Climate change related loss and damage: conceptualization and implications

Climate change related loss and damage:
conceptualization and implications

Elly Hermon


Résumé / AbstractThis essay provides an overview of the evolution of the discourse on the theme of loss and damage from climate change held in the context of the periodical Conferences of the Parties to the United Nation Framework-Convention on Climate Change. It highlights the growing significance of this theme and the awareness of the international community of the need for taking adequately into account the adverse impacts of climate change on poor countries, which often are the most vulnerable to them while their respective share of responsibility for anthropogenic climate change is by far lesser than that attributable to industrialized countries. The implications of this situation for the evaluation of alternative approaches, considered in this essay as complementary, focused on developing mitigation, adaptation and resilience rather than on reparation of loss and damage from climate change, are discussed. Further global implications of the interactions between climate, society and the environment on the policy-making level are discussed as well.


My interest in the issue area dealt with by this paper was enhanced by previous preliminary research on the actual and potential role of Inuit traditional knowledge in facilitating adaptation of local communities to the rapid and far-reaching environmental changes taking place in the Arctic[1]. Climate change is considered as the major driver of these changes such as glacial melt and changing weather patterns. There is evidence showing that, while this knowledge can still prove helpful in monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of this change, it has lost much of its relevance for Inuit traditional livelihoods based to a large extent on a profound knowledge of their environment, a knowledge increasingly becoming obsolete in the rapidly and profoundly changing Arctic environment. Consequently, Inuit are faced with the danger of losing their livelihoods, culture and place of living. This situation is present to various degrees also in other communities at the frontline of climate change. such as those living in coastal areas and small islands most vulnerable to climate change driven sea level rise and faced with the menace of total devastation. It is just another example among those of many other communities in different regions around the world, faced with various challenges associated with climate change related adverse impacts of different kinds, yet having all in common an inability to adapt to or cope with these impacts given the scale of their proportions and the limits of their own resources. It is the plight of these communities which has motivated writing this paper dealing with the climate change related challenges of a “post-adaptation era”.


Climate related loss and damage has become in recent years a core issue of the complex issue area of negative effects of climate change on society, attracting growing attention as a social response strategy with the rapidly increasing occurrence and intensity of these effects and the recognition of the limits of previously privileged social response strategies, notably mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. The aim of this paper is to trace the evolution of the discourse on this issue in the context of the discussions on the adverse impacts of climate change, with special attention to the process of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and discuss some aspects of the significance of this issue and its implications.


The evolution of the discourse on loss and damage associated with climate change adverse impacts: From the 1992 Rio Earth Summit to the 2012 Doha climate conference


The place of the notion of Loss and Damage in the thinking about the adverse impacts of climate change and the social responses has undergone a significant evolution in the past two decades. On the international level this evolution is perhaps best reflected in the discussions of this issue held notably at the periodical conferences of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) established by the first Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, 1992). An overview of these discussions allows us to distinguish three phases in the evolution of the discourse on the adverse impacts of climate change on society and the underlying thinking on climate change related Loss and Damage in the UNFCCC circles[2]. These phases were characterized by an emphasis on different approaches to addressing climate change challenges, a conceptual evolution which has prioritized successively the notions of climate change mitigation of, adaptation to and dealing with loss and damage inflicted by its impacts.


In the period from the early 1990s to the mid 2000s this discourse emphasized the need for mitigation: adverse impacts of climate change were to be reduced by limiting anthropogenic climate change, notably by reducing greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions. The precautionary principle and the polluter pays principle were not applied for the purpose of compensating for climate change related loss and damage, though emitters were cautioned with its possible application in case they failed to act on the mitigation ground. However, the harsh potential impacts of climate change – such as extreme weather events, sea level rise, glacial melt, desertification, etc. – were not considered as justifying compensation by high GHG emitting countries, such measure having been judged politically unacceptable. It should also be mentioned that despite the focus on the need for mitigation, the issue of the need for adaptation was present as well in the discourse on climate change adverse impacts in the period considered. Gradually, scientists and policymakers dealing with climate change have realized that the current mitigation policies were inadequate for producing the expected results. The GHG emission targets appeared to be far too low in order to prevent climate change adverse impacts, not to mention the reluctance of some high emitting countries to cooperate in achieving even such limited targets. This resulted in a shift of the focus of the discourse on climate change adverse impacts from mitigation to adaptation, as such impacts were occurring and urgently needed to be addressed to as their occurrence and intensity were rapidly increasing. This conceptual shift was well reflected in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While its 2ed Assessment Report published in 1996 still emphasized the need for mitigation, recommending stabilization of GHG emissions to be immediately followed by a 50-70% reduction, the IPCC 4th Assessment Report published in 2007 emphasized the need for adaptation as a necessary complement to mitigation in order to alleviate at least some expected adverse impacts of climate change, including loss and damage, already perceived at that point in time as unavoidable by mitigation alone[3]. This in practice meant that the level of mitigation politically acceptable remained far below that recommended by mainstream climate scientists while the view that – given the level of GHG atmospheric concentration current at that time and expected in the foreseeable future – climate change has become an irreversible process was gaining momentum.


This conceptual shift implied a shift in the priority-setting process related to the choice of response strategies to climate change. Whereas mitigation, or a better control of global worming through a better control of its anthropogenic causes, notably by cutting GHG emissions, still remained largely perceived as desirable, adaptation to climate change was becoming the top priority of policies dealing with climate change. This implied giving a higher priority to the search for ways and means for alleviating the adverse impacts of climate change even when it implied reduced mitigation efforts or prevention of dangerous climate change. However, the limits of adaptation efforts have become rapidly obvious in face of the extent of the adverse impacts of climate change


With this realization we may identify a third phase in the discourse on the climate change adverse impacts as reflected in the circles of the international institutions dealing with this issue. With the emphasis on the need for adaptation to such impacts had come a better recognition of the need for a better understanding of the extent of these impacts and the vulnerabilities of those most exposed to them. At this point, the notion of Loss and Damage, previously implicit in this discourse[4], came to the fore. It became obvious that when mitigation of and adaptation to climate change failed to prove efficient enough in curbing adverse impacts affecting large populations, of which the very survival is sometimes endangered – as, for example,  in the case of small islands and coastal areas affected by sea level rise –, the need for some form of substantial assistance cannot be overlooked. All the more so that often those worst affected by these impacts are among the poorest and least prepared to adequately cope with, while at the same time often they are also among the least responsible for activities inducing climate change.


The recognition at the international level of the importance of the issue of loss and damage in the context of the plight of developing countries highly vulnerable to climate change effects and in need of some international mechanism providing for rehabilitation and compensation is well reflected in the UNFCCC process in recent years. In 2007, at COP13 held in Bali, an Action Plan mandated the Parties “to explore means to address loss and damage associated with climate change impacts in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”[5].


The first significant step towards implementation of the international recognition of the need to act on the issue of Loss and Damage was taken at the climate conference COP 16 held in Cancun, Mexico, December 2010. It was decided there to establish a Work Program on Loss and Damage under the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI). It was also suggested that the SBI “strengthens international coopera­tion and expertise to understand and reduce loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, includ­ing impacts related to extreme weather events and slow onset events”[6]. This decision was a significant step toward the definition and implementation of strategies for dealing with the Loss and Damage issue, and all the more so given the reluctance previously shown by high emitting countries to cooperate in compensating populations affected by such events.


The Work Program on Loss and Damage established at the Cancun conference was structured in the following climate conference (COP 17, Durban, 2011) under three thematic areas: risk assessment; approaches to address Loss and Damage; the role of the UNFCCC in enhancing the implementation of these approaches. This Work Program was scheduled to be further discussed and developed at the Doha (Qatar) climate conference (COP 18, November/December 2012).


A number of documents prepared for this purpose by international research institutions and NGOs with a special interest in this issue shed a light on its significance for the international community and the extent of the debate around it as the discussions at the Doha conference were to show still further. Of particular interest are some documents prepared in this context by the United Nations Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS, Bonn). One of them is a report based on results of five case studies of countries at the frontline of climate change: Bangladesh, Bhutan, Gambia, Kenya and Micronesia. The report, released in November 2012, was part of the Climate Development Knowledge Network initiated by the Government of Bangladesh in order to advance understanding of the loss and damage issue. Its findings indicate the limits of adaptation and the costs of unmitigated climate change and, most importantly, show that in all five countries affected communities suffered from loss and damage despite undertaking adaptation and coping measures[7].


This research, conducted at the household level, is a pioneering study as it highlights the need for considering current loss and damage inflicted by climate change from the perspective of a “post-adaptation era” where adaptation measures are proven to be largely insufficient for coping with climate change. However, while sensitive to the plight of vulnerable communities exposed to loss and damage from climate change, many participants in the debate around social responses to climate change try to avoid the use of the recent emphasis on the loss and damage issue as an argument in support of reducing efforts in the areas of mitigation and adaptation. A case in point is the call of international NGOs, strongly in favour of considering the Loss and Damage issue as an essential component of any new global agreement on climate change, to push forward reducing adverse impacts of climate change through mitigation and adaptation, as cutting GHG emissions reduce the costs of adaptation to such impacts and eventual compensation/assistance for loss and damage[8].


Comments of representatives of developing countries on the above-referred to report mentioned also other dimensions of the climate related loss and damage issue area. S. Huq, Director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, underlined the importance of the non-monetary costs of climate change adverse impacts, such as the health problems induced by them, and stressed the need for their proper identification for the purpose of raising them in the context of the climate international negotiations. Pa Ousman Jarju, Chair of the 48 Least Developed Countries group, stressed the significance of the justice dimension of this issue in the light of the possibilities and constraints in the fight against harmful climate change indicated in the cited report and deemed essential for conducting successfully the ongoing international negotiations. He referred to the issue of the liability for damage and loss inflicted by anthropogenic climate change claiming that “countries that contribute least to global GHG emissions are the ones bearing the burden of loss and damage even though they have the most limited capacity to cope and adapt[9]”.


This claim appears as crystallizing a significant step in the evolution of the discourse on climate related loss and damage, bringing it to the restatement of the validity of the premises on which is based the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principle 13, regarding liability and compensation for environmental related transboundary damage (see note 4).


The justice issue has been, and still is, at the core of the climate international negotiations on loss and damage, where it has proved to be a major point of discord between high GHG emitting countries and developing countries, and will be dealt with in further detail below.


The high expectations raised by the 2012 Doha climate conference (COP 18) regarding advances on the loss and damage issue were well summarized in an open letter addressed by 47 NGOs and networks to the Ministers attending the conference:


Responding require a new framework under the UNFCCC to address loss and damage. This requires new approaches on finance, compensation and rehabilitation. It also requires consideration of non-economic losses, including loss of culture, ecosystems, indigenous knowledge and territory that will result from climate change. The adverse effects from slow-onset disasters such as sea level rise or changes in rainfall patterns that lead to migration, displacement and relocation also need urgent attention”[10].


However, the results obtained at the Doha conference on the loss and damage failed to meet such high expectations, a failure lamented by Kit Vaughan, Director of climate change at the NGO Care International, who underlined the responsibility of developed countries for this failure. He recognized however that a few positive outcomes were nevertheless obtained, notably “a small step forward to establish an ‘international mechanism’ to address climate change loss and damage”[11]. This step was considered significant as it entailed the recognition of the occurrence of climate change impacts that could not be addressed by mere adaptation and that developed countries had to take up their responsibilities for this purpose. This recognition was further emphasized by an observer at the Doha conference who claimed that poor countries won in this forum a pledge from rich countries funds to repair climate change related loss and damage. This gain was all the more significant that it was the first time that developing countries received such assurances and that “the phrase ‘loss and damage from climate change’ was enshrined in an international legal document”[12]. This outcome, however positive it might be considered, still left unresolved some key issues regarding the legal and financial aspects of repairing climate change related loss and damage incurred by poor countries. Notably, there was no admission of the legal liability or the need to pay compensation on the part of high GHG-emitting countries. Accordingly, the US negotiators at Doha, anticipating that such admission may considerably increase litigation, managed to ensure avoiding the use of the term “compensation”, or any other term connoting legal liability, in any international legal document produced at the conference. Instead, they preferred considering the assistance for repairing climate change related lost and damage as aid to be allocated from humanitarian aid and disaster relief budgets through existing international institutions. Apparently suspecting that such a mechanism could complicate disentangling climate change related loss and damage from other natural disasters, developing countries proposed the creation of a new international institution, like a bank, for this purpose[13].

Though the Doha climate conference left unsettled a number of key issues, its results have been viewed as at least partially positive by some analysts from important environmentalist organizations such as Greenpeace who concluded that the international recognition of the significance of climate change related loss and damage obtained there contributed to enhancing the commitment of a number of countries (EU, Australia, Norway) to adopting higher emission-cutting targets[14].



2. The multidimensional character of climate change related loss and damage issue and its global significance


The multidimensional character of the issue of climate related loss and damage is highlighted by a concept document[15] prepared in the framework of the “Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative” aimed at supporting least developed countries to call for action of the international community on this issue, notably for the purpose of advancing the UNFCCC process and facilitating progress at the 2012 Doha climate conference (COP 18). Well aware of the complexity of this issue area and its evolving dynamics, the authors of this document opted to avoid providing an ultimate definition of the notion of climate related loss and damage, leaving thus room for its further elaboration in the light of future developments. Accordingly, they preferred providing a broad working definition which remains open to further discussion. “Damage” was thus defined as climate related negative impacts that can be repaired or restored whereas “loss” was defined as such impacts that cannot be repaired or restored, including environmental impacts – such as loss of geological freshwater sources related to glacial melt and desertification –, and cultural impacts – loss of culture and heritage resulting from population dislocation. Obviously, such a broad definition involves taking into account various spatial and temporal scales of loss and damage as they relate to discrete events – such as weather extremes, the impacts of which are of variable, yet better defined in space and time – as well as to long-term processes the impacts of which may encompass past, present and future and that consequently are of unforeseeable magnitude. Accordingly, evaluation of climate related potential future loss and damage should consider the cumulative anthropogenic impact on climate drivers, such as increase in GHG emission and deforestation, which may generate in some point in the future irreversible system changes affecting climate, natural and societal systems. Such evaluation should therefore take into account changes in natural systems – such as sea level rise, glacial melt and desertification – induced by anthropogenic effects on climate and negatively impacting society in various ways, such as loss of habitable/arable land and fresh water, and population dislocation, to an extent growing over time.


The issue of loss and damage appears thus to be at the core of the society-climate/environment interactions. Society plays a significant role in shaping the system produced by these interactions. In a period of fast and extensive climate change, this role is determined to a large extent by the way it addresses the issue of the resulting loss and damage. Adopting a more sustainable management of natural resources, notably energy resources the mismanagement of which drives climate evolution toward increasing anthropogenic climate change negative effects on society, can be significantly encouraged by timely and adequate management of the loss and damage issue. Accordingly, an in-depth understanding of the various manifestations of climate related loss and damage and of their interrelationships may provide a powerful potential stimulus for making the systemic changes in the organization and functioning patterns of society, including lifestyles and development options, required for coping more successfully with the anthropogenic climate change adverse impacts on the society and the natural environment. It is essential therefore to grasp the real significance of this issue, the scope of which goes far beyond advancing the cause of climate justice, namely providing compensation for those at the frontline of climate change – the most afflicted by its adverse impacts and yet the least contributing to anthropogenic climate change. This cause, which surely deserves appropriate attention, is just one dimension, though an important one, of the complex lost and damage issue. What is at stake much further is the validity of the current dominant development model. Alone, compensation/assistance for loss and damage will hardly be conducive to the paradigm shift needed for moving forward, at the global level, toward adoption of a new development model, better adjusted for dealing more successfully with the loss and damage issue, probably the most challenging one in our climate change impacted era.


Even those inclined to favour the above-mentioned paradigm shift regarding the dominant development model may think that such a far-reaching shift is bound to take some time to materialize, which raises the question what is to be done in the meantime given the urgency of addressing the loss and damage issue. The response to this question is rendered more complex when the interrelationships between the different approaches to limiting climate change adverse impacts – notably mitigation and adaptation – are considered. Indeed, the extent and efficacy of mitigation of and adaptation to anthropogenic climate change determine to a large degree the extent of lost and damage induced by it. Focusing on dealing with the latter issue at the expense of large scale mitigation and adaptation measures may render the extent of lost and damage unmanageable in the near future as global worming is continuing to increase as well as the adverse impacts associated with it. In the current circumstances of the relatively rapid increase in climate and related environmental change, a simultaneous intense effort in all three areas – mitigation, adaptation and dealing with loss and damage – seems to be the most reasonable choice. Such a strategy has the potential to limit loss and damage, and eventually bring it under some degree of control which otherwise may be lost. The successful application of such a strategy is bound to entail progressive distancing from the dominant development model which eventually may produce a real paradigm shift such as the one mentioned above. However, though the success in rendering manageable the expected climate change related adverse impacts ineluctably entails a considerable cost in economic terms, the option of focusing on dealing with loss and damage while neglecting mitigation and adaptation efforts is likely to be by far more costly, not to mention related high costs in terms of human well-being (health, culture, recreation, etc.).


Finally, it would be useful to approach the important issue of equity and climate justice also from a perspective somewhat different from that focused on compensating communities at the frontline of climate change by other ones less vulnerable and better prepared to cope with such impacts, though having perhaps a higher degree of responsibility for generating them. It should be made clear to all – rich and poor, regardless the degree of their vulnerability and preparedness – that they should cooperate in facing the challenges of climate change. Such cooperation is in the best interest of all as these challenges are global and transcend the specific interests of local communities. Therefore, those who may be tempted to consider the uneven geographical distribution of certain negative effects of climate change as an argument for avoiding engaging in such cooperation, should be reminded that global challenges require global responses and that, ultimately, refusal to acknowledge this reality will not help them to escape disastrous consequences.


This section of the paper may appear as somewhat unbalanced without some reference to a more nuanced approach to conceptualizing the loss and damage issue. Such an approach was adopted in a paper, defined as Policy Brief and authored by a group of distinguished scholars[16], delivered as a United Nations University submission to the Parties to COP 18 at the 2012 Doha climate conference. In a section entitled “Development, climate change and social vulnerability”, this paper presents a nuanced view of the role of the dominant development model from the perspective of the loss and damage issue, arguing that “despite recent calamities in the industrialized world, it is generally clear that in terms of mortality, development has reduced vulner­ability and enhanced resilience in those nations”. At the same time the authors recognize that “inconsistencies, imbalances and inequalities engendered by the dominant development model increase the social vulnerability of large numbers of people who are increasingly exposed to an expanding number of hazards, now often in a concatenating series of linked calamities”. Here the issue of loss and damage drivers is considered in terms of social vulnerability or from the perspective of society– climate/environment interactions rather than in term of consequences of merely natural hazards. Loss and damage are perceived as largely an outcome of environmental risk mismanagement. In support of this view is given the example of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina that devastated in 2005 vast coastal areas in the U.S. and which allegedly “revealed that much of the flooding and dislocation of minority communities was due largely to strategies of urban development begun in the 1920s that urbanized flood-prone area”[17]. The thesis defended by the cited paper is that environmental, including climate related, risk can and should be managed through an approach enhancing social resilience, defined as the ability of a system – in this case the societal-environmental system – to absorb change without collapsing, change being considered as an essential feature of this dynamic system. It should be noted however that the issue of equity and social justice is clearly present in the approach recommended by the authors of this document for dealing with climate change related loss and damage. This issue plays in their view a key role in ensuring more adequate climate related risk management considered as essential for reducing loss and damage.


Regardless the merit which may be attributed to this line of thinking for identifying factors determining climate change related loss and damage and ways for reducing them, it remains that it may appear as having the potential for weakening the claim regarding the extent of the role of anthropogenic climate change in generating loss and damage. When considerations related to environmental risk mismanagement are added to the non negligible amount of uncertainty about the respective extent of climate change driven by natural factors and that induced by human activities, the extent to which the ongoing global worming is attributable to certain human activities, such as GHG emission and deforestation, will probably remain open to questioning as long as further advances in climate science do not provide a clearer picture of this issue which has significant implications for determination of the responsibility for climate change related loss and damage. This conclusion should not however be interpreted as entailing any intention to discourage advocates of sustainable development and climate justice, or encourage anthropogenic climate change sceptics to doubt the necessity of measures much needed for curbing climate change related loss and damage and alleviate the plight of those most vulnerable to them.



[1] For an excellent overview of this issue area with detailed bibliography see: Nakarashima, D.J. et al., Weathering Uncertainty. Traditional Knowledgefor Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation, Paris, UNESCO and Darwin, UNU, 2012  (visited 10/01/2013)

[2] This analysis is partly based on Oliver-Smith, A. et al., Addressing Loss and Damage in the Context of Social Vulnerability and Resilience. UNU-EHS Publications Series, Policy Brief, No.7, November 2012 (visited 20/01/2013)

[3] Ibid.

[4] The need for dealing with the issue of compensation for damage inflicted by adverse environmental effects was already internationally recognized in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principle !3: “States shall co-operate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction” (visited 27/01/2013)

However, prior to the 2007 Bali climate conference (COP 13), little has been done to implement this recommendation.

[5] Into Unknown Territory. The Limits to Adaptation and Reality of Loss and Damage From Climate Impacts, Actionaid, Care, Germanwatch, WWF  (visited 24/01/2013)

[6] Decision 1/CP.16 cited by Oliver-Smith, A. et al. 2012. Addressing Loss and Damage in the Context of Social Vulnerability and Resilience. UNU-EHS Publications Series, Policy Brief, No.7, November 2012. (visited on 20/01/2013)

A footnote to paragraph 25 of 1/CP.16 clarifies the notion of “slow onset events” as including “sea level rise, increasing temperatures, ocean acidification, glacial retreat and related impacts, salinization, land and forest degradation, loss of biodiversity and desertification”. Accordingly, ‘weather extremes’ are usually considered as  discrete temporal events whereas ‘slow onset events’ as nondiscrete continuous processes (Framing the Loss and Damage Debate, A conversation starter by the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries, Germanwatch, August 2012 (visited 20/01/2013).



[7] UNU-EHS Press release: Pioneering study shows evidence on loss and damage (28/11/2012)  (visited 25/01/2013)

[8] Into Unknown Territory…, cit.

[9] UNU-EHS Press release: Pioneering study shows evidence on loss and damage (28/11/2012) (visited 25/01/2013)

[11] Ibid.

[12] Harvey F., “Doha climate change deal clears way for ‘Damage aid’ to poor countries”, The Observer, 08/12/2012 (visited 22/01/2013)

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Framing the Loss and Damage Debate, A conversation starter by the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries, Germanwatch, August 2012 (visited 20/01/2013)

The document is produced by an international consortium of specialized organizations involved in advancing the project this document is part of.

[16] See note 2.

[17] Ibid.