• 25 September 2017

What do people really mean when they talk about "Loss and Damage" from climate change?

The recent hurricanes, Harvey, Irma and Maria, highlight the potential for the climate system to cause loss and damage. With every new high profile extreme weather event, questions are asked about the role of climate change. In new research published today in the journal Nature Climate Change scientists analyse discussions about how to address "Loss and Damage" from climate change, by exploring what people really understand by the term. This is the first academic study of expert perspectives and it is hoped that it will help different actors understand each other, and ease efforts to deal with the adverse consequences of climate change.

Photo: Pablo Garcia Saldaña / unsplash.com

Loss and Damage (L&D) has been debated at climate negotiations for decades. In the early days, small island states called for an insurance pool for loss and damage from rising sea levels. Associated with difficult discussions about how to deal with the consequences of climate change in developing countries which have low greenhouse gas emissions, but are also the most vulnerable to climate change, the L&D issue has remained very sensitive in international climate change negotiations.

Despite the political challenges, L&D has now entered the formal architecture of the UNFCCC international climate negotiations and became part of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. However, within the formal climate negotiations, there is no written definition of L&D, and it is sometimes difficult to infer how efforts to minimise L&D might differ from other attempts to adapt to or mitigate climate change.

This lack of clarity over what L&D actually means has been described as strategic ambiguity, important to achieve successful agreement between countries. But now, researchers and practitioners are starting to ask how they can help address L&D, and many are confused about what this might involve.

"As scientists, we found ourselves asking 'what kind of research might be relevant to inform loss and damage policy?'. But it is hard to identify specific research gaps when some of the policy discussions are quite vague. This led us to start asking people working on L&D what it meant to them, and we realized that we were getting a range of rather different answers," explains co-author Dr Rachel James, from the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

Some experts interviewed in the study suggest that the UNFCCC should focus on reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to the impacts of climate change impacts, rather than treating "loss and damage" as a separate challenge. Others emphasise the need for additional approaches to address the losses and damages which cannot be avoided, and climate changes that are too large to adapt to. There are also questions as to whether L&D should focus purely on climate change or whether it would be more productive to work with existing disaster risk management and humanitarian efforts more generally.

Some interviewees suggested that compensation for climate change impacts was important, however, they also highlighted that this was not the most important intervention needed to address L&D. Money does not address some of the more challenging questions and losses which cannot be quantified - such as where should people live and how can we address their loss of livelihoods or community?

Emily Boyd, lead author from Lund University (formerly ECI) notes that it is the complexity surrounding the meaning and use of loss and damage which is important to highlight as it has consequences for how we might deal with the impacts of climate change.

"Even if countries might be reluctant to acknowledge that there are different perspectives in political climate negotiations, we see it as key that policy makers are aware of these diverse viewpoints. Otherwise, we think that it will be very hard to move forward and develop this policy space," she concludes.

This research also features on The New Security Beat, the blog of the Wilson Center's Global Sustainability and Resilience Program.

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