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Defining loss and damage: The science and politics around one of the most contested issues within the UNFCCC

SEI discussion brief

Author(s): Vulturius, G. ; Davis, M.
Year: 2016

This discussion brief examines four key traits associated with loss and damage in policy discussions, considering the relevant science as well as key political and value-based judgments involved.

The global response to climate change first focused entirely on mitigation – reducing greenhouse gas emissions to limit warming and its impacts. As it became clear that climate change was happening already, adaptation emerged as another priority. Small Island Developing States recognized early on that even with adaptation, some severe climate change impacts would be unavoidable – such as sea-level rise that could submerge much of their territory. Out of this recognition grew what some see as a third level of response to climate change: addressing loss and damage.

As a concept, loss and damage is well grounded in climate science. There are clearly limits to what people or natural systems can adapt to: humans cannot live underwater; most crops cannot grow in salty soil; many Arctic species won't survive without ice. Given the slow pace of mitigation to date, it is almost certain that at least in some contexts, climate change impacts will exceed adaptation limits. The difference – what scientists have called "residual impacts" – is loss and damage.

Yet in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), views on loss and damage differ considerably. The Paris Agreement recognizes "the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage" from climate change, and encourages "cooperation and facilitation to enhance understanding, action and support" on risk reduction and management. Still, many issues remain unresolved.

This briefing note aims to inform discussions of loss and damage by grounding them in science, and separating scientific questions from political ones. It focuses on four traits that are often associated with loss and damage: that some climate impacts are unavoidable, that the harm may be irreversible and intolerable, and that those impacts are attributable to human-driven climate change.

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