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Losses and damages in a climate changed world


Loss and damage from anthropogenic climate change is now a rapidly expanding debate on climate justice and injustices. The strong currents of discussion at COP26 in Glasgow last year were mostly below the surface of the formal negotiations. 

The loss and damage debate has moved on and holds that there is no longer room for any serious doubt that anthropogenic climate change has been occurring for some time, and that the richer and more industrialised countries are largely responsible.[1] Climate change has been, is, and will be, very much differentiated in terms of responsibilities for action. Nevertheless, the responsibilities are “common”, so what to do?

The truth is that we are living in a climate changed world. The recent IPCC Working Group 1 Report[2] makes the case with unequivocal evidence that climate change impacts can be attributed to current global average temperature increases of 1.1oC. Hence, every single extreme weather event from now on can reasonably be considered to be worse than they otherwise would have been in the absence of human-induced global average temperature rise. We are dealing with the impacts of a 1.1oC rise that has already happened and this fact takes over in importance from efforts to stay below 1.5 oC (although that remains important).

The IPCC AR6 Working Group II report[3] provides a powerful synthesis of evidence of the plethora of losses and damages due to climate change. Extreme weather events are direct and indirect drivers of migration and displacement. Climate change has influenced changes in temporary, seasonal or permanent migration causing economic losses that undermine household resources and savings, limit mobility and compound exposure and vulnerability. Larger economic losses are observed in sectors with high direct climate exposure (including agriculture, forestry, fishery, energy and tourism). Climate change is estimated to have slowed trends of decreasing economic inequality. With even low levels of global warming hundreds of millions of people in regions with high exposure and vulnerability face losses and damages to lives and livelihoods. These losses and damages will be concentrated among the poorest vulnerable populations.

The use of the term ‘loss and damage’ (which we strongly support) has been highly politicised. However, the term is immaterial in dealing with climate change impacts, where the engagement of all major stakeholders is needed. We need a mapping of all these key stakeholders, and to identify where they are on a spectrum from investigation to action.

Thinking back to the days when we were concerned with ‘dangerous climate change’ and particularly Stephen Schneider’s work on acknowledging low frequency, high impact events, it appears that what is now recognised as climate loss and damage has a basis in decision-makers acceptance of likely collateral damage of climate impacts. And probably an under-estimation of how high the related costs would be. 

The ways that loss and damage is framed currently for the purposes of UNFCCC based negotiations and for advocating ways to address loss and damage does not meet many stakeholders’ expectations. Researchers will need to help find a more coherent and accessible replacement framing. There needs to be greater clarity on the distinctions of economic and non-economic impacts, the linkages and cumulative/residual impacts of sudden-onset with slow-onset climate. Plus, boundaries between climate adaptation activities and measures to address loss and damage are needed to convince stakeholders that these two are not conflated. 

The conceptual/analytical framework we use for working on loss and damage needs to include distributional elements across class, age, gender, livelihood categories, different cultural heritages, etc. A Climate Justice Resilience Fund supported work has established, a given climate change impact may be easily adaptable for one set of people but cause irrevocable losses for another, even within a given geography or community. 

Researchers and actors in the policy discourse need to recognize how personal and traumatic loss and damage is in many cases. This is important when we are looking from global, nationally and local levels. Top-down funding streams to address loss and damage are unlikely to be able to address these aspects adequately. 

Some people express doubts that climate adaptation and loss and damage are different. But this is symptomatic of taking a normative (populist) approach to climate action, whereby adaptation is naively seen as a tide that will lift all boats above rising climate risks and impacts. This year’s scientific papers from Siri Eriksen et al.[4], and Lisa Schipper et al.[5]  adaptation failure and mal-adaptation respectively have started to question the value of the normative approach. Addressing loss and damage needs to be different, with a focus on the marginalised and not accepting people being left behind.

Then we get to the need for pragmatic action for addressing L&D. To simplify what is a complicated interaction we can use a temporal rule of thumb approach to distinguish addressing loss and damage from adaptation. Put simply, addressing L&D is ex-post, and adaptation ex-ante. But is addressing loss and damage really just a question of safety nets that kick in to get people back to a position (in terms of livelihoods, assets and resources) similar to where they were prior to the event that caused the loss and damage? And pragmatically can we do this using tried and tested disaster risk management approaches?

Climate adaptation is a broad, wide and encompassing term. In dealing with floods decades ago we used to call it “human adjustment”. It included actions and policies both before and after the flood events. The level of mortality and morbidity, and economic damage (tangible and intangible) and socio-cultural depend upon the anticipatory choices made or neglected. These “impacts” are therefore largely the result of human actions or choices. We advocate for the abolition of the term “natural disaster” because while, for example, the flood event can be seen as largely natural, the causes of damage were human actions, choices, policies. Responses to climate-related disaster events are a form of adaptation (human adjustment) because the amount and the kind of the post-disaster relief and rehabilitation, and reconstruction, greatly affect the impacts that would be felt from the next disaster. “Build back better” is too simple if it implies that it is always right to build back. There should always be consideration of building back differently or of relocation i.e. moving elsewhere to safer and less risky or exposed locations. The fact that this is not done or not even considered sometimes (perhaps often) leads to an increase in the damage potential from future events in the same location. Thus, disaster risk reduction by anticipatory adaptation often takes the form of incidentally increasing risk. 

A disaster risk reduction approach that conceals actions and decisions that add to risks is termed disaster risk creation. The disaster research community is investigating DRC in terms of its causes and explanations. An early conclusion is that disaster risk creation is a deep-seated problem driven by the standard and conventional approaches to development. It is a systemic problem and needs to be addressed as such. 

From a climate justice perspective, if we dedicate ourselves to endless attempts to define, measure, and attribute impacts (losses and damages) we risk missing the point that it is the political and economic system that is wrong and misguided by ideological allegiance to neo-liberal, unbridled and under-regulated capitalism. 

We do not suggest giving up on the processes of thinking through and attempting to develop effective ways of dealing with loss and damage (the normative approach), but we do think this has to be combined and linked with a broader systemic rethinking. This can include a focus on the marginalized and not accepting people being left behind. But it also needs to ask fundamental questions about the international and global system. 

Climate change (and associated extreme events) is one of an increasing number of global issues that cannot be solved by each country adopting actions and policies directed to its own short-term self-interests leading us to a global tragedy of the commons. 

Look at the response to the Covid pandemic. The countries (and the private sector corporations) that created and had access to the vaccines, protected their own populations (and corporate profits) at the expense of addressing the global problem. The result has been the emergence of new variants which have come back to adversely impact the privileged. Climate and Covid are two leading examples (for the moment) of a general process. There are and will be others and more. The international system of “governance” is going in the wrong direction. 

Nations are retreating into their own narrow and short-sighted interests. How can this be turned around? There are signs (like the green new deal) that this is slowly gaining recognition. But the magnitude of the problem is huge. Surely a transformation is coming. Will it be the apocalypse or can something constructive emerge? We need to design climate adaptation and ways to address losses and damages, while not deflecting attention away from the underlying systemic and roots causes of the ‘global bads’ that currently pollute and litter our planet. 

Prof Saleemul Huq is Director of ICCCAD. His work is now fully focused on addressing climate losses and damages

Prof Ian Burton is Professor Emeritus at the University of Toronto, Department of Geography. His major interests are in climate change adaptation) and natural hazards and disasters.

Dr Simon Anderson is Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in Scotland. His work focuses on gender equality and climate justice.

[1] This is the case if we focus on total emissions now; or emissions per capita, or cumulative emissions over time (beginning in 1800).



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