Climate change has put “natural” disasters on the doorstep of the United Nations like never before

This year in the United States alone, record-breaking disasters have caused over $57.6 billion in damage and killed hundreds of people. Scientists forecast damage to the global economy of up to $3 trillion over the next five years from this year’s El Niño event, and $84 trillion by 2100 due to more intense and frequent El Niño impacts in the future.

Projecting to a global scale, those numbers are orders of magnitude larger than the $100 billion that world leaders have pledged (and have yet to deliver) to support countries to mitigate, adapt, and respond to climate change. And at the U.N. General Assembly in September, the level of ambition on display to counteract these events was woefully inadequate. 

This week, the meeting of the Transitional Committee (TC) of the Loss and Damage Fund – technical experts who will provide negotiators with their recommendations on how to establish and operate the fund – offers another chance to galvanize concrete international action. To do so, the Committee must produce a clear set of recommendations to negotiators, with particular attention to how climate change impacts mobility, including recognizing forced displacement as a component of Loss and Damage. As the global community prepares for the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s annual conference, COP28, and the Global Refugee Forum, it can no longer afford – if it ever could – to eschew the needs and demands of the frontline communities that are most affected. 

The General Assembly’s Climate Ambition Summit 

To draw attention to the severity of climate-related challenges, the U.N. Secretary-General hosted a Climate Ambition Summit as part of the General Assembly’s High-Level Week. This year’s version largely focused on decarbonization and climate justice.

Of course, climate mitigation – decarbonization and the reduction of other greenhouse gas emissions – must be a top priority to prevent ever-worsening effects and potential tipping points, after which irreversible changes to climate will occur. This is the primary avenue of climate action that the international community has pursued for decades, albeit nominally and far too slowly. This year’s speaking invitations recognized that failure, highlighting actors who demonstrated “effective action” on emission reduction and snubbing the largest carbon polluters, including the United States and China.

Yet, the growing impacts of climate change – including more frequent or intense disasters, as well as slow-onset events such as desertification and water salinization – are affecting communities now. In addition to working toward long-term climate ambitions, adapting to changes and compensating those experiencing loss and damage from climate change must be front and center on the global agenda.

The View from New York

Four key trends emerged from the Climate Ambition Summit that merit watching as the world turns toward COP28 in Dubai this December. First, there were clear tensions in how to prioritize climate mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage. Second, which countries were invited to speak (and which were not) demonstrated the frustration at the Global North’s delay tactics, but the inclusion of speakers from subnational governments, including cities and U.S. states, represented the success of the Local Governments and Municipal Authorities constituency in recent years. Third, the technicalities of operationalizing the loss and damage fund remain unresolved as the TC of the Loss and Damage Fund enters its fourth planning meeting from Oct. 17-20. And finally, the focus on the Loss and Damage Fund overshadowed any serious or sustained discussion on climate mobility at the General Assembly itself. 

In particular, divergent perspectives on prioritizing these three pillars of mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage were on clear display in leaders’ remarks. While the Chair’s Summary of the meetings mentioned calls to operationalize the loss and damage fund and implement universal early warning systems for disasters, the vast majority of the document focused on policy measures needed to phase out fossil fuels. 

Yet, this can no longer be the sole priority. While leaders of industrialized countries in the Global North – which have contributed to and benefited the most from climate change – focus on how to decarbonize their economies, they must also reckon with the consequences of climate change that are now disproportionately affecting countries in the Global South. 

Importantly, leaders from these frontline countries made loud demands for operationalization of the loss and damage fund agreed to at COP27 last year. This agreement to set up a fund in principle represented a political win, but the details of the arrangements were left to further negotiation, which has unfolded over the past year. Loss and damage, as a moral imperative and element of a “just transition,” is essential and aims to compensate communities and individuals for irreparable losses and damages (material and immaterial, economic and non-economic) caused by climate change. But in practical terms, enforcing this imperative and convincing policymakers to add it to tight budgets remains a significant hurdle. 

No longer the elephant in the room or even the third rail of climate negotiations, loss and damage financing took center stage at many events. But there was minimal convergence around a working definition of funding arrangements and sources and a notable lack of serious commitments to capitalize the new fund. 

Similar issues have sunk other funds in the past. This was the case with the Green Climate Fund and ongoing debates over which contributions counted towards the $100 billion pledged for climate finance annually by 2020. That fundraising goal was never met. Many from developing countries also expressed concern that the loss and damage financing will replace funding previously pledged towards adaptation and mitigation efforts, rather than adding to existing efforts. 

As the TC prepares for its fourth and final meeting, civil society groups, particularly from developing countries, are ensuring that their demands are heard. These include that the Loss and Damage Fund be a standalone entity that operates as part of the Financial Mechanism of the U.N. Framework Convention, with equal status to the Green Climate Fund. (More on the technicalities of this operationalization here.) In addition, developed countries must serve as the contributor base, innovative sources of financing must be explored, and all developing countries must be able to access support from the Fund. Importantly, the Fund must also support efforts to avert, minimize, and address displacement caused by the climate crisis – a topic that was keenly absent from the Climate Ambition Summit’s discussions. 

A Glaring Omission

Climate mobility was the most glaring omission at this year’s Summit. This encompasses both forced displacement, either due to sudden-onset disasters or climate change-induced shifts in environmental conditions, as well as the use of long-term migration or temporary mobility as proactive adaptation strategies by individuals or communities. 

Though there were limited mentions of adaptation and loss and damage, climate-affected mobility was almost entirely absent from the official remarks at the Climate Ambition Summit – with the exception of Prime Minister Fiamē Naomi Mataʻafa from Samoa who spoke on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS). 

At the same time, many events on the sidelines painted a more encouraging picture, shining a spotlight on climate-affected mobility. These were largely organized by civil society organizations and U.N.-affiliated bodies, such as the Global Centre on Climate Mobility (GCCM), an entity launched in the past two years with funding from U.N. member States and the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 

While leaders at the Climate Ambition Summit focused on decarbonization and broadly defined “climate justice,” the GCCM’s Climate Mobility Summit, held in parallel to the Climate Ambition Summit, highlighted the experiences of the affected communities directly. Tina Stege, Climate Envoy for the Marshall Islands, brought a 3D topographical model of one atoll, onto which she projected the impact of flooding at various degrees of warming and types of storms.

Incoming IOM Director General, Amy Pope, emphasized: “At the global level, we are seeing slowly the recognition that climate change is displacing people at record levels.” However, as she noted, countries must stop “admiring the problem” and take action

An Action Agenda for Climate-Affected Mobility 

The General Assembly made it clear that the world needs a cohesive action agenda for climate-affected mobility. This agenda will need several components: 

  • Input from all stakeholders, particularly leadership by affected communities; 
  • Political will; and,
  • A serious level of funding. 

Leadership by Affected Communities 

Affected communities must be at the forefront of decisions on climate adaptation, including climate-affected migration. These decisions include those made at the local level, through capacity building of community-based organizations and municipal governments; at the national level, through inclusion of affected populations in national adaptation planning and development discussions; on the development of regional frameworks; and on the creation of any new international frameworks. 

Meaningful consultations around climate adaptation decisions must provide the space for decision-making by affected communities, not just superficial consultation or representation in international fora – where decisions are made by member States after they leave the room. National governments should expand their efforts to consult with and bring affected communities as part of their delegations, as Aotearoa New Zealand has started to do, and to include these communities in the processes to implement the decisions made at these conferences. This would involve devolution of governance to local communities and localization of humanitarian assistance and other funding for climate actions. 

Political Will

Fortunately, discourse also seems to have caught up to the data around what climate-affected migration might look like. It will largely be internal rather than cross-border, cities will be significantly affected, and those who do not migrate may also be the most vulnerable and in need of assistance. 

However, two tensions remain that must be resolved to garner serious political support for such an agenda. The first is how to reconcile the idea of forced displacement as a significant loss with the idea of migration or mobility as a positive adaptation strategy. The second is combating the urge to use the specter of migration (from countries in the Global South to the Global North, for example) to urge action on climate mitigation. Emphasizing these narratives only serves to demonize the broader concept of migration, a natural and often inevitable strategy for humans throughout generations, which is already facing attacks from xenophobic groups seeking to harden and securitize national borders. 

To overcome these challenges, civil society and governments should work towards more holistic narratives around migration as a whole – supporting people to migrate through regular pathways and combating harmful and dishonest rhetoric about migrants and refugees in political discourse as well as popular media. Rather than feeding fear-based narratives, the stories of affected individuals themselves can be the most effective messaging to engender empathy and understanding of the experiences and difficult decisions that they have had to face in leaving their communities or in staying through risky and dangerous conditions. Finally, avoiding migration should not be the tool used to garner political support for climate mitigation; rather, politicians should promote positive messaging on how climate change will affect each of us and what actions can be taken to stop climate change.

A Serious Level of Funding 

Finally, while shaping the agenda with leadership from those affected and changing politics of the possible through new narratives might be necessary, they are woefully insufficient without serious money backing them. To contribute to the goals of greater local leadership of initiatives and distribution of funding to those who are most vulnerable and most likely to be affected by climate change, access to funding must be made easier, faster, and less bureaucratic, as highlighted by Seve Paeniu, Tuvalu’s Minister of Finance and Economic Development at the Climate Mobility Summit. 

Various small initiatives have been announced to address these challenges, such as Scotland’s COP26 pledge of £1m, the Kato Pacific Community Climate Fund, and the U.N. Network on Migration’s Migration Multi-Partner Trust Fund, which was capitalized with just $50 million. 

With risks from climate change forecast to cost the global economy trillions of dollars, current pledges barely scratch the surface of the amount needed. This financing is also a smart choice though, with research showing a significant return on investments in adaptation and resilience.

The Road to COP28

With less than two months to go before COP28, these are big challenges for governments to resolve and negotiators to grapple with on the ground. The TC of the Loss and Damage Fund must deliver a strong set of recommendations to negotiators, who must then recognize the moral, political, and financial imperative of taking substantial action now. As part of this, the impact of climate change on mobility cannot be ignored – with forced displacement of communities recognized as a component of Loss and Damage while more flexible and regular pathways for safe migration should be facilitated. Above all, those most affected by these crises must be at the forefront of all negotiations and decisions.

IMAGE: Delegates attend the United Nations Climate Ambition Summit on the sidelines of the 78th U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 20, 2023. (Photo by BRYAN R. SMITH/AFP via Getty Images)