Loss and damage must be defined on moral grounds

October 6, 2022

DHAKA – Of the three strategies for combating climate change – mitigation, adaptation and loss and damage (L&D) – the last two continue to suffer from ambiguities of interpretation. Adaptation has no agreed definition under the climate regime. Loss and damage is not yet considered a third strategy by developed countries. But developing countries disagree. Under the Paris Agreement, developing countries won Article 8 on training and development, but it is void of any liability and claims for compensation. Article 8.3 talks about climate action and support to avoid, minimize and address loss and damage. Prevention and minimization of L&D can be largely addressed through mitigation and adaptation. But what about learning and development? Funding for pre- and post-climate disaster situations is only a fraction of total global aid.

Action and adequate support are not evident at the minimum level, even for adaptation. Citizens of 46 Least Developed Countries (LDCs) still receive less than a penny a day in adaptation assistance. What is even more worrying is that more than two-thirds of adaptation finance comes in the form of loans for LDCs, creating a new ‘climate debt trap’. A number of reasons can be attributed to this: a) adaptation continues to be seen as bringing 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 yet gaining enough traction at the policy level; (b) adaptation is intertwined with development, and developed countries consider that developing countries should, in their own interest, make their development climate-proof; (c) middle- and high-income developing countries focus more on mitigation and related technologies than on adaptation; and (d) adaptation does not stop climate change, and more such investments in developed countries hinder ambitious mitigation, further worsening the situation in developing countries.

However, last year’s annual climate summit (COP26) established a dialogue until 2024 in response to a demand from developing countries for a facility dedicated to climate loss and damage. The Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF), then led by our Prime Minister, lobbied hard to push forward the L&D agenda. Then, as a token gesture, the Scottish government offered two million pounds, and some other entities responded with small sums, including Denmark just recently. Now, at the insistence of the Group of 77 in June, the Convention Secretariat has agreed to include L&D financing on the agenda of the upcoming COP27.

One of the reasons for the lack of progress in L&D is that there is not yet an agreed definition. The literature shows that there are mainly two conceptualizations: one is that L&D involves 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 can recall that under Article 4.8 of the UNFCCC, insurance was adopted in response to requests from small island states to compensate damage caused by the impacts of climate change in 1992, but insurance for vulnerable communities is still not included. Also, insurance can only cover rapid onset disasters, with unknown probabilities, not slow onset events like land degradation, sea level rise, biodiversity loss, thaw permafrost, melting glaciers, etc. These slow-triggering events, with known probabilities, cause more casualties and damage over time, like slow poison.

However, developing countries are one of them to define L&D as “beyond adaptation”, ie residual damage to which one cannot adapt. But L&D as a broader concept also includes non-economic L&D (NELD) – meaning loss of life, loss of habitat, loss of culture and mental suffering. These NELD issues cannot be assessed in economic terms.

There is better argumentative and discursive power in highlighting L&D issues for public legitimacy and better political traction. Quantitative assessments of training and development at global and national levels will generate a visible evidence base, which cannot be ignored by developed countries. Thus, the CVF is soon releasing the third vulnerability monitor. This means that there will be no interference of learning and development with development efforts. The Global South now commands a rock-solid unit behind the L&D agenda; this was evident at COP26 and at the Bonn intersession in June. So we have a dedicated agenda for L&D funding at COP27.

The case for grants will be stronger for addressing learning and development issues on moral/ethical grounds. Climate-induced displacement as a growing issue is also likely to have better traction in the L&D framework, which is already recognized, but no support for action is yet there. The increasingly sophisticated science of climate attribution can serve as an aide-de-camp for the graphical presentation of direct and indirect climate change losses and damages.

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

There is therefore a need for an alternative framing of L&D that is grounded in moral reasoning about the harm inflicted by major emitters, which is wholly undeserved by vulnerable countries and communities. This is grossly unfair and unfair. The increase in L&D following extreme events as the new normal violates our fundamental development and human rights in many ways. This reasoning is likely to resonate better and deeper and strike the human chords of empathy, individually and socially, and engender greater global solidarity and action. Some publications show that ethical or moral reasoning has a better impact on generating pro-environmental behavior because when issues are viewed as moral, the impetus to action is higher. But such a framework for L&D does not yet exist. So let’s amplify the voice of our Prime Minister, who a few days ago in New York sounded very loud about the continued inaction in climate diplomacy.

Dr Mizan R Khan is Deputy Director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) and Technical Officer of the LDC Universities Consortium on Climate Change (LUCCC).

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