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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.
Challenges of 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?
International negotiations are also yet to resolve the question of whether and how the most vulnerable nations should be compensated for loss and damage. The UN loss and damage fund sought by small island nations was never created, but in the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, almost every nation on Earth did “recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.”1
Responses to loss and damage
Compensation for loss and damage remains an active point in climate negotiations. The Paris Agreement states that loss and damage “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation,” keeping the idea of payments for loss and damage out of international courts. But it also opens the door to “risk insurance facilities, climate risk pooling and other insurance solutions,” and in ongoing UN talks, vulnerable nations are still fighting for funds to help recover from and be more resilient to climate change related disasters. And recently, Denmark became the first country to offer aid explicitly for loss and damage.2
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 October 26, 2022.
1 UNFCCC: “Adoption of the Paris Agreement,” Article 8. December 12, 2015.
2 News from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark: “Denmark announces new 100 million DKK support to climate adaptation and concrete activities to avert, minimize and address climate-induced loss and damage for the world’s poorest.” September 22, 2022.