Practical measures which increase resilience to the impact of climate change and manage the risk of disasters are described as “adaptation”. The concept betrays our failure to prevent global warming and that its consequences are unavoidable and imminent.

Unequal scope for effective adaptation and disaster risk reduction between rich and poor countries presents one of the great challenges for climate justice. Armed with their highly educated, healthy and skilled workforces, industrialised countries are already committed to defensive projects, supported by financial risk management tools, in anticipation of floods, coastal erosion and other consequences of rising temperatures.

Price tags of hundreds of millions of dollars are no disincentive. By contrast, urgent plans to construct sea defences in many African coastal cities remain largely on the drawing board. Adaptation is the poor relation of climate finance which has skewed significantly towards mitigation, thanks to the potential commercial returns of low carbon energy projects.

Unfortunately, there are limits to the scope of adaptation, beyond which the forces of climate change gain the upper hand. Extreme weather events destroy property and crops, whilst “slow onset” events such as rising sea level and desertification undermine local economies andeventually compel migration and displacement.

In North America and Northern Europe, insurance schemes, and ultimately government compensation, are available to assist farmers, businesses and householders who experience losses arising from extreme events. Such protection is beyond national and household budgets in Africa and Asia, as illustrated by the need for an international humanitarian response to Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu and Tuvalu.

UN climate negotiations address this issue under the heading of “loss and damage,” agreeing in 2013 to the establishment of a framework for action, known as the Warsaw International Loss and Damage Mechanism. This move has been endorsed in the Paris Climate Agreement, despite opposition from the richer countries.

However, the scope of the loss and damage mechanism, as articulated in the Agreement, is very limited. Most discussion has focused on initiatives of NGOs and private financial companies that pioneer innovative forms of climate insurance. But the real challenge for a loss and damage mechanism is how to address risk that becomes uninsurable, as is inevitable as rising sea levels or drought render regions uninhabitable.

Furthermore, the US insisted on a rider to the Agreement stipulating that the loss and damage mechanism “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation.” The clause has constrained negotiations from tackling the financial consequences of loss and damage.

This serious flaw in the concept of loss and damage as a tool for climate justice is mocked by the regular incidence of extreme events in the US itself. The Federal government allocated $48 billion to deal with the damage caused by a single disaster – Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Former Secretary of State, John Kerry, said in 2016: “We spent $230 billion in the United States of America last year just to clean up after eight storms.”

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more Climate Justice briefings (updated March 2018)
Climate Justice
Kyoto Protocol
Paris Climate Agreement
Climate Justice and Right to Development
Climate Finance
Climate Displacement
Climate Litigation
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