We are witnessing first-hand the devastating real-world effects of climate change faster than we can. From our newspapers to our screens, to our backyards, the summer of 2021 has provided a bitter warning of what lies ahead.
It also acts as a stark reminder of our failures. Our failures to mitigate human interference with our climate systems, our failures to adapt to increasingly unpredictable and harsh climates, and our failures to recognise the loss and damage already caused by the climate crisis.
Six years ago, world leaders signed the Paris Agreement, promising to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change, adapt to its effects and deal with the kinds of harms that cannot be avoided – what Parties to the Paris Agreement call ‘loss and damage’.
Put simply, ‘loss’ applies to the complete disappearance of something – be it human life, habituate or even species. Absolute, unrestorable and irreversible. ‘Damage’ refers to things that have been impaired but may be repaired or restored.
It is clear, in too many places adaptation and mitigation efforts have been too little and too late, with people and nature facing irreversible losses and damage to human societies, infrastructure and ecosystems. In many ways, loss and damage signpost the boundaries of human adaptation. As defined by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), loss and damage captures “the actual and/or potential manifestation of impacts associated with climate change in developing countries that negatively affect human and natural systems”.
Discourse surrounding Loss and Damage emerged three decades ago, during the establishment of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in the early 1990s. Introduced through a proposal by the Alliance of Small Island States calling for compensation and insurance for losses linked to the impacts associated with sea-level rise – specifically an insurance pool to compensate vulnerable small island and low-lying developing countries – this gave voice to concerns for climate-related impacts that may be irreversible and beyond physical and social adaptation limits. In 2013, Parties to the UNFCCC acknowledged that loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change include more than what can be reduced by adaptation and mitigation efforts. Thus loss and damage became known as the third pillar of international climate policy, institutionalised through the Warsaw Mechanism on Loss and Damages. In 2015, the Paris Agreement established a separate article on loss and damage, endorsing the Warsaw Mechanism and instilling a sense of purpose into post-adaptation discussions.
While loss and damage remain a complex and contentious topic – hindered by its intrinsic associations with attribution, compensation and liability – the Paris Agreement calls for parties to enhance knowledge and understanding of loss and damage; strengthen dialogue and coordination; and enhance action and support, including finance and technology.
Navigating displacement as Loss and Damage
Now imagine the following scenarios… An island community, facing rising sea-levels and increasingly destructive tropical cyclones. Gradually losing the habitable and productive land their grandparents tended to and their ancestors are buried on, due to salinization and coastal erosion. Or imagine instead a subsistence based community in the Sahel, each year facing acute insecurity as gradual desertification, environmental degradation and increasingly erratic rainfall patterns damage their crops, their subsistence and their livelihoods.
Both communities are left with uninhabitable land and unsustainable livelihoods, as the losses and damages inflicted by the climate crisis push them beyond their coping capacities.
And so they become displaced communities. Infrastructure is left behind, crops left unharvested, fisheries abandoned and income opportunities lost. But the loss and damage does not end there. With the loss of fisheries, comes the loss of traditions. With the loss of ecosystems, comes the loss of old ways of knowing and relating to the environment. If a community is dislocated from their land, sea, mountains, rivers or ancestral lands, what happens to their identity?
Here we witness the integral place displacement holds within the narrative of loss and damage. Displacement arguably constitutes an item of loss and damage itself. It is also a last resort adoption measure against, and a catalyst of, further loss and damage. Put simply, displacement is a product, a manifestation and a driver of loss and damage.
Climate diplomacy and the role of COP26
Negotiations surrounding Loss and Damage must match the political investment and urgency currently devoted to mitigation and adaptation efforts.
Losses and damages associated with the impacts of climate change are not theoretical. They are embedded in the Paris Agreement and formalised through the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. The political recognition of loss and damage, and institutionalised vehicle to address it already exist. Now we need action.
Action to enhance understanding, coordination and action on loss and damage. Action to support finance, technology and capacity-building in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Action to recognize the loss and damages endured, and support communities as they grieve, reconcile and heal.
Where communities are faced with damages forcing temporary displacement, improved infrastructure development, social protection and disaster preparedness may enable safe return. In these cases, financial resources and technical assistance are needed to ensure social protection measures during displacement, increase resilience upon return and safeguard the nonrepetition of losses and damages.
Where mitigation and adaptation efforts are rendered insufficient and communities are faced with irreversible loss in the form of displacement there must be a degree of recognition and compensation for the losses experienced. Recognition of the losses experienced, and the subsequent grieving for landscapes lost and celebration of cultural survival, networks, integrity and identity are critical for the safe-guarding of affected communities’ identities, livelihoods and dignity.
In both of the aforementioned scenarios, the safe, orderly and dignified movement must be used as a tool to increase communities’ empowerment and resilience. This is consistent with the Warsaw Mechanism Taskforce on Displacement’s call for parties to the UNFCCC: “To facilitate orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people, as appropriate and in accordance with national laws and policies, in the context of climate change, by considering the needs of migrants and displaced persons, communities of origin, transit and destination, and by enhancing opportunities for regular migration pathways, including through labour mobility, consistent with international labour standards, as appropriate.”
But the question of who will pay for the loss and damages associated with climate change – often taking place in the world’s most vulnerable and least responsible countries – remains.
Put simply, those causing climate change should be held accountable and those experiencing the resulting negative effects should be duly protected and compensated. However, the knock-on effects of attempting to enforce tangible correlations between loss and damage on the one hand, and accountability, responsibility and compensation on the other, remain a significant roadblock in climate negotiations.
Narratives on Loss and Damage, particularly surrounding displacement and territory loss, are shifting to encompass not only monetizable impacts, but also intangible losses and damages, or ‘non-economic losses and damage’. Dimensions that defy quantification or monetisation, but are still deemed valuable by those facing them. Regardless of the compensation offered to a harmed community, if the ends are irreplaceable, by definition such payments cannot make the community whole again.
The adverse effects of climate change are increasingly resulting in losses and damages to vulnerable communities and it is reasonable to project that, in a world 2°C warmer than our own, rates of displacement will increase, embodying the collateral effect of a failing global structure. This begs the question, is it possible to recognise equally the global effects of a local problem alongside the local effects of a global problem?
All images sourced from https://climatevisuals.org licenced under Creative Commons licensing
Climate Researcher & Analyst, Act for Displaced
Sophie is a researcher on the nexus between climate change, human rights and displacement. She holds a Masters in Disaster Management and has worked in research and policy for NGOs, UN Agencies and government in the fields of disaster displacement, climate justice, disaster risk reduction and climate change action