Lessons of loss and damage for climate policy change


The annual media ritual of reflection on the past year and anticipation of what lies in store in 2013 is grinding to a close. In my own field of interest, the dominant mood has been despair, as the science of global environmental change conveys ever more urgent warnings to world governments in no mood to listen.

I’m tempted to offer more of the same but prefer instead to focus on a single incident that occurred towards the end of 2012. I think it offers scraps of consolation in wrestling with the chronic divergence of science and policy.

This symbolic moment occurred during the first press conference given by Todd Stern, US special envoy for climate change, at the UN climate negotiations in Doha (COP18). Alex Morales of Bloomberg asked Stern if he supported the proposal to establish an international mechanism on loss and damage arising from the impacts of climate change. This was the response:

I am gonna not give a cut on that right now – just because as I said I am here just recently and I will need to look into that a little bit more. I think there are issues of some concern there but I don’t want to wade into that without being certain.

I gave little thought to this uncharacteristic briefing failure at the time. Loss and damage had not been flagged in advance as a key issue on which to judge the success or failure of COP18. At random I’ve checked detailed pre-COP papers by Christian Aid and The Climate Group – plus preview articles by Jennifer Morgan of WRI and Megan Rowling of AlertNet – there’s not a single mention of loss and damage.

Yet when Doha was all over, the agreement that the 2013 COP in Poland must establish institutional arrangements to address loss and damage was hailed by Damian Ryan of The Climate Group as “a major achievement.” Megan Rowling’s report opened with the statement that “negotiators from developing states have singled out an agreement to advance work on loss and damage from climate change as a bright spot.”

Of course, such verdicts are a reflection of the dismal outcome of the Doha COP, with its inexplicable failure to upgrade ambition on reducing emissions or seed the Green Climate Fund. Nonetheless, Roger Harrabin of the BBC observed how Todd Stern had been forced to embark on a steep learning curve on the subject of loss and damage – “(he) was seen for much of the past few days walking in circles near the tea bar on his mobile phone to Washington.”

What was it that propelled this slow-burning topic, traditionally confined to the wish list of small island states, to the hot line to the State Department? I was eventually persuaded to concentrate on this question last Friday by Duncan Green’s blog, From Poverty to Power. In a quite different context from the Doha COP, he was revisiting one of his favourite theories of policy change, which he calls “readiness for critical junctures”:

Very often, it is scandal, failure, crisis and disaster that drive change in policy……when a shock hits, researchers should be repackaging existing research to show its relevance to the current crisis and making every effort to get it into the hands of policy makers

Now, everyone knows that the devastation of Hurricane Sandy – and its apparent contribution to President Obama’s electoral fortunes – was adopted as the campaigners’ rallying cry during the Doha climate negotiations. This shockxploitation was reinforced by the Philippine delegation’s moving response to the devastating progress of Typhoon Bopha that occurred during the COP itself.

The emerging possibility that Federal assistance to the devastated areas of New York and New Jersey might have to rise from $50 billion to $70 billion was gleefully reported by climate activists. Given such a well-timed “critical juncture,” one journalist confidently predicted that “Doha would be a coming-out party for the US on climate.”

So much for this theory of change; at that same Todd Stern press conference it was rapidly apparent that US policy on emissions reductions and climate finance remained as implacable as ever. How naïve could we be!

All the more reason to question why the phoenix of loss and damage rose from this bonfire of aspirations. It’s informative to look at its relationship to Duncan Green’s exhortations:

researchers should be repackaging existing research

During the first week of the COP, an NGO triumvirate of WWF, ActionAid and CARE held a press conference to release their new report, Tackling the Limits to Adaptation. Its headline call was to “establish a new international framework, under the UN convention on climate change, to deal with the severe losses and damage caused by climate change.”

This report could conceivably be classified as “repackaging existing research.” Just 6 months before, these same NGOs (together with Germanwatch) had published Into Unknown Territory – the limits to adaptation and reality of loss and damage. The conclusions, text and box illustrations are similar and some of the authors and donor sponsors overlap. The later report sneaks in the telling reference to the “costs of loss and damage from (Hurricane Sandy) estimated to be at least US$50 billion.”

make every effort to get it into the hands of policy makers

The lead author of Tackling the Limits to Adaptation, Doreen Stabinsky, had also been busy preparing a Briefing Paper on Loss and Damage for the Third World Network, published just before the COP. This is a technical document, carefully arguing the legal and moral case for cross-border climate reparations and presenting the issues within the legal language familiar to UN climate negotiators. Co-authored with Juan P. Hoffmaister, a Bolivian delegate advising the G77/China group on loss and damage issues, this TWN paper would unquestionably have guided developing country negotiators through this area of their work.

About the same time (a fortnight before the COP), Germanwatch facilitated a Berlin meeting at which Pa Ousman Jarju, the Gambian lead negotiator for the Least Developed Countries, put the case for loss and damage issues to key German parliamentarians.

As early as the middle weekend of the COP – and possibly to the surprise of those concerned – the proposal to establish an international mechanism was included in the draft text prepared for ministers by the sherpa negotiators. Sensing there was some wind in this particular sail, a broader alliance of 40 civil society organisations and networks presented an open letter to ministers on the Tuesday of the second week.

The text was watered down, but made it into the final Doha outcome.

I don’t wish to overstate the inference of a direct link between the fresh memory of natural disasters and the agreement to contemplate an international mechanism on loss and damage. The outcome could just as credibly be attributed to very professional NGO spadework on a well-chosen topic. Nor is it satisfactory to suggest that sustainable development can only be tackled by some form of ambulance-chasing diplomacy.

But Sandy and Bopha did unsettle the mood of the Doha conference. The emotional speech by Naderev Saño, lead negotiator for the Philippines, had such power that nearly 60,000 people have subsequently viewed the clip on OneWorld TV.

Perhaps more professional NGO spadework on more issues should have been ready to push at a half open door.

There’s been an ironic postscript to this Doha story. One consequence of last week’s painful resolution of the US fiscal cliff saga was the cancellation of the House of Representatives vote on the $60 billion package of Federal aid promised for loss and damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. There are question-marks over Republican willingness to back the full amount.

If the US Federal mechanism for loss and damage had been exposed as dysfunctional in the week before the Doha COP, would that have affected the impetus towards an international mechanism?

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