on 10th December 2012

Loss and damage: An issue whose time has come

A few weeks ago, ‘loss and damage’ was a phrase understood by a relatively select group of climate specialists. But, with ongoing inaction to tackle climate change, the issue will soon become familiar to us all, says CARE’s Senior Climate Change Advisor for Latin America and the Caribbean, Pascal Girot.

Before this year’s meeting of governments at the UN climate talks in Doha, a Google search of the words ‘loss and damage’ returned an eclectic mix of results: insurance for mobile phones, claims procedures for missing airline luggage and shampoos to treat dry or balding hair.

Fast-forward two weeks, after another intensive round of climate negotiations involving 194 states, and the term ‘loss and damage’ now has a Google profile all of its own. But what exactly is it?

In essence, loss and damage refers to the impacts of climate change – namely, the devastating losses and irreparable damage that countries and communities are increasingly sustaining as a result of extreme and slow onset climate-related events. This includes phenomena like increasing frequency and severity of natural disasters which destroy homes and infrastructure or rising sea levels which flood land, crops and, potentially, entire nations.

Loss and damage, although first raised as an issue in the early 90s, has finally made its debut on the international stage. Not only was it discussed at length by governments in Doha, it also attracted considerable media interest and analysis.

So, why now? The debate about increasing climate impacts and what to do about them stems from a growing realisation that, globally, emissions reductions are not happening fast enough. Targets are not being met, not even remotely, meaning runaway volumes of greenhouse gases are rapidly leading us to a 4-degree world. That’s a full two degrees about the maximum recommended threshold advised by science. In turn, this scenario most likely means that efforts to adapt to the changing climate will also fail. The effects – such as the disappearance of an entire low, lying island nation – may well be catastrophic.

It figures that if those countries responsible for current and historical emissions have not agreed to curtail them, and are not providing adequate funding to help poor and vulnerable countries and populations adapt, loss and damage from climate impacts is only set to get worse. That’s why 194 countries have started to discuss loss and damage in earnest and begin to explore solutions.

Here at CARE, loss and damage is something we are genuinely concerned about. We know that climate change is already impacting on many of the poor and vulnerable communities we work with in some of the world’s poorest countries. In these communities, extreme weather such as storms and cyclones and shifting seasons and rainfall patterns pose significant threats to crops, sources of food, homes, incomes and traditions. Above all, this is a matter of social injustice: the world’s poorest, who have contributed insignificantly to global emissions are also set to bear the brunt of the loss and damage climate change is bringing.

That’s why we have been so active on this issue. Our new report, Tackling the Limits to Adaptation, produced with the World Wildlife Fund and ActionAid ahead of this year’s climate talks outlined many of our key concerns. It called on developed country governments meeting in Doha to deliver three key things. First: urgent and drastic cuts in emissions. Second: dramatically increased financial support for vulnerable countries to help them prevent and avoid loss and damage from the impacts of climate change. Third: to provide compensation and rehabilitation for loss and damage caused by past and ongoing inaction.

As the report aptly states: “we have transcended the era of mitigation and adaptation – this is now the new era of loss and damage. To rectify and redress the situation, developed countries have an urgent legal and moral obligation to undertake urgent and dramatic mitigation action.”

Then, during the climate talks in Doha, we took our demands one step further. Working with colleagues at WWF and ActionAid we helped galvanize further support, this time from nearly 50 civil society organisations. In a letter addressed to ministers as they arrived in Qatar, we repeated our calls, generating significant media attention and increased profile for the issue of loss and damage.

After much debate and discussion and many lengthy hours of meetings and negotiations, finally governments came to a common position. They agreed that loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change is threatening the current and future sustainable development, and indeed survival of, the world’s least developed countries, small island developing states and other particularly vulnerable developing countries.

They also agreed to consider the establishment of a process – known as an ‘international mechanism’ – to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change where adaptation fails or is no longer possible.

Though historic in many ways, this is just the beginning of a global discussion about this vital issue. Civil society needs to keep up the pressure, keep banging the mitigation and adaptation drums louder than ever and also ensure that compensation and rehabilitation are now squarely on the table in discussions about loss and damage. We have much work to do too in the next year to help flesh out what a new ‘international mechanism’ might look like.

After so many years of hiding in the shadows, loss and damage is now here to stay.

A view of flooding in the province of Punjab, near the city of Multan

Pascal Girot

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