You might have heard the vague term “loss and damage” during discussions about climate change, especially as activists and advocates mount pressure on world leaders to increase funding for those most affected by the crisis. But what does it mean?
This is the subject of the latest episode of Climate Citizen, a new, four-part podcast series developed in collaboration between Global Citizen and The Climate Pod that covers topics like climate justice, biodiversity, and mitigating the crisis.
Professor Saleemul Huq — director of the International Center for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) in Bangladesh, professor at the Independent University Bangladesh (IUB), and associate of the International Institute on Environment and Development (IIED) in the UK — joins host Brock Benefiel to explain.
The first thing you should know, Huq explains, is that “loss and damage” is a euphemism for a more traditional phrase — liability and compensation.
Liability implies that someone or something is accountable for some harm (in this case, climate change), whereas compensation implies a need for restitution. Loss and damage, meanwhile, implies a harm that will be accounted for, but not attributed to a particular party.
How did we go from the directness of “liability and compensation” to the ambiguity of “loss and damage”?
Rich countries, led by the United States, explicitly struck references to liability and compensation in international climate negotiations, according to Huq.
“They very much fear the notion of liability and compensation," he said. "In fact, they have made the words 'liability and compensation' taboo. We are not allowed to use those words.
“But what we are now asking for is actually not liability-based compensation,” he said. “It’s just solidarity. People are dying right now. You know, in the last few days, the island of Madagascar and the country of Mozambique got hit within days by three successive cyclones that killed more than 200 people. They lost their lives completely, and hundreds of thousands of people have been made homeless. Now where is the sense of solidarity with them?”
Huq explains in the episode that climate action has moved through three distinct phases over the past 30 years. The first phase focused on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions. The second phase focused on adapting to the inevitable consequences. The UN estimates that $1.8 trillion in adaptation spending would avert $7.1 trillion in climate impact costs.
While we’re still partly in the adaptation phase, we’re transitioning into the third phase, he said, which focuses on recovering from climate impacts. This is the era of “loss and damage” — of calculating the real-world harm of climate change.
“Loss refers to things that have been lost completely, like human life,” said. “Lost is gone; it will never come back.”
Already, climate impacts cause an estimated 150,000 deaths annually, according to the World Health Organization. Other losses include islands and coastlines swallowed by the sea, crops destroyed by extreme weather events, and human habitats turned into inhospitable deserts.
The daily cost of losses from natural disasters worldwide has increased seven-fold between 1970 and 2010, reaching $383 million per day. Three of the costliest disasters in modern history were hurricanes in 2017 that were made worse by warming temperatures.
“Damage is something that can be repaired,” Huq said. “So if your house is damaged, it can be repaired. The road can be repaired. If an embankment is damaged, you can repair it. The damage can be repaired if you have money to do so. Something that is lost completely you’ll never get back. And that's all measurable. We can measure it. Everybody does. You can measure the loss of crops, the loss of livelihoods, the loss of houses and homes — we do this all the time, regardless of climate change.”
Huq pointed out that wealthy countries readily provide compensation to victims of the climate crisis within their own borders, but fail to extend that solidarity to developing countries that disproportionately suffer from a climate crisis that they played little role in creating.
Not only that, but wealthy countries are now undermining efforts to institutionally address global losses and damages. Huq explains how during COP26, developing countries included language to create a facility for loss and damage that would begin the process of financial restitution. At the last moment, wealthy countries changed it from a facility that could lead to concrete results to just a dialogue.
“If anything proves Greta Thunberg’s diagnosis of, ‘All they do is blah blah blah,’ that is a very good example,” Huq said. “They said, ‘We will blah blah blah for two years and not do anything.’”
But not every leader from the Global North went along with this ploy.
Nicola Sturgeon, the prime minister of Scotland, pledged $2.7 million to a fund for loss and damage. The Belgian province of Wallonia committed $1.4 million to the fund and then international nonprofits and foundations committed several million more, Huq said.
“So now we have a pot to address losses and damage,” he explained. “It’s not very big, but it’s something, and all of it came from governments outside of COP. None of the official governments negotiating put a penny into that pot.
"But we do have a pot now. So we’re going to take that pot and figure out what we need to do with it — what we do in a very practical way to make things better and help the victims of climate change. And we’ll see if other countries come on board by COP27.”
Listen to the rest of the episode to hear more about global efforts to secure funds for loss and damages and other climate insights from Huq.
And take action with Global Citizen to call for greater loss and damage funding, as well as broader climate action now.
You can download and listen to the four-part Climate Citizen series on The Climate Pod's website, iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and wherever you get your favorite podcasts. New episodes will drop every Wednesday!