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After two decades, Loss and Damage is in the spotlight

  • Published at 12:41 am December 14th, 2017
After two decades, Loss and Damage is in the spotlight
Once a taboo topic rich countries wanted to hear nothing about, climate change loss and damage is finally being talked about at the UN. Whereas, a year ago, almost nobody was talking about loss and damage at the climate talks in Marrakesh -- this year, in Bonn, you could hardly move two steps without hearing about it. Loss and damage refers to the losses and damages caused by climate change that go beyond people’s ability (or capability) to adapt. And, there a few reasons why it is finally receiving so much attention. First of all, the small island of Fiji, which presided over this year’s climate conference, highlighted loss and damage as a key issue. This is the first time in the history of the UN climate process that a small island has presided over the talks; and small island nations have always been the most vocal about loss and damage -- particularly the islands at the risk of sinking. But then there is the United States, which faced a series of severe storms in the latter half of 2017. Both hurricane Harvey and Irma made landfall on the United States coast with wind speed exceeding 200 kilometers per hour; and hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico (legally a territory of the United States) with wind speed as high as 250kmph. Note: Hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons are all names for the same phenomenon. According to the National Geographic, these storms (along with 14 others) that hit the United States between June and November this year caused up to $200 billion of damage. Even if these storms are not attributable to climate change, they hint at the cost of climate change loss and damage in the future; particularly since scientists’ latest prediction is that the intensity of storms worldwide will increase. Of course, many other countries around the world have faced similar disasters; but there tends to be more international attention when a nation like the United States is at the forefront of such hazards.

The next big thing: Climate risk insurance

Loss and damage was mostly discussed in terms of climate risk insurance, which seeks to provide insurance coverage to populations around the world that are vulnerable to climate change. Say you are a poor farmer and are nervous that a climate changed-induced drought is going to ruin a growing year or two for you in the next decade -- you pay into the insurance scheme (hopefully subsidised by developed countries), and when the drought hits, you get a payout. As you can probably imagine, beyond the obvious ethical questions (of the victims of climate change needing to pay in order to cope), there are a lot of challenges with this. Primarily, how do you determine which natural hazards were caused by climate change? This is something climate attribution scientists have been working on for the last decade and its not easy. Professor Myles Allen, the head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University of Oxford, for instance, has been studying different methodologies and indicators that could help determine the contribution climate change makes to a certain sudden-onset hazards such as cyclones. Another challenge with climate risk insurance is determining the “trigger” -- which would release the insurance packages. Does wind during a cyclone need to reach a certain speed? Does humidity have to drop beyond a certain threshold to determine a climate change-induced drought? This caused some turmoil for Malawi a couple of years ago with the African Risk Capacity (ARC), a specialised African Union agency responsible for a continent-wide insurance scheme for weather events (although not necessarily caused by climate change). While Malawi faced considerable drought from 2015-2016, the specific trigger for the insurance payout was not met. Initially, this meant they were ineligible to receive a payout from ARC. Fortunate for Malawi, ARC eventually decided to release a payout of about $8 million to help the Malawi government support impacted farmers. But the ordeal revealed the challenges with determined Weather-index based triggers. Last of all -- as UK and many others have argued -- climate risk insurance is not a silver bullet, and is not particularly great at supporting the poorest of the poor, who lack the initial capital to buy into insurance schemes in the first place (even after they are subsidised). So while climate risk insurance may be one tool to combat climate change loss and damage, by no means should it be the only tool.

Non-Economic Loss and Damage

Beyond the economic damages and loss caused by climate change, there are the losses that cannot be easily counted or monetarily assessed. In the UN lingo, this is what is referred to as Non-Economic Loss and Damage (NELD). For instance, if the people of Kiribati lose their country -- what does this mean for their sovereignty or sense of nationality? What does it mean for all their cultural traditions and heritage that are tied to the land? NELD could also be the painful, psychological affects people face in the advent of sudden or slow-onset climate change hazard. For instance, in the aftermath of Sidr and Aila (neither of which are directly attributable to climate change -- at least yet), people were found traumatised and in utter shock at the loss of loved ones and their livelihoods. To address these types of loss and damage, there is no real answer. Anthropologists, psychologists, and others working in the humanities and social sciences could create an index to try to measure these loss of culture and heritage; and the psychological effects -- which could allow for some form of compensation. A NELD framework could also be used to identify cultural artifacts that are at risk of being lost or damaged because of climate change -- which could then be documented, conserved or even protected. UNESCO has identified numerous world heritage sites that are at risk of being damaged by climate changed; including the Easter Island statues, the city of Venice, and even the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Ultimately, the tragedy of NELD is the realisation that money cannot fix everything -- that there are some impacts that can’t be reversed.

Climate-Induced migration

Climate migration is surprisingly a very complicated topic, also within the wider framework of loss and damage (although some argue it is actually an example of adaptation). While the image of the “climate refugee” fleeing from rising sea-levels is fairly prevalent in people’s minds, there is considerable evidence that contradict the truth behind such an image. This is because people choose to migrate for a whole array of reasons -- and given it is hard enough to attribute certain environmental hazards to climate change (as discussed above), it is even harder to determine who is being forced to move because of the changing climate. Still, the UN climate body currently has a task force on migration, and it’s their job to come up with recommendations on how the UN climate body could address climate change-related migration. World-wide, this is a difficult question to answer -- particularly with all the political tension associated with migration. But in Bangladesh, if we push aside the question of attribution to climate change for a second and recognise that climate change will likely contribute to the overall movement of people to Dhaka city -- then one solution is “planned migration” -- basically, incentivising migrants to move and settle in other urban centers outside of Dhaka. If envisioned properly, this could take away the pressure from Dhaka which is a city of already at least 17 million, and distribute “climate refugees” more evenly among different urban centers in the country. At last, the concept of loss and damage was first brought up in the UN climate negotiations by Vanuatu in the early 1990s in the form of an insurance-pool to help small island nations face the impacts of climate change. At that time, the idea was discarded. Some 20 odd years later, the UN has finally realised the need to address loss and damage, given the countries’ were neither able to reduce their emissions fast enough, nor support vulnerable populations adapt to climate change properly. Yet the final outcome for loss and damage at climate talks in Bonn this year were fairly weak (even with the issue gaining increased visibility). No decision was made regarding finance for loss and damage; and the issue was not made a permanent agenda item -- meaning it does not have to be discussed at each of the inter-session meetings between each year’s talks. As such, it might be a few more years until there is a robust response to loss and damage beyond insurance.