OPINION | Lisa Esterhuyzen: David asking Goliath to pay up for global warming loss and damage


A movement towards transnational climate justice is evident as developing countries and climate activists are calling on historic emitters to pay for the political, social, and financial costs, writes the author.

Compensation for losses and damages linked to extreme weather and global warming has jumped up the political agenda at the UN’s climate conference (COP27), currently taking place in Egypt, writes Lisa Esterhuyzen.

This year, Africa has experienced several unforeseen natural disasters, including the tropical cyclones that hit Mozambique and Madagascar at the beginning of the year, the KwaZulu-Natal floods in July, which devastated the region, and the recent floods in Nigeria. The disasters have left more than one million people homeless and cost billions of rands in property and infrastructure damages.

Fears are growing that world leaders are not moving fast enough to save the planet. Nonetheless, to support developing countries that are heavily impacted by climate damage to cope with the costs.

A movement towards transnational climate justice is evident as developing countries and climate activists are calling on historic emitters to pay for the political, social, and financial costs.

In October 2022, farmers in Tarlac, Philippines, protested on a storm-damaged farm to call for Loss and Damage finance. The farmers held a banner in the middle of a damaged rice field with the message: 


Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve

“Loss and damage” refer to the unforeseen climate-related destruction to homes, infrastructure, and livelihoods in the poorest countries that have contributed least to global warming. The notion of “loss and damage” funding proposes that developed countries, the most significant conduit of greenhouse gases, should compensate developing countries for the global warming damages.

“Loss and damage” fund is not a new ask. As far back as 1991, the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu suggested a scheme for high-emitting countries to channel money toward people affected by sea level rise. It will, however, be the first time the topic of a “loss and damage” fund has been introduced to the official agenda and made key focus of the UN climate conference (COP27) in Egypt this year. 

“For countries not on the front line, they think it’s sort of a distraction and that people should focus on mitigation,” Avinash Persaud, special envoy to Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley. 

If we had done mitigation early enough, we wouldn’t have to adapt and if we’d adapted early enough, we wouldn’t have the loss of damage. But we haven’t done those things.

Wealthier countries have historically tiptoed around setting up a financial structure that could suggest liability for climate damage. This type of fund is controversial in part because wealthy countries fear that funding it would be interpreted as an acknowledgement of liability, which could lead to legal disputes. 

“Look at the annual defence budget of the developed countries. We can mobilise the money,” Alden Meyer, senior associate at E3G said. “It’s not a question of money being there. It’s a question of political will.”

Collaborate, or courts

Saúl Lliuya, a farmer and mountain guide in Huaraz, Peru, claims his livelihood is at risk due to climate change melting glaciers and increasing the dam level.

“Over the past 42 years [Lake Palcacocha] has grown 34 times in volume”, says Lliuya. There is a real fear of an avalanche that can trigger a catastrophic flood from the lake. Such a flood is of particular concern to the locals as the town sits below Lake Palcacocha, fed by melt water from glaciers above.

Lliuya had been campaigning for better flood defences for years, claiming the current defences aren’t up for the job. So far, no-one or any country is willing to fund the bill. Taking matters into his own hands, Lliuya is suing German energy giant RWE for their global carbon emissions leading to the need for better flood defences in Huaraz. 

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This global carbon emissions claim is based on advances in climate science that allow researchers to estimate how much carbon specific companies have emitted since the Industrial Revolution began. Thereby creating a possibility of accountability being tested in the courts.

The Carbon Majors Database’s research suggests RWE is responsible for 0.47% of global carbon emissions up to 2010. Based on the calculations, Lliuya, with the support of a German NGO, Germanwatch, is asking RWE to pay 0.47% of the cost of shoring up the lake, amounting to €17’000. This amount is peanuts to a major energy firm whose annual revenue in 2021 was €24.8 billion. Clearly, this case is about more than the funds. Instead it is about setting a president for transnational climate justice. However, to complicate matters, RWE points out that their carbon emissions were, and are, legal. 

In light of the above, it is clear that a collaborative, mature approach is needed to address the all-encompassing effects of global warming.

Many heavily impacted communities have become disgruntled by the lack of development, taking on companies themselves and protesting for immediate involvement from governments.

Some of these cases are David and Goliath litigation – petting some of the poorest companies and communities against the world’s most powerful companies. By shifting priorities and reallocation of governmental budgets, wealthy developed countries can own up to the consequences of this collective issue.

Thankfully this year’s UN climate conference has been declared one of action as COP27 President, Sameh Shoukry immediately acknowledged the climate support facility for developing countries. 

*Lisa Esterhuyzen is a junior lecturer in the Department of Business Management at Stellenbosch University. She writes in her personal capacity. 

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