What is “loss and damage”?
With global heating passing 1.1°C the impacts of the climate crisis are being felt around the world. In 2022 alone, major climate disasters included heatwaves in India, Pakistan and Europe, the ongoing drought in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, the Pakistan Floods, and Hurricane Ian in the Caribbean and the USA.
The technical term used by climate scientists, researchers and policymakers to describe the devastation that is being caused by the climate crisis is “loss and damage” (lower case “l” and “d”). “Loss” refers to things that are permanently lost, such as human lives, territory, heritage sites and languages, whilst “damage” applies to things that have been affected but can be restored, such as homes, livelihoods and ecosystems. Although some loss and damage can be assigned a monetary value (e.g. buildings, crops or livestock), much is intangible and unquantifiable (e.g. sense of place, culture, identity and heritage).
Even though climate disasters like extreme weather events (e.g. hurricanes and floods) and slow onset changes (e.g. sea level rise and droughts) are unfolding across the global North and South, it is countries in the global South, particularly small island developing states and the least developed countries, which are being impacted first and hardest. Vulnerability to the burden of loss and damage is due to a range of historical, geographic, structural, and socio-political factors. Uneven development, colonial exploitation, increasing inequality, sovereign debt, as well as delayed climate action and climate finance have left many countries and communities, be they in the South or North, without the means to prepare for a warmer world or to deal with loss and damage.
Those who experience loss and damage are not a singular homogeneous group of people. Recognising who is disproportionately affected requires transdisciplinary research that is sensitive to the multiplicity of worldviews, ethical systems and values people hold. It demands an understanding of the intersectional factors (e.g. race, class, gender) and structures (e.g. laws, institutions, government) that create uneven vulnerability to the impacts of the climate crisis. However, some of the groups recognised as being most impacted include Indigenous peoples, economically, socially, and politically marginalised people, women, as well as children and future generations. To help articulate the intersectional experiences of the climate crisis, the concept of Most Affected Peoples and Areas
(MAPA) has been proposed by the youth-led, global climate strike movement Fridays For Futures.
What is “Loss and Damage”?
The technical term used to describe the policies and plans that are implemented to address loss and damage, such as those that are negotiated at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), is “Loss and Damage” (uppercase “L” and “D”).
Addressing loss and damage requires a vast range of activities including rebuilding, relocating, reinvigorating livelihoods, culture, and heritage, restoring ecosystems and rewilding, healing and remembering, all of which must be shaped by the communities impacted and centred on upholding human rights. Done correctly, following the principles of climate justice, the Polluter Pays, equity, and Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC), addressing loss and damage is an opportunity for transformation that should see issues such as inequality and uneven development addressed in parallel.
With projected economic costs of addressing loss and damage at USD $447–894 billion a year expected in the 2030s, the global South’s fight for climate justice and the delivery of Loss and Damage finance within UNFCCC negotiations centres on getting countries from the global North to recognise their historic responsibility for the climate crisis and to pay their fair share for loss and damage they have; and continue to cause. Although after much delay a Loss and Damage Fund is finally being set up to provide support to communities impacted by loss and damage, due to a lack of political will from countries of the global North, it remains unclear whether enough money will be provided to cover the ongoing and projected costs of loss and damage in countries in the Global South.
For some, Loss and Damage is an avenue to redress historical and contemporary harms linked to colonialism and capitalism. However, given the current geopolitical systems of rule in the UNFCCC — which is dominated by the Northern countries’ narrative that loss and damage is a problem which can be addressed by existing and inadequate mechanisms such as humanitarian aid — many peoples, groups, and states cannot always say what Loss and Damage truly means to them.
In this way, Loss and Damage speaks to the injustice and inequality that is at the heart of the climate crisis perhaps more than any other issue being negotiated.