Leaders of the developing world on Monday demanded that wealthy nations spend vastly more to help vulnerable populations adjust to a warming planet, as a United Nations climate conference started with growing anger toward industrialized countries reluctant to pay for the consequences of climate change.

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” warned U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, as he opened two weeks of talks, known as COP27, in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. Countries have agreed to start talking for the first time about the world’s wealthy nations paying a form of climate reparations to the most vulnerable countries.

The annual U.N. climate gathering is the main venue for nations to come together to try to cooperate on efforts to fight global warming. This year, policymakers have agreed to start talking about the developing world’s demands for more help with the harm they are already suffering from climate change, as farmland dries up, towns relocate to escape rising seas, and conflicts increase over access to increasingly scarce resources.

“We are getting dangerously close to the point of no return,” Guterres said.

But there was every indication that talks about “loss and damage” would end without significant breakthroughs. After hours of bargaining over the weekend about what items to include in the agenda, rich nations said that even including the subject in the official talks was a major step. Vulnerable countries said it was the bare minimum.

The gathering “offers us an opportunity to either make history or, if you like, be a victim of history,” Senegalese President Macky Sall told leaders Monday, speaking on behalf of African nations in his capacity as chair of the African Union.


“Those who pollute the most should pay the most in order to get our planet off this track of climate crisis,” Sall said.

After a year of catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and Nigeria, widespread drought and the hottest-ever summer in Europe, policymakers said the toll of climate change is becoming ever more apparent. But they worried that the political will by the world’s richest nations to help their more vulnerable peers is limited. Fury among those most affected by global warming is rising in proportion.

Amid soaring global inflation, the war in Ukraine and a narrowing political path in Washington for President Biden to act ambitiously on climate issues, expectations for the talks were lower than for those in Scotland a year ago. Last year, advocates for action held hopes that the Biden administration was ready to reengage on climate issues after President Donald Trump’s climate-skeptic term in office. This year, the frustration is more palpable, with countries failing to live up to their existing promises even after some in Glasgow pledged to deliver more-ambitious climate goals.

The bitterness is compounded by the choice of Egypt, a nation with a long record of human rights violations, as host. The climate movement gained steam through free speech and demonstrations, but Egyptian authorities have banished protests to the periphery of Sharm el-Sheikh, all but eliminating them and forcing activists to employ more subdued strategies. And one of the country’s most prominent political prisoners, the British Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, entered his second day of withholding both food and water in a prison cell outside Cairo to protest his detention.

He is serving five years after being convicted of spreading false news to undermine national security, which rights groups have decried as a sham. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Monday vowed to press for his release.

The head winds do not bode well for efforts to limit average global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, compared with preindustrial levels, a level beyond which scientists say disastrous effects become more likely.


“The Global South remains at the mercy of the Global North on these issues,” Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley told leaders.

“What will our choice be?” she asked. “We have the power to act or the power to remain passive and do nothing. I pray that we will leave Egypt with a clear understanding that the things that are facing us today are interconnected.”

Policymakers from the most vulnerable nations say they want clear financial commitments from the rich world, and a fund set up specifically to help countries that are already suffering from loss and damage related to climate change. Leaders from richer nations are cautious, partly because they fear opening themselves to compensating for all historic climate change. They also say that mechanisms to unlock trillions of dollars in potential private investment for climate transition efforts may be a better use of limited bandwidth than focusing on billions in public compensation that will never be enough to meet the needs of the developing world.

Studies on the costs of loss and damage vary, but all are immense, ranging from $400 billion per year by 2030 to more than $1 trillion a year by 2050.

Even among rich nations there are divisions, with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday vowing to push the United States and China to “step up” emissions reduction efforts and funding for vulnerable countries.

“The Europeans are paying, but the simple problem is that we’re the only ones paying,” Macron said during an event in Sharm el-Sheikh with African and French climate activists.


“And so now, one must put the pressure on rich, non-European countries, to tell them, ‘You must pay your part.’ ”

Macron’s effort may have to wait until next week at a summit of the leaders of the Group of 20 major economies, since neither Biden nor Chinese President Xi Jinping were in Egypt on Monday. Xi skipped the gathering last year, too. Biden is expected to visit Egypt at the end of the week, after other leaders have departed, because the midterm elections are keeping him in the United States early in the week.

American policymakers have focused on bolstering private investment to support the transition to clean energy in developing countries. Along with various partners at the summit, U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry is expected to announce a plan for the private sector to earn “high quality” carbon credits from channeling funds toward projects that speed the energy transition in developing countries, a U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the effort.

Experts said that the conversations on loss and damage would probably take years to develop and that the best-case outcome from Egypt was probably an agreement on a framework to keep talking. Even that is uncertain, said Jonathan Pershing, Kerry’s deputy until earlier this year, who is now the program director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

“This is the answer that the political moment would accept, but ultimately we will need to have more specificity to move forward,” he said. He noted that the current emissions reduction framework had been under discussion for decades before it was settled in Paris in 2015.

Leaders of climate-hit countries said that regardless of pressures from the war in Ukraine and political crosswinds in rich nations, their needs were urgent and expanding. Humanitarian aid is not sufficient to meet disaster-struck countries’ growing need for funds, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said.


“For the lost and the damaged world,” he said, “such gatherings are our only hope.”

Some climate advocates said they would view the talks as a success if any concrete progress is made on what some call climate reparations. Putting it on the agenda was a “little milestone,” said Harjeet Singh, an Indian climate expert who is head of global political strategy for Climate Action Network International, an advocacy group.

A dedicated fund for loss and damage, overseen by the U.N. climate agency, could establish a mechanism for assessing all those losses, Singh said. It could produce technical reports on the developing world’s needs and set recommendations for how much funding rich countries must deliver. It would also offer a way to hold wealthy nations accountable for fulfilling their promises.

He said he hoped that the talks in Sharm el-Sheikh would strike an agreement to establish a fund, as well as broad outlines for how it will operate and who will oversee it.

“We are not expecting every penny now,” he said.

But after the climate catastrophes of this year, as well as long-running frustrations over the developed world’s failure to deliver promised support, the people bearing the worst effects of climate change need reassurance that the world recognizes their suffering, Singh said.

“I would call it a success if it sends that message of hope, and restores trust in the system,” he said.


Kaplan reported from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. The Washington Post’s Siobhán O’Grady in Sharm el-Sheikh and Tim Puko, Maxine Joselow and Paulina Firozi in Washington contributed to this report.

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