In a special session convened by Secretary General António Guterres before the official opening of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly, those Caribbean leaders and others appealed to the body to rethink humanitarian aid. They asserted that because climate change is fueling more intense storms, vulnerable countries must have a better way to recover than to beg for money with each new devastation.
Climate change, they said, is no longer a distant threat. Islands are already suffering millions of dollars in losses that they can barely afford because of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions baked into the atmosphere, the leaders said.
“Climate change and its consequences should not be a subject of speculation or debate,” Mr. Medina said. “It’s a truth which hits us and which causes great uncertainty.”
Leaders did not make explicit demands at the formal United Nations session. Behind the scenes, though, several said it was past time for the creation of a special funding mechanism to help countries deal with the unavoidable consequences of climate change. No amount of planning in Barbuda, for example, could have protected the island from the utter collapse of its infrastructure, Walton Alfonso Webson, Antigua and Barbuda’s ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview.
“The small islands have been saying for so many years in the climate change discussions that this is possible,” Mr. Webson said. “It’s no longer possible. It’s happened.”
The issue of whether countries should be assured of some aid to rebuild from storms or droughts, or to relocate citizens if need be, is known in United Nations parlance as “loss and damage.” The question of wealthy nations’ responsibility for providing this compensation has never been fully resolved. Industrialized nations have consistently rejected being held legally liable for their decades of carbon pollution.
After a protracted debate, the Obama administration allowed the Paris agreement in 2015 to acknowledge the special needs of vulnerable countries, but American negotiators supported a provision saying that doing so “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.”
Island leaders said this week that it was time to forget the issue of compensation and focus on ways rich and poor countries could work together. Some have called for large-scale insurance programs that pay out after a disaster, while others have proposed a special international fund.
“There really has to be some sort of mechanism for insurance so we can have quick restoration after events such as this,” Diann Black-Layne, Antigua’s ambassador for climate change, said in an interview. “If that doesn’t happen, we will have no choice but then to look for a compensation system. That’s not what we want, to spend years in court.”
She and other diplomats said they would press for a funding mechanism at a United Nations session in Germany in November.
The State Department did not respond to questions about the Trump administration’s position on loss and damage.
Michele J. Sison, the deputy United States ambassador to the United Nations, told leaders on Monday that the United States Agency for International Development had committed $1.2 million to help Caribbean islands hit by Hurricane Irma. American assistance has gone toward purchasing hygiene kits, helping to deliver relief supplies, restoring water access and assessing damage.
“It is a core American value to help those in need,” Ms. Sison said.