, get pushed into poverty each year.

Climate justice

Climate Justice means delivering a new planetary social contract, reaffirming the relationship between not only the citizen and the state, but also the relationship between the state, the environment and the planet and restoring the accountability of big business to people and planet.

The transition to a green economy, while a necessity in the short term, will have winners and losers. Delivering fairness and a sustainable future will therefore require strong policies, including a commitment to social protection for all, and industrial policy that supports sustainable and diversified economies that create jobs and meet local needs.

If we don’t turn around the approach that got us to where we are, and take the approach where the companies causing this problem have to pay for it, we are giving the green light for oil, gas and coal companies to make profits off the back of low income and vulnerable people.

To turn this around we recommend applying a tax to fossil fuels, a climate damages tax, to not only help vulnerable countries cope with climate disasters, but to have the added benefit of helping to phase out fossil fuels.

This fundamental lack of fairness has been at the heart of fuelling climate change and the damage we have seen so far. We need to turn this around, we need to ensure that the fossil fuel industry pays for their damage using a Polluter Pays Principle. Without this change we won’t be able to address the problems that are driving climate change.

The upcoming COP26 in Glasgow has a chance to progress loss and damage, and the unfairness at the heart of the problem. Rich countries need to hear and react to the calls from developing countries to address loss and damage fairly, and most importantly with concrete ways to fund it.


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