Loss and damage must be defined on moral grounds

One reason behind the lack of progress on loss and damage is that it has no agreed definition yet. FILE PHOTO: REUTERS

Among the three strategies for addressing climate change – mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage (L&D) – the latter two continue to suffer from interpretational ambiguities. Adaptation does not have an agreed definition under the climate regime. Loss and damage is not yet considered as a third strategy by developed countries. But developing countries don’t agree. Under the Paris Agreement, developing countries have won Article 8 on L&D, but it is bereft of any liability and compensation claims. Article 8.3 talks of climate action and support for averting, minimising and addressing loss and damage. Averting and minimising L&D can be taken care of largely through mitigation and adaptation. But what about addressing L&D? Finance for situations pre- and post-climate disasters is just a fraction of the total global support.

Action and adequate support are not evident at a minimum level even for adaptation. The citizens of 46 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) still receive less than a cent a day as adaptation support. Even more disquieting is that over two-thirds of adaptation finance comes as loans for the LDCs, which is creating a new “climate debt trap.” A number of reasons can be ascribed to this: a) adaptation continues to be viewed as bringing in only local or national benefits. Even with increasing transboundary and second-order climate impacts, the framing of adaptation as a global public good is not gaining enough traction yet at the political level; b) adaptation is blurred with development, and developed countries consider that developing countries for their own interests have to climate-proof their development; c) middle and higher-income developing countries focus more on mitigation and related technologies than adaptation; and d) adaptation does not stop climate change, and more such investments in developed countries inhibit ambitious mitigation, making developing countries further worse off.

However, the annual climate summit last year (COP26) established a dialogue up until 2024 in response to a demand by the developing countries for a dedicated facility for climate loss and damage. The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), then led by our prime minister, strongly lobbied for highlighting the L&D agenda. Then as a token gesture, the Scottish government came up with two million pounds, and some other entities responded with little amounts including Denmark just recently. Now, upon insistence of the Group of 77 in June, the Convention Secretariat agreed to include L&D financing as an agenda for the upcoming COP27.

One reason behind the lack of progress on L&D is that it has no agreed definition yet. Literature shows there are mainly two conceptualisations: one is that L&D entails liability and compensation, and the other is about risk management and insurance. But developing countries have lost the fight under the Paris Agreement for the first meaning. We may recall that under Article 4.8 of the UNFCCC, insurance was adopted as a response to the claims by small island states of compensating for damages from climate change impacts back in 1992, but insurance for the vulnerable communities is still not included. Besides, insurance can cover only rapid-onset disasters, with unknown probabilities, and not the slow-onset events like land degradation, sea level rise, loss of biodiversity, thawing of permafrost, melting of glaciers, etc. These slow-onset events, with known probabilities, cause more losses and damage over time, like a slow poison.

However, developing countries are one in defining L&D as “beyond adaptation,” i.e. residual damages which cannot be adapted to. But L&D as a broader concept also includes non-economic L&D (NELD) – i.e. loss of lives, loss of habitats, loss of culture, and mental sufferings. These NELD issues cannot be valued in economic terms.

There is a better argumentative and discursive power in highlighting the L&D issues for public legitimacy and better political traction. Quantitative assessments of global and national-level L&D will generate a visible evidence base, which cannot be overlooked by developed countries. So, the CVF is publishing the Third Vulnerability Monitor soon. This means there will be no blurring of L&D with development efforts. The Global South now commands a rock-solid unity behind the L&D agenda; this was evident at COP26 and at the Bonn Intersessional in June. So we have a dedicated agenda on L&D finance at COP27.

Arguments for grants will be stronger to address L&D issues on moral/ethical grounds. Climate-induced displacement as an increasingly important issue is also likely to have better traction under L&D, which is already recognised, but no support for action is there yet. The increasingly sharpened climate attribution science can serve as the aide de camp for graphical presentation of the direct and indirect losses and damages from climate change.

The question is: how do we inject these considerations into individual and social consciousness globally? This is where there is a need for alternative framings of L&D in the UNFCCC process. Economic rationality to address climate change is not taking us far. The “polluter pays” principle, the most cardinal solution, though applied nationally in many countries, is not applied at the global level. The temporal and geographical distance of benefits from climate investments and the perceived free-riding stand in the way of adequate financing for action.

So there is a need for an alternative framing of L&D that is grounded on moral reasoning about the harms being inflicted by major emitters, not deserved at all by the vulnerable countries and communities. This is grossly unjust and unfair. Increasing L&D from extreme events as the new normal is violating our basic development and human rights in many ways. This reasoning is likely to have better and deeper resonance and strike the humane chords of empathy, individually and socially, and engender greater global solidarity and action. Some literature shows that ethical or moral reasoning have better impact on generating pro-environmental behaviour, because when issues are viewed as moral, impetus for action is higher. But such a framing of L&D is not there yet. So, let us amplify the voice of our prime minister, who just days back in New York, sounded very hard on continued inaction in climate diplomacy.

Originally this article was published on October 04, 2021 at The Daily Star. The author Dr. Mizan R Khan is the Deputy Director of International Centre for Climate Change & Development (ICCCAD), and Programme Director of LDC Universities’ Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC).
Email: mizan.khan@icccad.org