EMILY KWONG, HOST:
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All right, everyone. It is crunch time at COP27, the United Nations climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. Negotiators are grappling with a couple of key issues as the conference enters its last few days. And to talk about them, we're joined by a member of NPR's climate desk in Egypt, Nathan Rott. Hey there.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Marhaba, Emily.
KWONG: Marhaba, Nate. Are you learning Arabic?
ROTT: Sadly, no. That and shukran is about the extent of my Arabic. But I am trying to pick up some while I talk to some of the tens of thousands of people that are attending this conference here.
KWONG: It is a huge gathering that's unfolding right now. What is the scene like?
ROTT: So this is my first COP - right? - which stands for the Conference of Parties for - if you didn't know. Fun fact of trivia. I will say it's pretty remarkable. You know, people from all over the world have gathered in these way-too-air-conditioned temporary structures at a resort town in the middle of the desert.
ROTT: I don't even want to think about the carbon footprint of getting 45,000 attendees here to the bottom of the Sinai Peninsula, but I'd venture to guess it's pretty high.
ROTT: So, yeah, it's a scene.
KWONG: What are you hearing from folks there?
ROTT: So that - this is kind of a surreal place to be holding negotiations on fast-worsening climate change, especially as new reports from the World Health Organization come out showing that half of the world's population will be living under water stress by 2025. And I've been hearing a lot about one of the key issues that negotiators - you know, particularly those here from the developing world - want to see resolved. That is the debate around loss and damage - what's owed to developing countries by richer countries, like the U.S., that have contributed the most to climate change by far and don't want to pay for some of the damages. All of that needs to be figured out.
KWONG: So today on the show, we talk about the status of the COP meeting.
ROTT: And how the Ukraine war and the U.S. midterm elections are part of the discussions.
KWONG: You're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.
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KWONG: OK. So, Nate Rott, you said one of the most pressing topics at COP27 is loss and damage. Explain for us what exactly that means.
ROTT: Right. So the whole debate around loss and damage centers on an unavoidable and, frankly, quite depressing fact - that climate change is already here, that it's already causing damage to people and businesses around the world, including lots of communities in less wealthy countries. Those communities, those countries, want to get money from richer countries, like the U.S., to deal with the effects of a warming world that they're dealing with right now.
KWONG: Yes. Yes. Lauren Sommer was on to talk about this very thing, and she mentioned the flooding in Pakistan earlier this year that left about a third of the country underwater and affected an estimated 33 million people, right?
ROTT: Yeah. I mean, it's just kind of gobsmacking, right? And it's a good example. I mean, Pakistan saw these torrential monsoonal rains earlier this year. They washed away entire villages. They killed more than 1,500 people and left an estimated 10 million children in urgent need of lifesaving aid. So it's just kind of mind-boggling. The World Bank estimates that economic losses from the flooding will exceed $30 billion and that reconstruction costs could exceed 16 billion. So it's taking a huge toll on Pakistan's economy just because of these floods. And Pakistan doesn't have the money to address those losses on its own, right? And the country only contributed a small fraction of the climate-warming emissions that made this flood event more likely.
KWONG: Which is why Pakistan and other countries that are experiencing loss and damage want countries that burn more fossil fuels, like the U.S., to chip in for the recovery.
ROTT: Exactly. That's the idea.
KWONG: But, Nate, does it seem like this issue of loss and damage is getting traction at the conference? Is it going to be resolved?
ROTT: Resolved? No, not right now. You know, we're recording this on a Tuesday afternoon in Sharm el-Sheikh, and there's some hope that something might maybe work itself out in the negotiating room tonight or tomorrow. But, you know, mostly what I've been hearing is a lot of pessimism that richer countries, chiefly the U.S., don't want to put themselves on the hook for these kinds of disasters. They don't want the liability.
Here's a bit of a conversation I had with Lucy Ntongai, a gender and climate advocate from Kenya.
LUCY NTONGAI: What I was hoping to take home was the loss and damage facility, at least having a commitment on that. But then, since there's no direct confirmation sort of, then that leaves me feeling a bit - not in a very good position to what I'll be telling the local communities back at home.
ROTT: A facility is a formal program or fund that would provide this kind of money to communities like the ones Ntongai is talking about when a climate disaster like the ongoing drought in East Africa occurs.
KWONG: Yeah, I can hear the disappointment in her voice. And I'm wondering, was there really a hope that this would be resolved during this climate conference?
ROTT: I mean, I think there was. I think it's become clear globally that climate change is here - you know, the wildfires in the Arctic, Europe and Turkey, the deadly heat waves in India and Europe, the ones we experienced in the Pacific Northwest earlier this year and last year, the flooding from hurricanes and tropical cyclones, drought in East Africa, the American West. I mean, I could go on all day. And I think, yeah, the reality of that is emboldening developing countries, who did not cause this problem, to speak up like never before. And this discussion, which richer countries like the U.S. have been avoiding for a long time, is now getting its moment in the sun.
KWONG: Yeah, the disparity of climate change is really clear and being openly discussed...
KWONG: ...At least. I want to talk about some of the other key issues, but just to close out this loss and damage conversation, can you talk more about why it's at such a stalemate? What's holding it up?
ROTT: It's liability. The U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, has made it very clear that the U.S. does not want to be put on the hook for the kind of money needed after a massive climate-fueled disaster, like the flooding in Pakistan. They want folks here to celebrate that it's at least now become an agenda item at the conference, but they don't want to pay.
KWONG: Does the U.S. intend to pay in the future?
ROTT: You know, I think everyone agrees that there probably will need to be a mechanism like this built at some point. You know, the costs of climate disasters are already in the multi-billions every year right now, and the world's just continuing to get warmer. The U.S. is the largest historic contributor of climate-warming gases in the world. It doesn't want to be held liable for these costs, but I think they are kind of willing, it seems - sort of willing to have the conversation.
Rachel Cleetus, the chief scientist at the Union for Concerned Scientists, addressed this in a panel discussion here earlier this week.
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RACHEL CLEETUS: It seems that many rich countries, including the United States, think that getting the agenda item here at COP27 is the win. That is not an outcome. That is not a win. And by the way, that's entirely due to the tireless efforts of climate-vulnerable countries and climate justice advocates, not to mention the deep loss of life and livelihoods around the world that we've seen this year in Pakistan, in the Horn of Africa, in Nigeria, elsewhere. That's what pushed this to the top and got it an agenda item here. Now rich countries need to play their part. They cannot take credit for just an agenda item.
ROTT: And Cleetus added that progress on this loss and damage debate will be, in her mind, the litmus test of whether or not this is a successful COP.
KWONG: OK. So let's talk about some of the other issues at hand. COP happens every year. What is the goal of this one generally?
ROTT: Yeah. So this year is what's called an implementation COP It's basically where they're supposed to work out the technical details without a lot of flashy announcements 'cause last year, if you remember, in Glasgow, countries came together to announce these big, glossy national plans to reduce their climate-warming emissions. This year, it's, how are you going to actually do that? So that was supposed to be the focus of this COP, hammering out those details of how exactly countries will decrease their carbon emissions. You know, the U.S. has been here celebrating the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, unquestionably the largest climate legislation the country's ever passed.
That legislation should get the U.S. most of the way towards meeting President Joe Biden's goal of cutting the country's greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030. But it will not get us all the way there. And some of the U.S. congressional delegation folks I've talked to over the last few days have said that they do not expect there to be another big commitment to climate legislation in the next two years, even if Democrats maintain control of Congress, because of inflation and other domestic issues at home.
KWONG: Yeah, and those midterm election results are still being determined.
ROTT: Still being parsed.
KWONG: Yup. So, Nate, what else have you been reporting on since you've been at the climate conference?
ROTT: So it's kind of weird, Emily. I actually came here almost directly from Ukraine, where I've been helping NPR cover Russia's war on the country. So I'm keenly interested in how the conflict there is influencing negotiations here. This is an international conference, after all, and international relations between the U.S., Europe, Russia aren't exactly great. And the cascade of effects from Russia's invasion include an energy crisis across Europe, where many countries depend on Russian oil and gas to heat their businesses and homes. Ukraine, actually, for the first time ever, has a pavilion at COP. They put up displays of polluted soil from Russia's attacks on the country's energy infrastructure. They have a section of an oak tree that was splintered by Russian bullets that people can come look at.
I talked to Ukraine's lead climate scientist, Svitlana Krakovska, and she said it's honestly been a bit surreal to have come from a country under siege to Egypt. We were talking about a central message that she's been hammering since Russia's invasion, about the connection between Russia's fossil fuel-funded war and the climate crisis when a group from the Democratic Republic of Congo walked by rapping and chanting. You should listen to this.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting) Say let's go green. Let's go green. DRC. DRC. Plant some trees. DRC.
ROTT: And as this is happening, as all these excited people are walking by, Krakovska kind of shakes her head at me.
SVITLANA KRAKOVSKA: Yeah, it's a lot of fun here. But - well, actually, I understand that, you know, it's fun for many people. But it's not so much fun for Ukrainians, to be honest.
ROTT: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, how has it been being here and seeing all these people from all over the world?
KRAKOVSKA: I feel not very good, to be honest. So I feel not - I cannot relax. And as far as I know, many of our Ukrainians here. So it's very beautiful surroundings. But we - you know, we are too much deep in the situation in Ukraine.
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ROTT: And that situation in Ukraine, you know, besides the immediate deadly humanitarian issues it's raising there, is also leading to an increased reliance on fossil fuels.
KWONG: And that's because of the energy shortage you mentioned that's rippled across the world since the war began.
ROTT: Yeah. So since the invasion, global coal use has gone up. Domestically in the U.S., there has been these strong pushes from oil and gas development. The same is true in parts of Europe, particularly Germany. They've been pushing for more gas development in Africa to meet some of their energy demands. And Krakovska, the Ukrainian climate scientist, says that is shortsighted. She says, remember, oil and gas sales are funding Russia's war efforts. And Ukraine's reliance on fossil fuels have left the country vulnerable to Russian attacks on energy infrastructure. So her hope is that Ukraine will rebuild in a greener way when this war is finished and that Western allies, which have been keen to send billions of dollars to Ukraine for ammunition and weapons, will do the same for a more sustainable reconstruction.
KWONG: A lot of this is so complicated, Nate. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us and explore all these pieces. And please let us know where things end up at COP27 when it's all said and done.
ROTT: Yeah. I mean, it'll be either me or one of my esteemed colleagues who have been following the proceedings here, too. And we'll fill you in.
KWONG: That's NPR's Nathan Rott in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt at the very unfinished climate conference.
This episode was produced by Margaret Cirino, edited by Gisele Grayson and fact-checked by Abe Levine. The audio engineer for this episode is Katherine Silva. Brendan Crump is our podcast coordinator. Our senior director of programming is Beth Donovan, and the senior vice president of programming is Anya Grundmann. I'm Emily Kwong. Thank you for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR. See you tomorrow.
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