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‘Moral Obligation.’ John Kerry Says Developed Countries Need to Ramp Up Help for Growing Climate Losses

6 minute read

In recent months, climate-related catastrophes have engulfed many places across the globe, and countries in the Global South, from Pakistan to Nigeria, have been particularly hard hit. John Kerry believes the U.S. should help.

Kerry, the U.S. climate envoy and former Secretary of State, tells TIME that the U.S. will engage in talks how to address climate-related destruction at upcoming climate meetings in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt—and said the U.S. is open to discussions on “potential financial arrangements” for so-called loss and damage after years of avoiding the topic.

“I think it’s important that the developed world recognizes that a lot of countries are now being very negatively impacted as a consequence of the continued practice of how the developed world chooses to propel its vehicles, heat its homes, light its businesses, produce food. Much of the world is obviously frustrated,” Kerry said in an Oct. 26 interview. “We have to find a way for more capital to flow into developing countries.”

For decades, the issue of climate damages—known in climate circles as “loss and damage”—has remained a contentious topic in international climate negotiations. Vulnerable developing countries have insisted that they are owed for damage caused by emissions from their developed counterparts. Meanwhile, wealthy countries, including the U.S. and European nations, have historically tried to shift discussions around climate-related losses toward technical support rather than financial obligations.

But the growing costs of extreme weather in the Global South combined with economic challenges facing many developing countries has made the issue of financial support unavoidable. Flooding in Pakistan, for instance, left a third of the country underwater at a cost of tens of billions of dollars. Monsoons killed nearly 2,000 in India. And drought in East Africa has left millions at risk of starvation.

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The tenor of the discussion is starting to change. While an agreement may be distant, climate officials from developed countries now acknowledge that loss and damage is an urgent issue for many of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and that they need help. Kerry describes the “completely unfair cycle” in which developing countries, often already struggling economically, are hit by climate disaster and strapped with debt to rebuild. “To some degree, loss and damage has become a legitimate outlet for people to be able to voice frustration at the inefficiency and unfairness of the current allocation system,” he says. “It’s up to the developed world to stand up and be honest about that and help.” It is, Kerry argues, “a moral obligation.”

Kerry cited a re-envisioning of Bretton Woods institutions—namely, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank—as a key step in that direction. The IMF, in particular, can reallocate hundreds of billions of dollars to better support developing countries. “They have the ability to put much more capital into circulation on this issue by, frankly, being a little more creative with the current rules and regulation,” says Kerry. “Our hope is that they’ll begin to do that.”

Leaders from vulnerable countries, including a consortium known as the G77+China which represents 134 developing countries, have demanded a “facility” to direct funds for losses to the Global South. At last year’s climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, a push to include such a measure in the conference’s negotiated agreement was rejected by developed countries. But now Kerry says that the U.S. is open to discussions on financing loss and damage at the upcoming talks in Egypt. “We support a good dialogue at Sharm el Sheikh, during which we have a discussion about all aspects of it, including whatever potential financial arrangements people are thinking are appropriate,” he says. “Clearly, there is a need by the developed world to step up to deal with the impacts.”

Still, Kerry laid out several areas he expects will represent difficult negotiation challenges for the U.S. For one, he says that calculations of responsibility need to reflect recent emissions from countries that have expanded their use of coal. (He didn’t name China, but the country has ramped up coal use significantly since international climate talks began 30 years ago). “People are going to have to really sit down and calculate,” he says. “How do you measure this?” Framing represents another key concern for the U.S.; in a call with reporters before our interview, Kerry rejected the term “reparations” for climate damage. He also says that any provision that is “legally, statutorily required with some sort of legal process” is a non-starter.

Indeed, beyond formal negotiations on loss and damage, domestic politics in the U.S. remain a significant challenge for efforts to support the Global South. “Our politics are not particularly helpful and conducive to doing what we ought to be doing,” says Kerry. Anything that is legally binding would require Senate approval, which would be slow if it comes at all. The Administration has significant sway over funding, but it also requires congressional approval. Congress slashed President Joe Biden’s first budget request for $2.5 billion for international climate assistance to $1.1 billion, and it is unclear whether Congress will approve his subsequent $11 billion request. If Republicans take over Congress in November, future prospects become even dimmer. “Congress, obviously could be helpful, and I would love to see Congress approve money that is appropriate to the task,” says Kerry, adding that public sector investment will help catalyze money from the private sector.

Kerry said that politicians and policymakers in the U.S. should recognize that these funds are “not a giveaway” but rather an “investment” that pays dividends not only in the communities where they’re directed but also in the U.S. “It’s an investment in human beings, investment in health, in community building, in transition,” he says. “Volatility is not something that people should take lightly. It’s very destructive to growth and development and to the well being of people—and then that also becomes a threat multiplier.”

It remains to be seen whether the more than 190 countries represented in Egypt in November will be able to come to a meaningful agreement on how to best support the Global South in the face of climate challenges. But, for longtime watchers of international climate politics, the embrace in the Global North of efforts to remake the Bretton Woods system, rapidly scale up funding for adaptation, and even potentially offer financial support for loss and damage represent a remarkable change.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com