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Loss and Damage
“Loss and damage” is a term used by the United Nations to describe the harms inflicted by climate change that go beyond what people can adapt to. It can include lives lost; monetary costs from the destruction of infrastructure, buildings, crops and other property; and the loss of entire places or ways of life.
Loss and damage can come from extreme events like floods, hurricanes and wildfires, which are growing more frequent and severe with human-caused climate change. Or it can come from slow-moving disasters, like sea level rise and ocean acidification, caused mainly or entirely by climate change.
An unequal burden
Loss and damage is often framed as a matter of climate justice—noting that the low-income nations that have done the least to cause climate change also have the fewest resources to withstand it.
This idea was central to the earliest conversations about “loss and damage.” In the early 1990s, as the United Nations prepared to create what is now the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a group of small island nations, realizing their vulnerability to rising seas, lobbied for the UNFCCC to include a fund through which the wealthy nations most responsible for climate change would compensate the hardest-hit nations for the “loss and damage” from sea level rise.
Since that time, low-income nations have indeed proved especially vulnerable to climate change related disasters. In summer 2022, for instance, when a third of Pakistan was flooded by extreme rains, the crisis was deepened for happening in a country with few spare resources to give food, water, shelter and healthcare to the millions of people displaced.
At the same time, no country is immune to loss and damage. And in some places, like low-lying coastal areas lost to sea level rise, no amount of money may be enough to prevent devastating harms from climate change.
Assessing loss and damage
Loss and damage from climate change is plainly important, but it is not easy to assess.
Any effort to measure loss and damage will involve putting a value not only on property damage and loss of livelihood, but also on “non-economic losses.” That can include human lives, the loss of species, and even the loss of places and cultures, as when the melting of sea ice takes away the hunting traditions of Indigenous people in the Arctic. A full accounting of loss and damage must also wrestle with the role of climate change in disasters that may have multiple causes. Consider, for example, a drought made more intense by both climate change and overuse of scarce water for agriculture. How much loss and damage came from human-caused climate change, from the “normal” course of nature, and from other human changes to the environment?
Responses to loss and damage
Compensation for loss and damage remains an active point in climate negotiations. In November 2022, at the 27th annual UN Climate Change Conference (COP27), the UNFCCC finally agreed to create and operationalize a fund to help lower-income countries respond to and recover from climate change related harms.1 However, the details of how large this fund will be, who will pay into it, and how it will be distributed are all still under debate. A transitional committee will be established and will meet in 2023. It is tasked with making recommendations in November 2023, at COP28.
There is also much that people can do to help prevent future loss and damage. At this point, some harms from climate change are inevitable. But through mitigation and adaptation—that is, actions to slow climate change and to better withstand it—there is still time to minimize those harms and create a future where climate change is as manageable as possible.
Updated December 1, 2022.
1 UNFCCC: "COP27 reaches breakthrough agreement on new 'loss and damage' fund for vulnerable countries." November 20, 2022