Dr Gabriele Messori, Imperial physics alumnus and climate scientist writes about the contentious issue of the loss and damage caused by adverse effects of climate change.
A key section in the draft agreement called ‘Loss and Damage’, has so far been one of the most debated elements of the negotiations at COP21 here in Paris, and is arguably holding up many other discussions.
In the past, the climate change negotiations have mainly been framed around mitigation, namely attempting to minimise climate change, and adaptation, namely reducing our vulnerability to the portion of climate change that is not mitigated. The concept of ‘loss and damage’ stems from the recognition that both mitigation and adaptation have limits, and that climate change will have adverse effects regardless of the mitigation and adaptation policies that currently exist and that might be implemented in the future.
Negotiating loss and damage
Climate change-related loss and damage was first discussed, albeit under a different name, in 1991 at a very early stage in the climate negotiations. However, a specific mechanism to address it was only agreed upon in 2013, at COP19 in Warsaw. The difficulty in reaching such an agreement stems from the opposing views of the parties involved in the negotiations.
Many developed countries see loss and damage as an additional, very costly, form of climate finance. They are further concerned by its close link to climate liability; the United States is known to have taken a very strong stance with respect to the latter point. On the opposite side of the debate, developing and least developed countries claim that developed countries have a major historic responsibility for climate change, and that loss and damage is an essential element of a just climate agreement. Small island nations, which are very vulnerable to sea-level rise, have been particularly vocal on this point. The result has been that the document approved in Warsaw does not include a clear definition of loss and damage.
The negotiations here in Paris are also failing to deliver on this point. The different countries are having a heated debate on whether and where to include loss and damage in the new text being negotiated, but the issue of defining precisely what the term refers to is largely being ignored.
The scientific challenges
From an ethical standpoint, the concept of loss and damage should be at the core of a just climate agreement. The countries most exposed to damage from climate change are often also the poorest, and find themselves affected by a problem that they only marginally contributed to create.
From a scientific standpoint, however, the inclusion of loss and damage under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is problematic. Associating loss and damage with a climate change agreement implicitly assumes that we can distinguish between adverse climatic events due to climate change and adverse events which are part of the climate system’s natural variability.
To date, the negotiations around loss and damage have included both slow onset events, such as sea level rise, and extreme events, such as cyclones or floods. Many of the slow onset events might be attributable to climate change with some degree of certainty, if not already today at least in a not too distant future. However, even when a clear anthropogenic signal is detected, it often contributes only to part of the change.
If extreme events are added to the picture, the question of attribution becomes a lot more complex. There is a thriving research field dealing with this problem, but conventional techniques typically struggle with dynamically driven extremes.
An alternative approach, discussed in a recent publication by Trenberth and colleagues, would be to: “regard the extreme circulation regime or weather event as being largely unaffected by climate change, and question whether known changes in the climate … affected the impact of the particular event”. However, this would explicitly recognise climate change as an exacerbating factor rather than as the prime driver of the event, leading to a potentially very complex disaggregation of the climate change-related portion of the damage from the overall impact of the event.
A possible way out
Due to the inherent scientific difficulties in attributing events to climate change or nature, there are clearly immense challenges in implementing a loss and damage mechanism. However, since the socio-economic damage due to adverse climate events often leads to humanitarian emergencies, the problem must be dealt with in some form.
The UNFCCC is arguably not the right place to do this. Instead, the United Nations have a wealth of ongoing humanitarian initiatives and agreements and one of them, or perhaps a new one, might be more effective than the UNFCCC in addressing loss and damage.
This would have the advantage of removing the problem of attribution by focussing on all climate-related damage, regardless of the cause of the event. Moreover, it would remove a large stumbling block from the UNFCCC process, allowing the rest of the negotiations to proceed in a more expedite fashion.
Find out more
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