Hot Topics

As Environmentalists Walk Out of UN Talks, Top US Envoy Says No to Reparations for Climate Damage

StoryNovember 22, 2013
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Martin Khor

executive director of the South Centre, based in Geneva. He is a journalist and the former director of the Third World Network in Penang, Malaysia.

Nitin Sethi

senior assistant editor at The Hindu. He was responsible for leaking U.S. briefing papers on the climate negotiations before the summit began here in Warsaw.

Negotiations at the U.N. climate summit in Warsaw, Poland, have entered their final scheduled day, but deep divisions remain between rich and poor nations. Negotiators from nearly 200 countries have been meeting for the past two weeks trying to lay the foundation for a new global climate treaty to be agreed at talks scheduled in Paris in two years. On Thursday, more than 800 members of various environmental groups staged an unprecedented walk out of the talks. Questioned by Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman hours later, the U.S. special envoy for climate change and lead climate negotiator, Todd Stern, rejected calls for reparations to poor countries damaged by the carbon emissions of the world’s biggest polluters. We discuss the state of the talks with two guests: Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, and Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editor at The Hindu. Sethi was responsible for leaking U.S. briefing papers on the climate negotiations before the summit began, revealing how U.S. negotiators at the climate talks are opposing efforts to help developing countries adapt to climate change. According to the internal memo, the U.S. delegation is worried the talks in Warsaw will "focus increasingly on blame and liability" and that poor nations will be "seeking redress for climate damages from sea level rise, droughts, powerful storms and other adverse impacts."

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Warsaw, Poland, at the U.N. climate summit, known as COP 19. Negotiations have entered their final scheduled day, but deep divisions remain between rich and poor nations. Negotiators from nearly 200 countries have been meeting for the past two weeks, trying to lay the foundation for a new global climate treaty to be agreed to at talks scheduled in Paris in 2015. Indian Environmental Minister Jayanthi Natarajan criticized the actions of the wealthy nations at the talks.

JAYANTHI NATARAJAN: We’ve already seen a huge ambition gap between what developed country parties have pledged and what is required by science and their historical responsibilities. The irony is that developing countries have pledged much more than developed countries in the pre-2020 period. And therefore, in keeping with Article 3.1, developed countries should take the lead in bridging the ambition gap. Equity is the route to higher ambition, and therefore I call on developed countries, fill the gap now. Fill the gap this year at Warsaw, here and now.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, over 800 members of various environmental groups and NGOs staged an unprecedented walkout of the talks. The walkout included Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam, the International Trade Union Confederation, ActionAid,, the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance and the Philippine Movement for Climate Justice. Many of those activists are meeting today in a convergence space a few miles away from the National Stadium. Mamadou Honadia is a delegate from Burkina Faso.

MAMADOU HONADIA: As you saw yesterday from NGOs and some parties, we are complaining. We are walking out. And what is playing—actually, what the atmosphere is here in Warsaw, people are not happy because those who are responsible for this climate change don’t want to take commitments.

AMY GOODMAN: On Thursday, I had a chance to question Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change and the lead U.S. climate negotiator here in Warsaw.

MODERATOR: We can just take one more question, so this lady here in the middle. You’re a member of the press, yeah?


MODERATOR: Jolly good.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! news hour. A question for Todd Stern: So, we at Democracy Now! and The Guardian and The Hindu got a hold of these confidential documents from Secretary of State John Kerry to the climate negotiators in the U.S. team, talking about sort of reframing "loss and damage" as "blame and liability." And I was wondering if you feel the U.S. owes, as the historically largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the most vulnerable countries some form of reparation?

TODD STERN: So—so, first of all, the cable that you’re referring to, you have pretty completely mischaracterized. I’m not going to get into the details of it, but it was a pretty—a pretty plain vanilla review of issues coming up in these negotiations. On your broader substantive question, we don’t think that—this is a question that I’ve answered—I answered in Copenhagen, I think. We don’t regard climate action as a matter of compensation or reparations or anything of the kind. But thanks for the question.

MODERATOR: OK, well, we’ll end the press conference there on that happy note. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the U.S. special envoy for climate change, Todd Stern.

To talk more about the state of the talks as we come into the final day of the U.N. climate summit, we’re joined by Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editor at The Hindu newspaper in India. He was responsible for leaking that U.S. briefing paper for diplomats prior to the climate summit in Warsaw.

We’re also joined by Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre based in Geneva. He is a journalist and the former director of the Third World Network in Malaysia.

Welcoming you both to Democracy Now! It’s good to have you back, Nitin. Can you respond to what Todd Stern says, that to talk about this cable, where they referred to "loss and damage" as "blame and liability" was to mischaracterize it?

NITIN SETHI: I think he’s in what diplomatic language is called saying the untruth, if not lie, on what he’s stating. It’s pretty obvious for them that—they are very clear, since the last five years, that they will fight this idea of anything concerning liability or damage sweeping into the climate change talks. How they will do has been revealed here. How they will undo this process where poor countries can ask for reparation money, how they will strategize, gets revealed through this cable. How they will put out a public spin, even while they do this to dismantle the loss and damage argument within climate change, is also revealed in the cable. I think that’s the only embarrassment about it, and there’s nothing new. We know that the U.S. is here to draw down the talks to the least common denominator.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Khor, this issue of loss and damage, can you explain what it means? I mean, it may be self-evident—I mean, certainly for people here—but for most people, it’s just lingo. Explain why this is so significant in this talk here in Warsaw, starting with last year in Doha.

MARTIN KHOR: Well, you know, what is really new in recent years is the extreme damage that is caused by extreme weather events, you know? I think the estimate is that extreme weather events, like the typhoons and so on, used to cost about $200 billion of damage per year. And this has gone up in recent years to $400 billion a year. So the typhoon we have seen in the Philippines is just the latest example. We have had floods in Pakistan. We have had drought in Africa. We have had, you know, the massive floods in Bangkok and Jakarta. We had Hurricane Sandy, which the Senate is being asked to come up with $60 billion for repair and rehabilitation. So, some of this is due to climate change, and that is the action we need now, because as we keep talking about how to address climate change, there are real victims, millions of them. We have seen them in the Philippines. On CNN tomorrow, there will be another new story of another hurricane somewhere. So, the sincerity of us as humanity responding to the victims has to come now.

And last year in Doha, if you remember, the headlines coming out of Doha was that countries have agreed to do something to help these victims, and it’s called loss and damage, because at the moment there is no recognition that the UNFCC, the climate convention, has to help rebuild the lives and the properties of those who have been damaged. So it was agreed that at this COP here we would establish institutional arrangements, including an international mechanism. Now, this is big language, but it just means that we do recognize loss and damage as a problem, and let’s get to work with a program and a structure to deal with that issue. So far, we have not. We have not. This is the last day of the talks. We have not reached that conclusion yet.

AMY GOODMAN: You heard Todd Stern, the chief U.S. climate envoy, say, "We don’t talk about reparations."

MARTIN KHOR: Well, whether you call it reparations, the word "reparations" is not on the—in the decision. What we are just saying is, set up a technical facility that can move into action when these kinds of things happen. And secondly, let’s set up a financial facility, that when these things happen, we don’t just then have to start raising money all over the world and so on. You don’t have to [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I mean, this point you’re making about insurance, the amount of money that the U.S. and other countries pay anyway for massive climate damage, that this is a more formalized process, preemptive process, to start to deal with climate change.

MARTIN KHOR: Well, the U.S. may have insurance, but many poor countries don’t have that, you know? And the international community—well, at the moment, we have humanitarian assistance when something happens. But this is unpredictable. Something may happen. We need the money now. We need to move in helicopters. We need—you know, we don’t want to wait seven, eight days before food arrives, you know, as we have seen in Philippines, and this may be repeated somewhere else. So I think, as an international community concerned about climate change and natural disasters linked to it, some facility has to be set up. And this is the single most important thing we need to achieve here in this COP, not that we are promising how many billions of aid, although we wish we could, but just to agree to set up a facility and then to negotiate what kind of facility. That’s what we need to do, a political decision to help those in need suffering from climate effects already.

AMY GOODMAN: Nitin Sethi, people are talking here, "good COP, bad COP." You know, this is the Conference of Parties. That’s what the summit is called. Is this a total failure in Warsaw? I mean, we’re not at the end of it. It’s supposed to end today, Friday; some are saying it’s going ’til Saturday.

NITIN SETHI: I wouldn’t say it’s a total failure, but there is a real bad smell about it, because, I would say, in the previous years we’ve had negotiations built on lack of trust. This year we’ve got negotiation built on bad faith, because people in countries are backing off from what they agreed to in the previous three or four years. And they’re doing it pretty openly. It’s not as if they’re hiding the idea that we will not agree to what we agreed to last years. Take the case of finance, where countries said, "We’ll put up"—developed countries will put up—

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to say this is called the finance COP?

NITIN SETHI: All right, this was where the countries were supposed to come together and say how we will deliver on the pledge that we—of 100 billion U.S. dollars annually by 2020. We had to show how this will come forth from the rich countries. Instead, what we now hear is that the developed countries are putting forward ideas that we should not actually contribute the entire amount; we shall get developing countries to contribute to this sum, and the rest of it we can actually say can go through private finance, which is actually looking for business out of misery, in some ways, I think, because you’re saying, "We will make investments more comfortable for you. We’ll actually use this moment to increase our investments in emerging economies." And I think that’s bad faith. That’s not just lack of trust.

AMY GOODMAN: How does climate change affect India?

NITIN SETHI: In too many ways, I think. And it’s scary at times to imagine. We already have people who are extremely poor who face—immediate weather changes impacts their life. Consider the case of about 60 percent of our population is farmers who are still dependent on non-irrigated lands, which means they’re dependent on monsoon. Even change of, say, 15 days in the monsoon patterns completely can take away their crops.

AMY GOODMAN: Last June, 5,700 people died in India from floods?

NITIN SETHI: And that’s an underestimate, because every year in just one state, which is Assam, we get about one lakh people, or 100,000 people, displaced every year, annually. And this is the least minimum that we record.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what has to be done?

NITIN SETHI: I think what has to be done is pretty clear to everyone. There are three things you need to do. You need to take action to reduce emissions very quickly, now and between now and 2020. You have to build—do that to also build trust so that countries come together for a agreement of the post-2020 phase, which is built on trust, and it allows newer emerging economies to also take on this challenge, for which there has to be support. The support enables these countries to act faster, support in terms of finance, support in terms technology.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the issue of equity? What does exactly that mean?

NITIN SETHI: It basically is a word, I think, that represents science and history, a simple fact of science which says what happens today in climate change is based on the accumulated emissions in the atmosphere that have accumulated, as you were saying, from the industrialization period in 1847 'til date. What it says is we look at who is responsible for it and apportion responsibilities of cutting emissions based on that. Equity just says do it properly and do it fairly—or, actually, do it more than fairly: just do it equitously. What's happening here is, two years ago, we remember, at Durban, there were a lot of developed countries which said equity should not matter at all. Unfortunately for them, the phrase "equity" slipped back into the conversation at Durban. We had the phrase saying all talks will happen under the convention. Now what’s happening in Warsaw is, the same countries, realizing that this word has slipped back, are trying to redefine it to actually undermine it. So, the countries which actively for years kept on saying, "We don’t want equity," today say, "We want equity, but we want to redefine it in a way that you will take all the burden eventually." And that’s why it’s a bad-faith negotiation.

AMY GOODMAN: Martin Khor, it’s 19 years of this Conference of Parties, next year in Peru. The next year the binding agreement is supposed to be hashed out in Paris. Japan, talk about its role, what it pulled out of this year, and the significance of that, given that we are talking how the Kyoto Protocol fits in with that. And as we talk about Kyoto, talk about the United States, as well.

MARTIN KHOR: I think it’s what Nitin said, you know? If we are—if we are going to have the talks succeed, if we are really going to solve this climate problem, the developing countries have to be confident that the rich countries will take the lead as they promised. And they should take the lead in two ways. One is, they have to show the way in very drastic emission reductions, starting from now. According to the science, they have to cut their emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean? What does that look like?

MARTIN KHOR: It means that they have to—they have to use less motorcars. They have to change—

AMY GOODMAN: So that means public transportation?

MARTIN KHOR: Public—or, you know, instead of having three cars a family, you can have one car a family; if that car can also be run more efficiently, maybe by electricity and so on. There are many things that can be done in the developed countries.

But what has happened is that Japan, that promised to cut its emissions by 25 percent, has now, you know, really sabotaged this conference by announcing that they will increase their emissions by 3 percent instead, you know? And the United States, well, we know that there are problems with Congress and so on, but the administration, if they are not able to do as much as they would like to do, they should be encouraging other countries to do, rather than discouraging some of the other countries from continuing in the Kyoto Protocol. So we are not seeing the kind of leadership. The 40 percent is now actually 18 percent for those in the Kyoto Protocol second period. For those outside, like the United States, I think the pledge is something like 6 percent. It’s just not enough. And secondly, they have to take the lead in helping the developing countries to do their mitigation, as well as to adapt to climate change. And they are just not doing it.

If you look at the finance situation, the most shocking news I’ve heard this week is that the overseas development aid—that is, the aid that is being given to developing countries for development, and including climate change—has fallen by 6 percent in the last two years. This is the first drop since 1997. So, in (2011), development aid was $133 billion. This has fallen one year later, to 2012, to $125 billion. There’s been a fall of $8 billion. Now, if that is declining and at the same time we are calling for an increase in climate financing, we don’t want to rob Peter in order to pay Paul. We don’t want to pass money to developing countries in the name of climate change, to help energy efficiency or to reduce emissions and so on, by taking away money from patients who are suffering from tuberculosis or AIDS or from children who are depending on aid for milk or for school. So we do have this crisis in financing. We need to reverse the drop in development aid. That has to increase tremendously. And within that increase, there has to be an increase towards climate change. We are not seeing it at the moment, and this is what is causing the crisis in our climate talks.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both very much for joining us. Martin Khor is the executive director of the South Centre based in Geneva, journalist and former director of the Third World Network in Malaysia. And thank you so much to Nitin Sethi, senior assistant editor at The Hindu, responsible for leaking the U.S. cable on the climate negotiations before the summit began here in Warsaw. We’ll link to it at We’re broadcasting from Warsaw, Poland. Back in a minute.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

"You've Made a Wager of Our Future": Somali Youth Activist Pleads to U.N. Summit for Climate Action

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.

Make a donation