In front of a room of 50 people, flanked by six adult panelists, an 8-year-old boy sat silent and stone-faced; this was hardly the most challenging obstacle he’d faced. At COP27, 2022’s United Nations Climate Conference of 45,000 people, this young boy was one of relatively few chosen to share his story to conference attendees. He was a climate refugee from Sudan, ripped from his country by flooding that destroyed his home and his community. When the floods came, his house caved in, falling on him and breaking his leg. He was able to escape the rubble and his destroyed community and was accepted as a refugee in Egypt. But when he spoke of his friends back home, he suddenly softened. Tears streamed down his face. He paused, silently sobbing, and the woman to his left whispered something in his ear. He interrupted, choking back tears, “No. I want to finish.” He had a message to share: many of his friends were not as lucky as he was, and if they survived, they remained in Sudan, often without homes. They needed help.
This boy’s story is one of millions, and stories like his are becoming commonplace as vulnerable communities across the developing world face the realities of climate change-induced losses and damages they’ve incurred to their homes, lands, cultures, friends, and families. Loss and damage funding can help by compensating them. A Loss & Damage Fund was created at COP27, but as of now, only a few countries in the EU, and the EU itself, have committed small amounts of money to it. Glaringly, the US has committed nothing. The US government needs to commit money to this newly created Loss & Damage Fund due to its moral imperative as a leader in the international community and to reduce mass migrations, which will inevitably lead to violent international conflict.
The US has emitted more CO2 than any country in the world, so it bears the greatest responsibility for the effects of climate change. Our World in Data shows that the US has emitted 25% of all CO2 throughout world history, whereas all of Africa, South America, and Oceania combined (excluding Australia) have emitted 6.1% of global CO2. China, the second highest emitter in history, has emitted 12.7%—less than half of what the US has. The US’s refusal to provide loss and damage funding is clearly unjust, and it is morally bankrupt. While millions suffer due to the US’s historical emissions, it continues to turn a blind eye towards countries that face the worst effects of climate change, despite these countries having contributed nearly no emissions to cause the crisis.
The benefits to the US of providing loss and damage funding to vulnerable communities go beyond morality, however. Climate migration is becoming more common as climate change makes certain areas more dangerous, or even uninhabitable. There are clear linkages between volume of migration and intensity of geopolitical conflict; using history as our guide, it is clear that more migration will bring more violence and death. Eventually, this migration will push up against the US’s borders, but well before that occurs, the US will need to intervene in conflicts far from home. This will cost US taxpayer money and lives.
The US therefore needs a strong policy response to mobilize funding for the COP27 Loss & Damage Fund. This policy needs to provide a mechanism for sourcing and managing these funds, as well as disbursing them to the COP27 Loss & Damage Fund each year. The more concrete these mechanisms are, the more likely the policy is to be operationally feasible and to endure across administration and political changes. Of course, the political feasibility of this policy will provide a significant challenge, with climate change a heavily politicized issue and so many pressing needs within the US’s borders. A strong, directed advocacy and educational campaign will need to accompany this policy to help inform the American public of its importance and benefits to the US in the near-, medium-, and long-term.
Opponents of this policy are likely to rely heavily on two arguments: first, that US government money should be kept in the US to benefit US citizens directly; and second, that funds that go towards climate change should be future-focused and center on a green transition, rather than compensating people for past events. The first argument is addressed earlier in this article: the US has a moral imperative to assist countries that currently face the consequences of the US’s emissions, as well as the need to prevent climate migrations and the international conflict that would result. But an important addition to address this argument simply requires a look at other US international policy. In 2019 alone, the US provided over $47 billion in foreign aid, according to the World Population Review. Loss and damage funding would merely shift some focus to climate change as it becomes an increasingly urgent issue.
The second argument constructs a false dichotomy in which there must be a choice made between future-focused climate funding and loss and damage funding. Both are possible and necessary. Climate change is, by any measure, one of the greatest issues of our time, and the US will need to mobilize more funding to address it. Furthermore, without first addressing losses and damages, infrastructure and capacity shortcomings in developing countries will preclude their investment in a green transition.
Climate change has no borders, and the US needs to step up on the international stage to address the climate crisis. The US needs a policy to mobilize loss and damage funds, and US citizens need to pressure their government to create and pass this policy. Loss and damage funding presents the US with an opportunity to become a global leader on climate change and to reassert itself as a strong, ethical actor in the international community. The world anxiously awaits the US’s decision.