Extreme weather events and slow-onset processes including drought and sea level rise can cause losses and damage to human societies and infrastructure and to the natural environment. These climate impacts arise through a combination of both anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change and natural climate variability. The scientific consensus is that human-caused climate change increases the frequency and severity of climate-related events overall and also can compound the effects of natural climate variability, such as El Niño cycles. These factors are leading to more destructive climate impacts and greater losses and damage. Attributing specific losses and damage to human-made climate change is a challenge, although ‘attribution science’ is a fast-growing field.  

As well as negative economic impacts, such as from damage to crops, homes or infrastructure, countries – particularly developing countries – experience non-economic losses and damage. These impacts include harm to human health and mobility, loss of access to territory, cultural heritage and traditions and indigenous and local knowledge, and damage to biodiversity and habitats.

The associated policy context and discourse uses the term ‘Loss and Damage’. 

The extent and challenge of losses and damage

Because some climate change impacts are inevitable as they already ‘locked in’ to the Earth’s system by climate change, and because there are limits to climate change adaptation, some losses and damage from climate change are unavoidable. Losses and damage may occur where adaptation limits are reached – because actions are unaffordable, not physically or technically possible, socially difficult or simply not sufficient to prevent some harm to humans, the environment and assets – and where adaptation has not been optimally implemented. Actions to mitigate and adapt to climate change have a role to play in the extent of losses and damage experienced. But the extent is also governed by factors including the rate and type of economic development and governance arrangements, which in turn affect urbanisation, land-use patterns, quality and location of infrastructure, education and other conditions that impact on the vulnerability and exposure of communities, businesses and countries to climate change. 

Many poor countries are already exposed to harsh climate conditions. It is particularly challenging for these countries to deal with the losses and damage that are occurring both from changes in the frequency, intensity and geographical distribution of extreme weather events such as storms and floods, and from slow-onset phenomena such as sea level rise, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity and desertification. 

Loss and Damage in the international climate negotiations

The ‘Loss and Damage’ policy debate often focuses on the developing country context and this is reflected in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Decision 3/CP.18 preamble. The Loss and Damage debate has been contentious within the international climate negotiations because of questions of fairness and equity, and proving historical responsibility for climate change, in paying for the losses and damages associated with climate change. Developing countries have called for compensation from developed countries, while developed countries have sought instead to treat losses and damage as a sub-component of adaptation within the UNFCCC negotiations. 

The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was established at the COP19 UN climate conference in November 2013 to address losses and damage in developing countries. The Mechanism’s role was recognised in 2015 in Article 8 of the Paris Agreement and it was reviewed in 2019 at COP25, during which developing countries demanded that it be enhanced and strengthened, to include additional finance from developed countries. However, consensus was not reached on developed countries’ obligation. This technical issue is set to be discussed further at the COP26conference in Glasgow, in November 2021. 

Reducing losses and damage

Ways to reduce losses and damage from climate change include increasing resilience before the occurrence of an extreme weather or slow-onset event – for example, by strengthening flood defences – and establishing mechanisms to provide financial or social protection support to those who have already experienced losses and damage. Insurance is one important tool but is not affordable or accessible to all. A farther-reaching, more holistic approach can include longer-term finance to address slow-onset events, improved finance and planning for rapid post-event disaster relief, improved data collection and projections of future losses and damage, measures to reduce non-economic losses and damage, international agreement on the rights and status of persons displaced due to climate change, and mainstreaming climate change resilience across all investments and policy decisions. 

Article 8 of the Paris Agreement includes the “role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage”. This can involve targeting the most vulnerable communities and developing policies that address the root causes of this vulnerability, to build resilience against future losses and damage. 

It is also important to understand the contribution of human factors to a weather event or climatic process to help policymaking to mitigate events happening in the future. Attribution studies can therefore “enhance understanding of how loss and damage occurs”.

The figure shows example actions on losses and damage at different geographical scales. 

Source: Byrnes and Surminski (2019)

This explainer draws on ‘Addressing the impacts of climate change through an effective Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage’ by Rebecca Byrnes and Swenja Surminski, published by the Grantham Research Institute in 2019. For a comprehensive overview of Loss and Damage also see ‘Loss and Damage from Climate Change: Concepts, Methods and Policy Options’ (Springer, 2019; open access), co-edited by the Institute’s Head of Adaptation Research, Swenja Surminski. 

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