John Kerry rejects ‘climate reparations’ at Congress hearing

The US climate envoy John Kerry has strongly refuted the idea that the US will pay “climate reparations” but listed the creation of a loss and damage fund as one of his objectives for Cop28.

In a combative discussion with Republicans on Congress’s house foreign affairs committee this Thursday, Kerry was asked by Republican Brian Mast if he was “planning to commit America to climate reparations”, adding the US would have to “pay some other country because they had a flood or they had a hurricane”.

Before he could finish, Kerry jumped in: “No. Under no circumstances.” As Mast moved to write “no” on a prop behind him, Kerry joked: “Why don’t you create an exclamation point beside it too?”

Some media outlets and campaigners interpreted this as a refusal to pay into a new loss and damage fund that is scheduled to be set up at Cop28 in November. But several experts told Climate Home that was the wrong interpretation, defending the USA’s position of rejecting liability.

At last year’s Cop27, countries agreed to set up a fund to help victims of extreme climate-related disasters, focusing on countries particularly “vulnerable” to climate change.

At this year’s Cop28, nations will clarify operational details such as who contributes money to the fund and who receives it.

Climate reparations

Alden Meyer, a veteran Washington-DC based climate campaigner and policy analyst at climate think-tank E3G, told Climate Home that Kerry was rejecting the notion of climate ‘reparations’, which “was in bold letters on the big chart that Chairman Mast had behind him as he asked the question”.

Meyer said that the US has “always rejected any suggestion of liability or that it must provide compensation for its historical emissions” and Mast “was using a deliberately loaded term to characterise loss and damage, and Kerry refused to take the bait.”

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The word reparations implies liability, Meyer added, and is also “a particularly charged term in the US given our atrocious history on slavery and continuing systemic racism”.

In an interview with The Guardian in January, Kerry said the US was committed to contributing with loss and damage finance. “How can you look somebody in the eye, with a straight face, and not accept the notion that there are damages, there are losses? We see them all around the world,” he said.

Loss and damage fund

In yesterday’s Congress session, Kerry said that, among his objectives for upcoming Cop28 in Dubai, was the “finalisation” of the loss and damage fund created last year.

“(The fund) is simply a recognition…it does not have any liability in it – we specifically put phrases in that negate any possibility of liability but it is there to try and help some of these vulnerable less developed areas from the problem that they’re facing,” he testified.

Avinash Persaud, a finance adviser to Barbados’s prime minister Mia Mottley and a member of the transitional committee hammering out the details of the new loss and damage fund, defended Kerry’s position.

“There is an unhelpful conflation between climate reparations and funding an international loss and damage fund. Reparations imply payment for past deeds. The loss and damage fund finances a resilient recovery after a climatic event, including slow onset events,” Persaud said.

He also defended the USA’s “global solidarity”, saying that it contributes to international relief after disasters and is helping expand development banks’ lending for climate resilience.

But, he added “immediate relief is not enough” and linked rich countries “unwillingness” to contribute to a loss and damage fund to developing countries “unwillingness” to spend money cutting their emissions. “Solidarity, along the lines of capacity to contribute, is in everyone’s long-run interests,” he said.

In Congress, that argument was not shared by Republican Tim Burchett who said: “You’ve also agreed that countries need to pay poor and developing countries for loss and damage due to climate change, why do the good folks in east Tennessee – they work very hard for their dollars – why do they have to pay for a flood in Africa or South Asia?”

Kerry responded: “We’re not specifically paying for a flood in Africa although sometimes money may go to something like that but the United States is proudly the largest humanitarian donor in the world…we try to help the world”.

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