Loss and damage in the climate negotiations: Moving from taboo to an agreement
Masroora Haque

In 2014, 900 weather-related events caused $100bn in loss and damage, with 60% of the damage occurring in developing nations

“I don’t hear the word Ma anymore,” words uttered by Kobita Mondol*, the mother of an only child, as we sit with a group of women from the village of Shinghortoli in the Southern Bangladesh. No, she has not lost her son, he has moved to India in search of work. We are a group of researchers looking into the impacts of climate change that cannot be easily measured, but what we find is so much more. We find an area where climatic disasters both sudden and slow have made hard lives even more difficult. We find fragmented families, lost livelihoods, a degrading environment, rising inequality, and increased tensions among neighbours. We also find indomitable spirits determined to stay and fight, NGOs working on innovative projects and sturdy cyclone shelters and embankments that double as roads. But the most important thing we find is that the combined efforts of all those involved in reviving the land and restoring livelihoods are constantly falling short.

A cocktail of climatic hazards

The Southern coast of Bangladesh is a cocktail of climatic hazards -- erratic rainfall, heat stress increased flooding, river bank erosion, drought, salinity intrusion, cyclones, and storm surges are everyday realities of the people living in our Southern coast. Increasing salinity in soil and water is a huge problem in the coastal areas. Salinity reduces soil fertility, so that vegetation and crops cannot grow in people’s gardens or in the fields. In parts of the coastal area, the level of salinity is so high that salt-tolerant rice varieties do not even germinate. The salinity in the soil has made shrimp and crab farming the predominant source of income in certain parts of the coast. This has led to tensions among the locals, as farmers with small plots are forced to lease them to wealthy landowners for a nominal rate. Shrimp farming requires less labour on the field, so there are less jobs available. It is no surprise that Kobita’s son has moved away in search of work.

The back to back cyclones in 2007 and 2009 caused untold damage to the already poor and vulnerable people of this region and the fragile Sundarban eco-system they depend on. Our visit to the remote villages in the South was five years after Cyclone Aila and many are still struggling to cope with the loss and damages. Cyclone Sidr in 2007 resulted in $1.7bn, or 2.6% of Bangladesh’s GDP, according to a World Bank report published in 2010. Both these cyclones destroyed homes, fields, lands, shrimp farms, livestock, trees, homestead gardens, and took the lives of many. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, this region is suffering from negative population growth, as droves are  migrating to already overcrowded urban areas. Most who move to cities live in slums or informal settlements which are cramped, unhygienic quarters, sometimes devoid of basic sanitation services.  It is hard to say whether or not their quality of life was better in the picturesque villages they once lived in.

Tackling climate change

The government of Bangladesh is progressive in its national policies to address climate change. The Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan lays down six pillars of response to prevent and tackle climate change. It has built cyclone shelters, polders, embankments and other infrastructure costing $300m from domestic resources in 2009–11. NGOs are active in the area, and they have programs on early warning systems, alternative livelihoods, plinth raising and more. Simple innovations such as floating bed gardens to cultivate vegetables to lab tested saline tolerant rice and vegetable varieties are championed in the area. Private sector companies like ACI are piloting climate resilient rice and vegetable varieties with good responses from the market. The Department of Agricultural Extension is at the forefront of agricultural research to fight the food security challenges of the country and has championed rice and vegetable varieties cultivable with changing weather patterns and innovative agricultural technologies that can easily be replicated by communities. Perhaps most noteworthy are the communities themselves who are combining knowledge passed on from forefathers with those of the scientists to deal with the changing nature of agriculture in the region.

Loss and damage despite efforts to adapt to climate impacts

The Asian Development Bank estimates that  climate change, will cost the country 2% of its GDP. World Bank projects that, by 2050, rice production will fall by as much as 12.8%.  Projections into the future draw heavily from the present. Climate change is incurring losses and damages despite efforts to fight them. People are migrating in search of work despite so many NGOs providing livelihood support. The salinity in the soil is too high for research to keep pace in developing new seeds. Women are faced with new and challenging diseases despite improved medical services and awareness. This is the essence of loss and damage -- the impacts of climate change that have not been or cannot be adapted to.

A recent paper released by researchers from the International Centre for Climate Change and Development matches the losses and damages faced by countries in their submissions to the UNFCCC also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC). 23 Parties to the UNFCCC have explicitly stated kinds of losses and damages their country faces despite measures to adapt to climate change. In beautiful Antigua and Barbuda for example, the country’s infrastructure and economy, seaports, road networks, fisheries, agricultural, and very important tourism sector are not exempt from the losses and damages from climatic impacts despite physical adaptation measures.

Sharing the burden

The Industrial Revolution that brought wealth and mechanisation to Europe and North America was also responsible for a growing dependency on fossil fuels whose toxic emissions cause climate change in the first place. The unfair part about climate change is that developing countries have contributed the least to its causes, but are suffering the worst of its ravages. In 2014, 900 weather-related events caused $100bn in loss and damage, with 60% of the damage occurring in developing nations. These countries have the least means, resources and abilities to recover from the negative impacts. Therefore, under the UNFCCC, Parties have been meeting every year for the past 23 years to negotiate a deal to curb emissions in developed countries and provide finance, capacity building, and technical support to developing countries. We have some achievements we can be proud of as a global community, but the main cause of climate change, the surest way to restore balance to our climate -- the reduction of greenhouse gasses has not been achieved. Needless to say, it gives developing countries like Bangladesh a place at the negotiating table where we can demand provisions for loss and damage from the impacts of climate change.

Talks at annual conferences

The Paris climate change conference happening right now until December 12 is history in the making. It is a chance to collectively come to a legally binding agreement to limit global temperatures and give due support to developing countries to minimise losses and damages from climate change. Talks onloss and damage in these yearly conferences have been fraught with denial, disagreement and divisions. Since the start of these negotiations in 1992, countries that risk losing their entire existence have been vocal about measures to address the cost of loss and damage. Developed countries have opposed any mention of loss and damage for the longest time, because they fear that it will open the door to assigning liability for loss and damage, leading to claims for compensation from developing countries. Over time, this focus on loss and damage has gained legitimacy, going from the words “loss and damage” actually appearing in the negotiating text for the first time in 2007 to establishing the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) on Loss and Damage. At the Paris climate talks now, there is engagement from both sides to reach common ground on this issue.

The main goal of  the mechanism is to address the loss and damage faced by most vulnerable countries by increasing knowledge, engaging relevant people and supporting finance, technology transfer, and capacity building. The mechanism reports back next year and can be the most influential body shaping how loss and damage become a lens through which we see and tackle climate change. It is critical that the WIM is part of the Paris Agreement as a separate agenda as that will mean that we are not forgetting the world’s poorest. We have already said to 100 million of the most affected that their plights are not important by agreeing to a long term global temperate goal of 2 degrees Celsius.

The decisions on loss and damage are evolving and we will know how the world plans to deal with them after December 12. Parties need to come together to form solutions to make life better for those who have contributed the least to climate change. President Obama’s pledge of $300m for risk insurance is one such solution. In the negotiating text, there is a mention of a climate change displacement co-ordination facility to be established to help co-ordinate efforts to address climate change induced displacement, migration and planned relocation. This would be particularly helpful for places like the Southern coast of Bangladesh where families who are forced to move can have a better life and services in their new destinations. Whatever the solutions are, the Paris Agreement must not ignore what climate change has taken away from those who have the least in this world, the least ability to bounce back from its devastation, and contributed the least to its causes. 

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Masroora Haque

Masroora Haque is the communications coordinator for the International Centre for Climate Change and Development at the Independent University, Bangladesh