Climate Loss and Damage

updated September 2016

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.

Scope for effective adaptation and disaster risk reduction in poor countries exposes global inequality at its most extreme. Armed with their highly educated, healthy and skilled workforces, industrialised countries are already committed to defensive projects and 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 eventually compel migration and displacement.

In North America and Northern Europe, government schemes are in place to compensate farmers, businesses and householders who experience losses in extreme weather events. Such state protection is beyond national 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. The approved areas of “cooperation” resemble adaptation measures rather than responses to the failure of adaptation. For example, the mechanism could develop existing 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.” This acts as a constraint on the concept of climate justice as well as a putative admission of guilt.

The red line on compensation has been doubly frustrating in light of events in the US itself. The Federal government allocated $48 billion to deal with the damage caused by a single event – Hurricane Sandy in 2012. 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” Enormous sums have also been committed in the aftermath of floods in Germany (2013) and UK (2014).

Nevertheless, these examples tend to gloss over the limitations of the concept of loss and damage in climate action. It overlaps with conventional disaster risk measures and it carries the uncertainty of attribution – the legal preference for unambiguous cause and effect. Global warming is rarely the sole cause of climate-related humanitarian distress in developing countries. More science is required in order to pinpoint the global warming marker that lawyers require.


Beyond Adaptation
Dr James Fletcher, a government Minister from St Lucia, explains why the severe impacts of climate change require an international mechanism for loss and damage.

from Carbon Brief

Is it time for a levy on fossil fuel extraction?
Julie-Anne Richards discusses the challenge of climate loss and damage

from Climate Justice Programme

more Climate Justice briefings
Climate Justice
UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
Kyoto Protocol
Paris Climate Agreement
Climate Justice and Development Goals
Climate Finance
Climate Change and Migration
Climate Litigation
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