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On October 29, 75-year-old Saifullah Paracha, Guantánamo Bay’s oldest detainee, was finally released by US authorities and flown home to his family in Karachi, Pakistan. He had been incarcerated for nearly two decades without either charges or a trial. His plane touched down in a land still reeling from this year’s cataclysmic monsoon floods that, in July, had covered an unparalleled one-third of that country. Even his own family’s neighborhood, the well-heeled Defense Housing Authority complex, had been thoroughly inundated with, as a reporter wrote at the time, “water gushing into houses.”
Having endured 19 years of suffering inflicted by the brute force of imperialism during America’s Global War on Terror, Paracha, along with all of Pakistan, will now suffer through the climatic devastation wrought by the invisible hand of economic imperialism. Indeed, even as his family members were embracing him for the first time since that fateful day in 2003 when he was seized in an FBI sting operation in Thailand, governments and corporations throughout the Global North were sharpening their knives, preparing to reassert their dominance as they do at every year’s UN climate conference—this one being COP27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.
But delegates from climate-vulnerable, cash-poor countries like Pakistan and Egypt, along with members of climate-justice movements from across the planet, were also there. Tired of being pushed around, they had other plans.
A Breakthrough and an All-Too-Predictable Flop
At previous COPs, negotiations inside the hall were focused primarily on what’s come to be known as “climate mitigation”—that is, trying to keep future greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere—along with adaptation to climate disruptions, past, present, and future. For the first time in official negotiations, COP27 would also feature the demands of low-income, vulnerable countries eager to be compensated for the devastating impacts they, like flooded Pakistan, have already suffered or will suffer thanks to climate change. After all, the global overheating of the present moment was caused by greenhouse gases emitted during the past two centuries, chiefly by the large industrial societies of the Global North. In the shorthand of those negotiations, such polluter-pays compensation is known as “loss and damage.”
At previous climate summits, the “haves” resisted the very idea of the have-nots demanding loss-and-damage compensation for two chief reasons: First, they preferred not to admit, even implicitly, that they had created the crisis now broiling and drowning communities across the Global South, and, second, they had no interest in shelling out the humongous sums that would then be required.
This year, however, the shocking death and destruction inflicted by the inundation of Pakistan and more recently of Nigeria stoked an already surging movement to put loss and damage on COP’s agenda for the first time. And thanks to unrelenting pressure from that climate-justice groundswell, COP27 did end with the United States, the European Union, and the rest of the rich world approving an agreement to “establish a fund for responding to loss and damage.” Echoing the thoughts of many, climate justice leader Jean Su tweeted that the deal was “a testament to the incredible mobilization of vulnerable countries and civil society. Much work still to be done, but a dam has broken.”
The euphoria that followed over the creation of a loss-and-damage fund was well justified. But, as Su noted, the struggle is far from over. In a correction to its story reporting on that agreement, The Washington Post made clear that, although the batter had now been mixed, the cake was anything but in the oven. The paper informed readers, “An earlier version of this article incorrectly said wealthy nations agreed to pay billions of dollars into a loss and damage fund. While they agreed to create a fund, its size and financing mechanism have yet to be worked out.” Those two remaining how-much and how-to-do-it questions are anything but trivial. In the loss-and-damage debate, in fact, they’re the main issues countries have been arguing over for many years without resolution of any sort.
If the world does commit sufficient (or even insufficient) funds to pay out on loss and damage (and that’s a truly big if ), vulnerable countries may finally have the means to begin recovering from the latest climate disasters. Tragically enough, however, there’s little question that, as ever greater amounts of carbon and methane continue to head for our atmosphere, whatever the affected populations may need now, it’s likely just a hint of the sort of compensation they’ll need in a future guaranteed to be full of ever-increasing numbers of disasters like the Pakistan floods.
And the reason for that isn’t complicated: COP27 negotiators failed to match their loss-and-damage breakthrough with any significant progress on reining in greenhouse gas emissions. Efforts to come to an agreement on phasing out the chief sources of those emissions—oil, gas, and coal—flopped, as they have at all previous COPs. The only thing the negotiators could manage was to repeat last year’s slippery pledge to pursue a “phase-down [not ‘-out’] of unabated [not ‘all’] coal [nor ‘coal, gas, and oil’] power.”
On the one hand, civil-society movements prevailed in the debate over loss and damage. On the other, energy imperialism remained all too alive and well in Egypt, as corporate interests and the governments that serve them extended their 27-year winning streak of blocking efforts to drive emissions down at the urgently required rate. Yeb Saño, who led Greenpeace’s COP27 delegation, told Phys.org, “It is scarcely credible that they have forgotten all about fossil fuels. Everywhere you look in Sharm el Sheikh you can see and hear the influence of the fossil fuel industry. They have shown up in record numbers to try and decouple climate action from a fossil fuel phaseout.”
How to Pay?
The World Bank estimates that the floods in Pakistan caused more than $30 billion in damage, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost another $16 billion. And that, says the bank, doesn’t even include funds that will be needed “to support Pakistan’s adaptation to climate change and overall resilience of the country to future climate shocks.” The floods seriously harmed an estimated 33 million people, displaced 8 million from their homes, and left more than 1,700 dead. According to the World Bank’s report, “Loss of household incomes, assets, rising food prices, and disease outbreaks are impacting the most vulnerable groups. Women have suffered notable losses of their livelihoods, particularly those associated with agriculture and livestock.” The disaster starkly illustrated the indisputable moral and humanitarian grounds for compelling the governments of rich countries to pay for the devastation their decades of fossil-fuel burning have caused.
For Pakistan in particular, America’s lavishly funded war-making and national-security industries are joined at the hip with the global climate emergency. While those forces are directly responsible for depriving Paracha and countless others of their freedom or lives, the greenhouse-gas emissions they generate have also contributed to the kind of devastation that he came home to when finally released. Furthermore, these industries have wasted trillions of dollars that could have been spent on preventing, adapting to, and compensating for ecological breakdown.
So far this fall, Washington has pledged $97 million (with an “m”) in flood-relief aid to Pakistan. Sounds like a lot of money, but it amounts to just one five-hundredth of the World Bank’s loss-and-damage estimate. In bleak contrast, from 2002 to 2010 alone, at the height of that Global War on Terror, the US government provided Pakistan with $13 billion (with a “b”) in military aid.
To dodge blame and minimize their costs, the rich countries have been proposing a range of alternatives to simply paying loss-and-damage money to low-income ones as they should. Instead, they’d far prefer to have disaster-plagued governments finance their own climate-change recovery and adaptation by borrowing from banks in the North. In effect, rather than obtain relief-and-recovery funds directly from the North, countries like Pakistan would be obligated to make interest payments to banks in the North.
Fed up with having unbearable debt burdens thrust upon them time and time again, countries in the South are saying no thanks to the proposition that they go even deeper into debt. In response, the North has been tossing out other ideas. For instance, encouraging development banks like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund to release disaster-hit countries from their obligations to pay some portion of the money they already owe as interest on past debts and use it instead to support their own recovery and rebuilding. But countries in the South are saying, in effect, “Hey, for decades, you’ve used your power to saddle us with punishing, unjust debt. By all means, please do cancel that debt, but you’ve still got to pay us for the climate loss and damage you’ve caused.”
The rich countries have even floated the idea of taking a portion of the money they’ve previously earmarked for development aid and depositing it in a global fund that would pay damages to vulnerable countries suffering future climatic disasters. Note the key to all such “solutions”: no extra expense for the wealthy countries. What a sweet deal! It’s as if, domestically, the US government started issuing smaller Social Security checks and used the money it “saved” that way to pay Medicare benefits.
The new COP27 loss-and-damage fund is supposed to prohibit such shell games, while also pulling climate finance out of the realms of imperialism, debt servitude, and what Oxfam calls the “disaster begging bowl.” What’s needed, says Oxfam, an organization focused on alleviating global poverty, is “a fair and automatic mechanism for financial support—rooted in the principle that those who have contributed most to the climate crisis pay for the damage it causes in countries least responsible and hardest hit.”
How Much and Where to Get It?
When confronted with numbers ending in “-illion,” as Americans were during the debates over the congressional spending bills of 2021 and 2022, it’s easy enough for your eyes to glaze over and miss the orders-of-magnitude differences among such figures. In an American world where the Pentagon budget alone is headed for $1 trillion sometime in this decade, it’s easy enough to forget, for example, that a million of those dollars is just one-millionth of a trillion of them. In response, in discussing the staggering sums needed to deal with our already desperately overheating planet and the amounts available to pay for loss and damage, we’ll now put everything in terms of billions of US dollars.
High-emitting countries like ours have run up quite a climate tab. A June 2022 report from the V-20 group, which represents 55 of the world’s lowest-income, most climate-vulnerable economies, estimates that, from 2000 to 2019, their membership lost $525 billion thanks to climate disruption. That’s a huge blow to a staggeringly large set of countries whose gross domestic products add up to just $2,400 billion. But in the Global North, such sums and even far larger ones, while more than pocket change, are still easily affordable, as that Pentagon budget suggests.
By Oxfam’s reckoning, hundreds of billions of dollars could be raised for paying loss-and-damage by taxing fossil-fuel extraction, international cargo shipping, frequent flying, and other significantly carbon-producing activities. Progressive wealth taxes could net even more: $3,600 billion annually, according to the Climate Action Network (CAN), which also estimates that ending government subsidies to corporations (one-third of which go to fossil-fuel companies) could net $1,800 billion annually. Furthermore, cuts in military spending could free up a whopping $2,000 billion per year globally. The latter could be an especially juicy target. For instance, by CAN’s estimate, the United States’s fair share of payments owed to the Global South for climate mitigation and adaptation, plus loss-and-damage reparations, would come to roughly $1,600 billion over the next decade. And those 10 payments of $160 billion each could be covered if the Pentagon just ditched production of its most disastrously expensive jet fighter, the $1,700 billion F-35, and diverted the money toward climate assistance.
It’s always the government’s job to spend big when America faces a dire emergency, wherever the money comes from. In 2020-2021, Congress passed more than $3,000 billion in Covid relief—enough to pay our international climate tab, as estimated by CAN, for 19 years.
“Our Cause Is One”
Shortly after Saifullah Paracha’s return to Karachi in October, another family, in Sharm el Sheikh 2,340 miles away, had embarked on what reporter Jeff Shenker called “a desperate and possibly reckless mission” to save the life of one of their own: the British-Egyptian human-rights activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, possibly Egypt’s most prominent political prisoner.
Abd el-Fattah, who has spent most of the last decade behind bars for speaking out against Egypt’s oppressive regime, had been on a partial hunger strike since April. After visiting him on November 18th, his family reported that he had broken his hunger strike “out of a desire to stay alive, but he would resume it if no progress was made regarding his freedom.” His sister Sanaa Seif told reporters inside the COP27 conference hall,
He’s not in prison for the Facebook post they charged him with. He’s in prison because he’s someone who makes people believe the world can be a better place. He’s someone trying to make the world a better place.… There are tens of thousands of political prisoners in Egypt. There are more around the world. Climate activists get arrested, kidnapped in Latin America. We face the same kind of oppression, and our cause is one.
What is Guantánamo Bay but a place where the American empire has practiced its human-breaking tactics for 20 years without accountability offshore of any system of justice? What is the UN climate summit but a meeting place where the world’s elite have protected their power for 27 years and counting?
Living as a “forever prisoner” (as The Guardian dubbed Saifullah Paracha in 2018) was, he once said, “like being alive in your own grave.” Forever wars, forever prisoners, forever climate chaos, forever theft. That’s the world we live in, where governments like those of the United States and Egypt throw innocent Muslims like Saifullah Paracha and pro-democracy dissidents like Alaa Abd el-Fattah into prison for standing in the way of their forever-repressive interests.
Reporting on the struggle to free Abd el-Fattah, Shenker noted, “The phrase ‘We Have Not Yet Been Defeated’ became the unofficial slogan of COP27, a reference to the title of a book by Abd el-Fattah published in 2021, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. Could the perseverance and courage of people like Paracha, Abd el-Fattah, and the activists for climate justice and human rights—both those who attended the conference at Sharm el Sheik and countless others around the world—make it possible someday to drop the “Yet” and say simply, “We Have Not Been Defeated”?