Climate change

The language of loss and damage

The story of loss and damage in global climate negotiations is a triumph of persistence and diplomacy. But there is still a long way to go and more work to be done.

Coral reef. Susan White, USFWS CC BY-NC 2.0
Edited by Tracy Zussman
Meet the editor

Despite international efforts to address the causes of global climate change and to support adaptation it has become increasingly clear that these efforts will not be sufficient to prevent all future negative impacts resulting from our changing climate.

The term “loss and damage” has emerged as a way of describing these now unavoidable impacts. “Loss” applies to the complete and irreversible disappearance of something - human lives, habitats, or even whole species. “Damage” refers to something that can be repaired, such as infrastructure. While loss and damage typically refers to the economic, quantifiable consequences of climate change, the term can also apply to culture and traditions that are lost due to climate impacts.

We don’t know exactly what the human and environmental cost of loss and damage will be but we do know that the countries and communities that are most vulnerable and will be most adversely affected - due to their lack of capacity and resources to adapt and cope – are those that have contributed very little to global greenhouse gas emissions. For those countries loss and damage is an issue of injustice as it means that they are handed the burden and responsibility to adapt and prevent future damage  but have the least resources available to do so.

Within the framework of global climate change negotiations these countries and their supporters have pushed for action to address this injustice, attribute liability and ensure that the vulnerable countries are adequately compensated.

Perhaps unsurprisingly developed countries  were uncomfortable with terms like “liability” and have resisted this framing of loss and damage preferring to see it more as a technical problem of how to deal with risk and uncertainty.

As a result the story of loss and damage in global climate negotiations is quite protracted! It is also a story of tremendous persistence and diplomacy. But perhaps most of all it is a story about language.

Continue reading: A quick chronology

Meet the author

Alan Stanley 

Get the content

Eldis content is published under a under a Creative Commons Attribution Unported (CC-BY) licence. You can embed this guide in your own website.

Embed this guide

A quick chronology

 As far back as 1991 Vanuatu, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, made a proposal for countries to pay into an insurance mechanism to address their future losses due to sea level rise. This didn’t succeed and work on loss and damage didn’t really start to gain momentum until the Bali Climate Change Conference (COP 13) in 2007 which called for increased understanding of risk management, risk reduction, risk sharing and risk transfer. After this, work presented in Cancun (COP 16, 2010) led to the adoption of a work programme to specifically address loss and damage impacts from climate change and this in turn helped encourage participating countries to call for the establishment of institutional arrangements on loss and damage two years later at COP 18 in Doha.

Discussions on the issue reached a pivotal moment in Poland in 2013 with the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism on loss and damage (WIM). The mechanism put in place the framework for research, dialogue and capacity building to support the loss and damage agenda within the UNFCCC process. The WIM was, ultimately, enshrined in the 2015 Paris Agreement where loss and damage was finally acknowledged as a stand-alone element, separate from adaptation and mitigation measures.

Continue reading: Shifting definitions


Shifting definitions

The Paris Agreement’s inclusion of loss and damage should be seen as a major accomplishment for the small island states and countries like Bangladesh that have worked tirelessly on this issue for decades. It also represents a good advert for international diplomacy more broadly – not something we get to say often these days. To understand how we got to this outcome we need to look at how the language of loss and damage has shifted over the years.

The Road to Paris: loss and damage (episode 2)

Speaking prior to the Paris Agreement, Saleemul Huq explains the issues surrounding loss and damage from the perspective of the Least Developed Countries.

At the outset the term loss and damage, driven by developing countries sense of injustice, was primarily used within the context of liability and compensation, "victims" and "perpetrators", cause and effect. But analysis of UNFCCC dialogue has shown that in the decade from 2003 onwards a new rhetoric gained ground that presented the problem of loss and damage as more one of risk and uncertainty. This, helpfully for the wealthier nations, pointed towards solutions based on creating reactive systems - risk reduction strategies, building resilience, and risk-sharing mechanisms, such as insurance – rather than the prospect of legal measures and litigation.

This definition also allowed the question of whether loss and damage should be dealt with under existing climate change adaptation work streams and even whether it should fall under the UNFCCC framework at all - maybe Disaster Risk Reduction frameworks might be more appropriate mechanisms.

From the Bali conference on, though, the language shifted again as a broader and more ambiguous framing emerged. And it was this, ultimately, that enabled agreement to be reached firstly in Poland, with the creation of the Warsaw International Mechanism and  later in Paris which saw loss and damage finally enshrined as its own distinct work area within the UNFCCC process.

Continue reading: Looking ahead


Looking ahead

In the final analysis it seems likely that this more ambiguous terminology allowed the different country negotiators to find common ground. It meant that both sides could be seen to be retaining their historical positions but still move forward. Whether this lack of a detailed definition will help or hinder in the longer term though remains to be seen. Certainly, as  Emily Boyd points out “it is difficult to have practical conversations about actions to address loss and damage and science to support these actions, if different stakeholders have contrasting perceptions and definitions in mind.”

The evolution of the language around loss and damage, and the resulting ambiguity, has also allowed liability and compensation as concepts to be entirely excluded from the Paris Agreement. Whilst this exclusion is a key reason why it was possible for agreement to be reached it came about as the result of a deeper underlying problem - the problem of measuring and attributing loss and damage resulting from climate change. The science of how to separate climate impacts from natural background variation in weather patterns, and to assign a value to those losses, is still very much an emerging field of study. Indeed it could be argued that some losses can’t or shouldn’t be quantified in this way – loss of culture and identity for example.

And even if the science can be perfected and these issues resolved we’re still some way from determining who pays for loss and damage. Should the fossil fuel industry be paying directly and if so how much?

All in all the achievements of the negotiators who meet each year to move this agenda forward, sometimes painfully slowly, sometimes with significant setbacks and backwards steps, should be celebrated. But there is still a long way to go and a lot more work to be done.

After the success of the Paris Agreement loss and damage was relatively low on the agenda in Marrakech but 2017 sees Fiji assume the presidency of the COP which should give significant momentum to the issue.

Continue reading: Back to introduction