Your browser is no longer supported. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience.

Rich countries argue their populations don’t support loss and damage – but European young people do

By Robin Webster on November 15, 2022

Hurricane Sandy aftermath in Haiti.

The idea that rich countries may be liable for paying the costs of ‘loss and damage – the harm caused by climate change in parts of the world that didn’t cause the problem – has burst onto the scene during COP27. It is a politically charged concept for many Western politicians. The good news is that research shows that the younger generation in Europe, who are likely to be profoundly impacted by the climate crisis, appear to support the idea of paying compensation for the impacts of climate change.

In a Climate Outreach survey of 6,000 young adults in their 20s and 30s across six different European countries as a part of a wider European Commission funded study, a clear majority (58%) supported the idea that wealthy countries should compensate poorer countries for damages caused by the climate crisis, whilst only 13% opposed. And this wasn’t just climate-convinced left-leaning activists – more conservative respondents supported it too. 

More than half (55%) of those who responded to the survey also understood that people and communities around the world who are the least responsible for climate change are suffering the worst impacts, whilst only 15% disagreed. 64% understood that climate change will make inequalities around the world worse, and nearly three quarters (72%) wanted people and communities most affected by climate change to have more of a say in decisions about climate solutions.

The concept is relatively new in European media coverage of climate change, if not in the halls of the UNFCCC – where poorer countries have been calling for years for compensation for the harm they are suffering but didn’t create. The recent horrific experiences of flooding in Pakistan and the placing of the latest COP in one of the most vulnerable countries in the world in Egypt have perhaps played their part in finally pushing it into the newspaper headlines of the rich world. 

So it may be relatively unsurprising that fewer younger people in Europe have encountered the ideas behind ‘loss and damage’ before – even those that are worried about climate change. When it was presented in focus groups with young, more left-leaning Europeans who were concerned about climate change, many were immediately supportive of the idea. 

These workshop participants often recognised the concept of ‘polluter pays’ or ‘ecological debt’, or as one young adult memorably put it, cleaning up after your pet:

“In the same way that we can be fined if, for example, we don’t clean up after our dog, companies and individuals who have been overexploiting natural and human resources must also be fined or there must be a way of providing redress on a social level.”

Others, however, asked relevant and important questions about reparations – does paying loss and damage costs mean a government has permission to continue harming in the future? Who pays and who decides who pays? What form will compensation take and who decides what form it takes? Can money really make up for losses of livelihood, land and lives? These are good questions that could have an impact on how well supported a loss and damage financing facility ultimately is, should it come into being. 

Advocates for climate justice and loss and damage reparations also have another job to do. Very few of the participants in this research could spontaneously draw any connections between global history and the current reality of climate change. Understanding the need for reparations at its deeper level means acknowledging how the roots of climate change trace back through the global fossil fuel-based economy to a history of colonialism, inequity and exploitation, they argue. The links were explored by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its latest report. But it is a leap that few politicians are willing to make, for fear of the costs they could truly be liable for. 

Even so supporters and advocates of loss and damage should take heart. Media commentators and politicians often argue that the citizens of the rich world will never be willing to make sacrifices for people in other countries. In this research, across different cultures and nine different European countries, many young people embraced the idea of establishing responsibility for past harms, and for applying an ethical and moral lens to discussions about the climate crisis. 

These conversations of course become more difficult as reality sets in. The survey was undertaken before the cost of living crisis really kicked into gear in European countries. But it could also be that the elite commentators in the ‘climate debate’ are underestimating younger generations’ deep concern about climate change and understanding of the way societies around the world need to adapt and change in the years to come. 

Leave a reply or comment

By Robin Webster

Robin leads the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

Sign up to our newsletter