Mr Browne, who chairs the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), spoke to The Independent at Cop27, where he has been a vociferous advocate on loss and damage – the irrevocable losses of livelihoods and property as a result of the climate crisis.
Developing nations, facing the worst climate impacts despite their relatively small carbon footprints, are demanding that their large-polluting planetary neighbours pay reparations for the fossil-fuel damage that has underpinned their wealth.
Members of AOSIS face extreme rises in sea level, coastal erosion and increasingly powerful storms. Yet these countries have contributed less than 1 per cent of global emissions. On top of that, the global financial system is constructed in a way that penalises the poorest with higher interest rates and worse deals than richer nations, leaving them drowning in debt.
Poorer countries have called for loss and damage to be discussed at Cop, as the conference of the parties is known, for two decades. Cop27 is the first time the issue has made the agenda, and it has swiftly become the front-and-centre issue of the global climate conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.
“We’re encouraged, but we would like to see an even better outcome by the end of this conference,” Mr Browne told The Independent.
By the end of Cop27, vulnerable countries want to see a commitment to figuring out how the mechanics of a new loss-and-damage fund would work in order to have it up and running by 2024.
“If we’re able to achieve that outcome, and subsequently have a fund that is well-supported, especially by the large polluters, then I would say this Cop would have been a success,” Mr Browne added.
Although optimism is high for now, what the final “Sharm” agreement might look like remains uncertain. At Cop26 in Scotland, the final “Glasgow Climate Pact” was watered down by large polluters at the eleventh hour.
So far, a handful of European countries have pledged direct loss-and-damage funding and, while it amounts to tens of millions of dollars, the amounts are largely symbolic. Loss and damage is largely incalculable, with estimates ranging from $290bn to $580bn in developing countries by 2030.
China, the world’s largest polluter, will support a “mechanism” for loss and damage, climate envoy Xie Zhenhua said on Wednesday. However, China later said that would not mean giving money.
Meanwhile, the United States, the second-largest polluter, has welcomed the discussion of loss and damage at Cop27 but has yet to pledge money or agree to a fund.
“We are pleased that the parties were able to agree on an agenda item related to loss and damage. This will ensure that there will be an outcome to the discussions, and we look forward to working towards that outcome according to what we decided in Glasgow,” a State Department spokesperson told The Independent on Thursday.
Ahead of the conference, US special climate envoy John Kerry said that the country was “anxious to see the loss-and-damage issue dealt with up front and in a real way at the Cop”.
However, Mr Kerry also said that putting richer nations on the hook for legal liability over loss and damage was “going to be a problem for everybody, not just for us”.
Mr Browne called this “a form of subterfuge” and said that the United States, and other large polluters, were liable for the torts, or injuries, they had caused.
He said: “Large-polluting countries must take responsibility for the torts that they are committing on all humanity. They cannot justify burning fossil fuels, profiteering to the tune of trillions of dollars, and then make a case that they’re not liable.
“Wherever a tort is committed, the issue of compensation rises. But I have no doubt that they are liable.”
In the run-up to Cop27, Mr Browne made an agreement with Kausea Natano, the prime minister of Tuvalu, to explore paths for litigation that could be brought before international courts. Tuvalu is a tiny island nation in the middle of the Pacific that could be underwater by the end of the century. It was the first country to call at Cop for a treaty to phase out all fossil fuels.
The countries will also seek the opinion of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on which countries could be held legally responsible for rising sea levels and heating the ocean waters.
“Antigua and Barbuda and other countries have taken the position that we cannot rely exclusively on voluntary actions to resolve climate change,” said Mr Browne.
“We all have an obligation to protect our seas and we have lost more than 50 per cent of our coral reefs. The evidence is there.”
However, the prime minister emphasised that rich countries should not view the move as an “act of hostility”.
“What we’re saying is that we must have a last-resort plan. If climate diplomacy does not work in holding countries responsible, then we have to go to the legal route.”
He added: “Because, let’s face it, these Cops have been taking place [for] over 30 years. And every year we reiterate the urgency, but then we’re still on a slow march.”
Mr Browne addressed what he described as the “anxieties” of the G20 and other developed countries, that poorer countries were “coming cap in hand, looking for a blank cheque”.
“Loss and damage is about inequity in the system. It’s extremely inequitable, I’d even say vulgar.
“I think [developed countries] have a moral obligation to assist. They treat us as though we are mendicants in some instances with benign neglect.
“Whenever we make this case of climate justice, many come up with these foolish arguments and suggest that we are just interested in a blank cheque.”
He added: “We don’t want to be climate refugees in anybody’s country. We want to maintain our civilisations that have existed for hundreds of years. They have to respect the fact that we must have a healthy and safe place to live, and cannot continue to burn fossil fuels in a profligate way that endangers our civilisation. That is unjust.”
Loss-and-damage funding should also come from the major oil and gas corporations, Mr Browne said, in the form of a global carbon tax.
That idea has gathered steam this year after the fossil-fuel industry made record-breaking profits while nations have battled with cost of living crises and the poorest are left on the brink of famine.
Mr Browne said that if no concrete steps on loss and damage were agreed by the end of Cop27, then AOSIS and other developing countries “just have to continue to agitate for action”.
He pointed out that while nations in the Caribbean and the Pacific and Indian Oceans were on the front lines for now, the communities of rich countries were not immune to looming catastrophe.
“Ultimately, if we do not take urgent action, then the planet itself will become uninhabitable,” he said. “It will be a lose-lose situation, pursuing our own global destruction.”
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies