Opinion: Rich Countries Must Pay for Climate Devastation

The mass graves in Tacloban, on the Philippine island of Leyte, are lined with white crosses. Survivors who chose to remember their loved ones, even with uncertainty whether their bodies were truly found, have written names on the crosses – one cross for each family member who perished in the storm. They place photos on the graves, light a candle, say a prayer.

On Nov. 8, 2013, super typhoon Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, made landfall with one-minute wind speeds of up to 315 kph. More than 7,400 people were killed or remain missing and are presumed dead. Today, at least a million survivors still do not have safe homes to live in. Many are still rebuilding their lives. Damage was estimated at US$2.86 billion.

While Filipinos are known for our "resiliency" and for still being able to smile despite what comes our way, there are things we can no longer hide. Haiyan/Yolanda is one of them. We still reel from the typhoon that devastated us. And although we keep saying that "The Filipino spirit is waterproof," the truth is it is not. We are vulnerable in the face of nature's wrath. Writer-activist Ninotchka Rosca put it beautifully: "No, we are not resilient. We break, when the world is just too much, and in the process of breaking, are transformed into something difficult to understand."

Haiyan transformed us. We are no longer the same people. The water that used to give us life now drowns us. The cool winds of Christmas that used to kiss our cheek now sweep away homes. The rains we used to dance under now gives us fear.

In search for justice

While we seek to make sense of such senseless deaths, we remember our departed and continue to seek for justice. Super typhoons like Haiyan are extreme weather events caused by climate change. While the Philippines experiences an average of 20 weather incidents per year, eight or nine of which make landfall as typhoons, there is no doubt that typhoons have become stronger and beyond our capacity to adapt to.

Climate change as we know today is human-induced, mostly caused by fossil fuel consumption and rich countries whose carbon emissions have contributed much to global warming. These are the same countries that want to commit as little as possible in the climate negotiations, turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the devastation happening in countries like the Philippines.

Every year, countries meet at the Conference of Parties (COP) to negotiate about how to solve the climate crisis. Interestingly, year after year in recent years, the Philippines has been ravaged by storms while negotiations were happening. In 2012, it was typhoon Bopha during COP18 in Doha. In 2013 it was typhoon Haiyan while COP19 in Warsaw was happening. In 2014, it was typhoon Hagupit while COP20 was in Lima. This year it was typhoon Koppu while pre-Paris negotiations were happening in Bonn.

This year, the 21st COP will be in Paris on December. After 21 years of negotiations, countries are expected to come up with a legally binding agreement that will see all countries take climate action. Developing countries and least developed countries want a strong agreement, nothing token.

What developing countries are fighting for

During the pre-Paris negotiations in Bonn last October, the negotiating blocks G77 and China and the Like Minded Developing Countries (LMDC) showed strong disappointment with the draft of the negotiating text that was presented to the body. It was called "imbalanced" and "lopsided" and was thought to be favorable towards rich countries like the United States.

In the end, in order for negotiations to move forward, countries were allowed to submit proposals of insertions to the text. G77 and China and LMDC inserted their must-haves, among which are: climate compensation through loss and damage mechanism and common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR).

Loss and damage pertains to impacts that can no longer be adapted to and which would not have happened without climate change. Developing countries are asking for climate compensation from rich countries for the losses and damages brought about by climate change caused by their industrialization. This compensation is different from aid and separate from adaptation finance.

CBDR, on the other hand, is a principle that says all countries have a responsibility to act on climate change but that this responsibility differs based on historical emissions and current respective capabilities of each country.

Loss and damage and CBDR go hand in hand in the fight for climate justice. CBDR is a recognition that developed countries have failed to address climate change and have caused harm to other countries. This harm, loss and damage, should then be compensated for. Inside the negotiations, G77 and China have called out rich countries for avoiding the topic, saying that avoidance of the issue is equivalent to climate denial.

Why are these important for developing countries? By acknowledging responsibility through CBDR and by making rich countries liable for losses and damages they have caused and will cause, rich countries will be more committed to taking serious climate action. With loss and damage and CBDR part of the agreement, it is only logical for rich countries to avoid further harm on other countries. This can also lead to more ambitious commitments to mitigate carbon emissions.

No other option but bold climate actions

Two years after Haiyan, we have come to a crucial stage in the climate negotiations. We can no longer afford to fail like we did in 2009 in Copenhagen. We are at a crossroad. Whatever road we choose is a choice we will have to live with in the next half century. Will developing countries find climate justice? Can we solve the climate crisis? If we are to make it, we have no other choice but take bold steps and tread a path we have not taken.

Renee Juliene Karunungan is the communications director and climate justice campaigner of Dakila. She is also a climate tracker for Adopt A Negotiator.