Addressing ‘Loss and Damage’ in Warsaw

The issue of loss and damage is getting a lot of attention at the climate talks in Warsaw, but there is more convergence and progress on this issue than it appears. Negotiators are working to set up a mechanism to address loss and damage and to agree to its primary functions.

Philippines' delegate Yeb Sano delivers a global petition calling for urgent action to prevent more super typhoons to delegates at the U.N. Climate Conference in Warsaw. (AP/Alik Keplicz)
Philippines' delegate Yeb Sano delivers a global petition calling for urgent action to prevent more super typhoons to delegates at the U.N. Climate Conference in Warsaw. (AP/Alik Keplicz)

As the annual Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or UNFCCC, continues this week in Warsaw, the issue of “loss and damage” has received a lot of attention in the press and in the talks. There is optimism, however, that progress is being made on the issue. Unfortunately, other important aspects of the talks, including work on a new global climate agreement, are not on track. It is imperative that negotiators continue to move toward a new global agreement on emissions reductions, set to be finalized in 2015 and take effect in 2020.

“Loss and damage” refers to repairable damage or permanent loss due to the impacts of climate change, including severe weather events and slow-onset events such as sea-level rise and temperature rise. Loss may be economic or noneconomic; examples of noneconomic loss include loss of life, culture, livelihood, ecosystems, or territory. “Residual loss and damage” refers to loss and damage that occurs despite mitigation and adaptation efforts. Low-lying island nations, for example, fear the eventual complete loss of country and culture.

Typhoon Haiyan, which ravaged the central Philippines on November 8 and killed thousands of people, has focused attention on loss and damage in Warsaw. The Philippines’ negotiator, Naderev “Yeb” Sano, has been on a hunger strike until the conference makes meaningful progress on the issue.

Until 4:30 a.m. this morning Warsaw time, negotiators discussed how loss and damage should be addressed within the structure of the UNFCCC. Some describe the end of the meeting as including a walkout of the Group of 77, or G-77, bloc of developing countries in response to “bad behavior” from the Australian delegation, while most merely describe an exhausted end to a long discussion. Nevertheless, there is optimism among the parties that there will soon be an agreement on loss and damage.

Facets of the loss-and-damage debate

Loss and damage wrought by climate change disproportionately burden poor countries. During last year’s climate talks in Doha, the parties agreed to establish “institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism … to address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change” in Warsaw this year. They also requested that developed countries “provide developing country Parties with finance, technology and capacity-building.”

The following two issues in the loss-and-damage debates have caused particular controversy.

1. Should the loss-and-damage mechanism constitute a third pillar in addition to adaptation and mitigation?

The UNFCCC is structured to include two “pillars.” One addresses mitigation—the need for parties to reduce carbon emissions in order to slow global warming—and one addresses adaptation—the need for economic, social, and ecological systems to change in response to a changing climate.

I describe the arguments on both sides of the “third pillar” issue here but do not necessarily endorse them.

Argument in support of a third pillar: The regularity of devastating loss and damage demands the creation of a third pillar within the UNFCCC. The reality is that we are in a third age of climate change. In the first age, mitigation efforts were enough. Then, as mitigation efforts proved insufficient and the adverse impacts of global warming became evident, adaptation efforts became necessary as well. Now, there are instances in which adaptation efforts are overwhelmed by severe weather events and slow-onset events.

The UNFCCC must therefore expand its focus to include loss and damage as a standalone issue instead of subsuming it under the adaptation framework. “We need a new system to deal with new challenges,” said Harjeet Singh, international coordinator of disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation for ActionAid, in a press conference on Tuesday.

Arguments against a third pillar: The topics of adaptation and loss/damage are inextricably tied and should be addressed together. Human and natural systems that are adversely affected by climate change should be rehabilitated with an eye toward building resilience; to do otherwise would invite further loss and damage. In addition, a new pillar would add unneeded complexity to “an already fragmented institutional landscape,” said Marianne Karlsen, a senior advisor for the Norwegian Ministry of the Environment.

2. Should the loss-and-damage mechanism include provisions for compensation for economic losses, rehabilitation of damage, or even reparations for noneconomic losses?

Again, I describe the arguments on both sides of the issue here but do not necessarily endorse them.

Argument in support of compensation: Countries that are most vulnerable to severe and slow-onset events are also the least responsible for anthropogenic global warming. Developed countries owe compensation as a matter of climate justice, given that they failed to sufficiently mitigate their emissions. The United States is the global leader in humanitarian aid, but “we’d like to make clear the difference between humanitarian aid and climate change compensation in the context of historical responsibility,” said Yeb Sano.

Arguments against compensation: All parties agree that finance is needed to address loss and damage. However, the topic of finance construed as compensation is likely to incite discord rather than progress in the talks, and terminology is less important than finding solutions for those affected by extreme weather and slow-onset events. In addition, the fiscal situation of developed countries may be that they cannot afford to provide funding over and above the possibly daunting commitment they made in Cancun in 2010, when they set the goal of mobilizing $100 billion per year in climate finance starting in 2020.

Positions of parties: Toward convergence?

During the Doha climate talks last year, the topic of loss and damage set developed and developing countries at odds. A number of groups called for a compensation mechanism, including the Alliance of Small Island States, or AOSIS; the Least Developed Countries Group on Loss and Damage; and the African Group. The United States, on the other hand, energetically opposed a compensation mechanism, and the European Union stated that “loss and damage should be seen in the context of mitigation and adaptation and not as a separate issue.”

In Warsaw, the outcome of the loss-and-damage negotiations—especially on the third pillar issue—is yet to be determined. However, the negotiators are making progress on the draft text, and there is optimism that they will come to an agreement and forward a final draft to the ministers later this week. It is notable that parties are currently not demanding compensation in the negotiations.

Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy on climate change, recognized in a press conference on Monday the “existential questions” that island nations will face with continued slow-onset events. He announced that the United States is working hard on the issue of loss and damage in Warsaw and that it has joined the Nansen Initiative, a state-led initiative outside of the UNFCCC that addresses the problem of natural disaster-induced migration.

The United States is commonly mischaracterized as being opposed to a loss-and-damage mechanism. In reality, its negotiators came to Warsaw supporting a mechanism that would create a task force under the adaptation pillar. The United States is, however, strongly opposed to language on compensation, claiming that conversations about blame are unproductive and language on compensation would undermine domestic support in the United States for the U.N. climate talks. The fiscal situation of the United States may be in the background of the U.S. opposition to compensation. The United States prefers not to build a third pillar in addition to mitigation and adaptation on the grounds that the topics of adaptation and loss/damage are inextricably tied. It may also fear that the creation of a third pillar will eventually lead to an explosive conversation on compensation in future climate talks that may scuttle the 2015 global agreement on emissions reductions.

During the negotiations on Tuesday, the G-77 and China as well as AOSIS called for an independent mechanism under the UNFCCC—a third pillar—that would have financial and technical functions. Norway, on the other hand, called for a loss-and-damage mechanism that falls within the adaptation framework. Coming into the talks, Norway proposed a four-year working group on loss and damage, the members of which would come from bodies such as the Adaptation Committee and the Least Developed Countries Expert Group.

Notably, the submission from the European Union on loss and damage coming into the talks did not state that loss and damage should be subsumed under adaptation, unlike its Doha submission.

Circumventing discord and moving forward

It is imperative that the parties advance toward a global agreement applicable to all parties, or residual loss and damage will become all the more prevalent. The biggest media story about the Warsaw climate talks so far may be loss and damage, but what is missing from the coverage is the necessity of making progress toward a 2015 agreement. Countries still have a great deal of work ahead to determine the form of an agreement and the timeline for completing it. The negotiators must therefore come to a decision on loss and damage that is acceptable to all parties so the talks may proceed.

There is, of course, a moral argument to be made that developed countries owe developing countries compensation because of their historical emissions. Politically, however, compensation is a nonstarter. While all parties agree that it is necessary to mobilize finance to address loss and damage, language on compensation or liability will not be agreed to—at least at this conference. It is notable that negotiators are no longer calling for it.

In the face of the horrifying devastation caused by severe weather and slow-onset events, however, the position of the United States coming into Warsaw—which was against a third pillar and against compensation—is likely untenable.

A good compromise may include the following components:

  1. The loss-and-damage mechanism constitutes a third track in addition to the tracks of mitigation and adaptation—or the loss-and-damage mechanism and adaptation constitute two equally important work streams within a second track, in addition to the mitigation track.
  2. Developed countries offer residence to those whose territory is made uninhabitable by the adverse effects of climate change.

Gwynne Taraska is the research director and interim director of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at George Mason University and a Visiting Researcher at the Center for American Progress.

Thanks to Rebecca Lefton, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center, for her comments and thoughts on the 2015 agreement.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Gwynne Taraska

Director, International Climate Policy