December 2013
Sympathy, Empathy, and Solidarity


"Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received. Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies, so that God may be glorified in all things though Jesus Christ. To him belong the glory and the power forever and ever. Amen."
- 1 Peter 4:10-11
I just returned from the annual meeting of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw. As the meeting began, the Philippines were hit by the strongest typhoon ever recorded - Typhoon Haiyan. While scientists tell us that no single weather event can be attributed to climate change, they also tell us that we can expect stronger and more frequent storms like this one if we do not take action now to reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
Against this backdrop of human tragedy in a country that lacks many of the financial resources it will need to recover from a massive storm that not only took thousands of lives but also destroyed hundreds of communities, many of us hoped that the climate negotiators gathered in Warsaw would recognize the urgency of action. We hoped that they would agree to terms that would move the global community toward concerted action not only to reduce emissions, but also to provide financial resources and technical support to countries that lack the means to adapt to climate change that is already occurring and to deal with irreversible damage caused by climate change.
This last issue, known as "loss and damage" became a hot button topic for the negotiations. In 2012 in Doha, Qatar, countries agreed that in 2013 they would work to establish "institutional arrangements" to help address the impacts of climate change that cannot be adapted to, particularly as they affect vulnerable countries that lack financial resources to manage them. These impacts are not only economic, but include loss of livelihood, loss of culture, and climate migration. The most extreme example of loss and damage is faced by low-lying small island nations, which could face extinction if climate change continues to cause sea levels to rise in coming decades.
Wealthy industrialized countries, which are responsible for the majority of the emissions that are causing climate change, have resisted action to address loss and damage in part because they fear significant financial liability. However, many of the irreversible impacts of climate change will be non-monetary and will challenge the international community in unprecedented ways. For example, people who are forced to leave their communities due to climate impacts such as sea level rise or long-term drought are not considered refugees under international law and are not eligible for humanitarian assistance available to refugees. In a more extreme example, if a small island nation disappears due to rising sea levels, there are no means currently available to address its loss of territory and sovereignty, or to help its citizens, who have lost their country. Although the international community has seen nations vanish from the map due to war or by agreement, they have never seen a nation vanish under the ocean - there is nothing in international law or diplomacy to manage such a situation.
We are not yet at the point of losing entire nations to climate change, but we are beginning to see signs of long term loss due to climate change. The situation of the Philippines provides a prime example of how loss and damage will challenge the global community. The Philippines are in a region where typhoons are a normal occurrence, and they have taken steps to manage the risk of storms. However, even the best disaster risk reduction and preparedness measures were not sufficient to withstand a storm of the magnitude of Haiyan.
In Warsaw one evening, I heard a woman from a Filipino development agency talking about the impact that Typhoon Haiyan is having on her country. She noted that in addition to the death and destruction of the storm, her country is coming to grips with the reality that millions of people may never recover from the storm and return to their "normal" lives.
How should the global community respond to the challenge of loss and damage? The Filipino delegate provided some guidance. She said that the Philippines, and other countries suffering from these irreversible impacts of climate change, appreciate the sympathy of others - our thoughts and our prayers for the loss that they have experienced. She said that her people very much appreciate the empathy that leads people to donate to the relief effort or to work with the aid organizations that will help the Filipino people recover and rebuild their lives and communities. But she also noted that what her people need most in facing the difficult challenges of storms and a future of climate change disruptions and permanent loss is our solidarity. They need us to stand with them as they fight for international action that will lead the Philippines and other countries suffering climate losses to a more secure future.
The Warsaw climate talks ended with the adoption of a framework for the negotiation of a new agreement by the end of 2015 but few new financial commitments to help poor countries deal with the impacts of a changing climate. The parties did agree to establish a new mechanism to gather information and marshal resources to deal with long-term loss and damage due to climate change, although it remains to be seen whether this mechanism will be able to generate the international cooperation and financial resources that will be needed to deal with the difficult issues to come.
As the two-week talks in Warsaw came to an end, 100,000 people were being evacuated from coastal areas in southeastern India to prepare for a cyclone with winds up to 75 miles per hour.