Science confirms policy move on climate change related loss and damage

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Science confirms policy move on climate change related loss and damage

Key experts and scholars gather to discuss research agenda on limits to adaptation

Loss and Damage

The scientific conference “Perspectives on loss and damage: Society, Climate Change, and Decision Making” was hosted by United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS) at the UN Campus in Bonn, Germany from 25 to 27 February 2013. Authors from the upcoming 5th assessment report of the IPCC, international scholars and experts grappled with the question of how to deal with the consequences of climate change impacts for human societies and natural systems. In view of uncurbed emissions, the participants supported the policy decision at the UNFCCC climate summit in Doha in December 2012 to launch a comprehensive “loss and damage” agenda that looks at the consequences of current and future climate impacts. It was against the background of the imminent UNFCCC decision to establish an institutional arrangement to address loss and damage (part of the loss and damage decision mentioned above and to be agreed upon at  COP19, Warsaw December 2013) that participants  critically examined the needs that must be addressed in the future as limits to adaptation are approached and possibly surpassed.

Pushed beyond their coping capacities by extreme events and gradual change processes, loss and damage is already a reality for individuals. This is especially true for poor countries where widespread vulnerabilities are evident. Participating scientists examined evidence of loss and damage at different scales as well as current and future limits to adaptive capacity that will affect welfare, human security, food and water security, along with issues of identity, culture and other values that are difficult to quantify. Participants agreed that gathering data highlighting the true human consequences of climate change related loss and damage will assist in developing perspectives on how climate change impacts are distributed while also emphasizing it as an issue of climate justice.

Recent research (Warner et al., 2012) supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) reveals that adaptation and loss and damage occur as simultaneous processes, and that loss and damage is a real phenomena with tangible consequences today. Some of the most notable current impacts are on household food production and livelihoods. This raises questions about the ability of adaptation measures, formal and informal as well as planned and autonomous, to stem the interacting negative impacts of climate change on vulnerable societies, which not only impedes sustainable development but also leads to human tragedy. Residual impacts of climate stressors occur—and lead to deepening poverty, erosion of household living standards and health—when:

  • existing coping/adaptation to biophysical impact is not enough to avoid loss and damage;
  • measures have costs (economic, social, cultural, health, etc.) that are not regained;
  • despite short-term merits, measures have negative effects in the longer term;
  • no measures are adopted – or possible – at all.

Across the nine research sites, the vast majority of households were struggling with climatic stressors. Despite their efforts to cope with the impacts of extreme weather events and adapt to slow-onset climatic changes, many incurred residual impacts along the lines of one or several of the pathways listed above.

Climatic stressors are widely experienced in the research sites surveyed. For example, in Bhutan , 91 per cent of the households surveyed experienced changes in monsoon patterns that affected water availability for irrigated rice farming. In Kosrae, Micronesia, 87 per cent of the households experienced coastal erosion. In Bangladesh, 99 per cent experienced salinity intrusion caused by cyclones and sea level rise. The proportion of respondents for whom the climate stressor had a negative impact on the household economy was also high: over 80 per cent in all the study sites. The most affected livelihood source was crop cultivation. As the large majority of respondents practice subsistence agriculture, one can expect direct impacts on food security.

Four themes emerged from the expert discussions: first, there are multiple framings of loss and damage associated with climate change, all of which have different implications for policy (e.g. legal, development, humanitarian, economic). These framings need to be considered explicitly in the functions and modalities of efforts to launch discussions on institutional arrangements on loss and damage.

Second, moving forward it will be important to get more conceptual clarity around what the loss and damage agenda should address and how it relates to both adaptation and limits to adaptation. Participants highlighted the need for disruptive and transformational change. A risk management approach, conceptualizing limits to adaptation as a decision-making problem and as a choice of pathways, found widespread agreement among the participating researchers. Researchers also highlighted that the disruptive realities of a 4°C climate would mean that people and countries have to take intolerable risks and tradeoffs where basic and fundamental needs cannot be sustained.

Third, the participating scientists noted numerous examples and evidence of loss and damage related to climatic stressors, and stressed the need for further research to guide future thinking on loss and damage.

Finally, one of the key research needs identified during the conference was the need to signal to policymakers when limits to adaptation are being approached, what the consequences could be, and what the options are for managing loss and damage. Looking at the limits to adaptation, the conference drives home a simple message: climate impact resilient development in a 4°C world is not a possibility. Loss and damage through climate change impacts is – and will increasingly be – the outcome of unsustainable development models.

Setting up an evidence-driven loss and damage agenda as part of climate policy should be a driver for more considered policymaking. Perspectives on the consequences of climate change might trigger policy decisions that balance short-term gains with long-term options for development and adaptations. To this respect, conference participants emphasized that consequences of climate change should be included in the discussions that will lead to a new climate agreement in 2015.

Warner, K.; v.d.Geest, K; Kreft, S.; Huq, S.; Harmeling, S.; Kusters, K. & A. De Sherbinin (2012): Evidence from the Frontlines of Climate Change: Loss and Damage to Communities Despite Coping and Adaptation, UNU-report No.9, (available at http://www.loss-and-damage.net/4818).