Loss and damage from the adverse effects of climate change – the perfect storm

Blog Post

Loss and damage from the adverse effects of climate change – the perfect storm

by Linda Siegele, London

Loss and Damage

The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.  They are not meant to represent the views of organisations, institutions or countries mentioned here or elsewhere.

This is my second blog post on the UNFCCC’s work programme on loss and damage.  My first post was written in June 2012 at the outset of the regional expert meetings held under Thematic Area 2 of the work programme.  Since that time I have attended the three remaining regional expert meetings in Mexico City (July 2012), Bangkok (August 2012) and Barbados (October 2012).[1]  At each of these meetings, I brought with me my expertise on climate change issues related to small island developing states (SIDS).  Therefore, it is appropriate that the capstone meeting of the series was held in Barbados and focused on SIDS.  It is equally appropriate that I write this in the aftermath of the loss and damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in the Caribbean and the East Coast of the United States.

The stated aim of the regional expert meetings was to explore a range of approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including impacts related to extreme weather events and slow onset events.  The regional flavour of these meetings allowed participants to drill down into the specific characteristics of climate change impacts in the unique socio-economic contexts of each of the regions.  For example, the impacts of floods and droughts on small rural farming communities was in the spotlight at the Africa meeting.  While floods and drought are also critical impacts in Latin America, there is greater diversity in the location of populations being affected – both geographically and in terms of livelihoods.  The vastness of Asia and scale of its populations adds yet another dimension to climate change impacts in that region.  Issues of size and setting are important to SIDS too, but their geographic isolation and dependency on endemic island ecosystems, again, changes the nature of climate change impacts.

One of the salient criticisms I had of the first regional meeting in Addis Ababa was its failure to pay enough attention to slow onset events and their impacts.  Over the course of the remaining meetings, attempts were made to address this oversight, but coverage of approaches for addressing slow onset events felt scatter shot, leading to the conclusion that a real gap exists in approaches to slow onsets, generally.  Other gaps that the regional meetings began to reveal, include:

  • A poor understanding of how one climate change-related impact may cause or exacerbate additional climate change impacts leading to tipping points and irreversible loss and damage, e.g. sea level rise that leads to accelerated land degradation in the form of intensified storm surges, longer episodes of flooding and salinization of aquifers;
  • Financial instruments for addressing foreseeable long-term climate change impacts like sea level rise, temperature increase, ocean acidification and glacial melt, which require the long-term build up of funds to pay for unavoidable loss and damage, which in many ways are a form of savings account;
  • Methodologies for identifying, addressing and compensating for non-economic loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change; and
  • The lack of a comprehensive legal regime to handle displacement of human populations arising from climate change impacts.

Another of the concerns I voiced after the African regional meeting was the risk of slipping into traditional disaster risk reduction (DRR) mode.  Addressing loss and damage through a DRR lens is problematic. The approach taken by the DRR community puts the burden on national governments alone to address the impacts of disasters.  Supplemental financing from donor countries is voluntary only.  From a climate change perspective, this makes governments of countries that are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change responsible for addressing loss and damage they did not cause – in essence blaming the victim.  This is inconsistent with international law obligations regarding State responsibility for transboundary harm.

Against a backdrop of increasing emissions and accelerating impacts, the next step in the UNFCCC’s work programme on loss and damage is determining the role of the Convention in enhancing the implementation of approaches to address loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change (decision 7/CP.17, Thematic Area 3). 

Loss and damage is real and already happening, and there is a need for a response that is both strategic and operational and that addresses the global, regional, national and sub-national levels.  Coordination and coherence of the strategic and operational response and of ongoing work is central to ensure that objectives are achieved and benefits are maximized.  In Doha, Parties to the climate change convention must:

  • Agree on the basic elements of the strategic and operational response;
  • Identify and initiate the continuing work that needs to be done; and
  • Agree on the modalities for ensuring that coordination and coherence is maintained as we move forward.

To this end, the Alliance of Small Island States, supported by many other developing countries, is calling for the establishment of a permanent institutional mechanism to address loss and damage.

Linda Siegele

London, November 2012

[1] My participation at each of these meetings was supported by a fellowship grant from the Climate Development and Knowledge Network (CDKN) through a UN University and Munich Climate Insurance Initiative (MCII) project.