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OPINION: Loss and damage from climate change must not become the ‘new normal’

This article by CDKN’s Chief Executive Sam Bickersteth first appeared on Inter Press News Service.

As United Nations climate talks get underway this week in Doha, Qatar, they show a subtle, unsettling shift in the global climate change debate.

Just four or five years ago, the debate was sharply focused on how much we should cut greenhouse gas emissions to avoid dangerous climate change, and how society could adapt to modest climate change impacts. Now, the most vulnerable countries are discussing how they will cope when climate change causes unavoidable losses of crops and fisheries, infrastructure and homes – and human lives.

The shorthand for this new and growing debate is ‘Loss and Damage’ from climate change. Once unimaginable, Loss and Damage describes the human cost incurred when our efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change fail.

The spectre of Loss and Damage is now frequently raised by the governments of the most climate-vulnerable nations – many of which are classified as ‘Least Developed’ or particularly vulnerable because of their low topography, exposed coastlines, and melting glaciers. It’s not just a political card, either: the scientific evidence for climate-related Loss and Damage is mounting by the year.

This week in Doha, researchers are presenting the results of in-depth studies from across the developing world that reveal the stark reality of Loss and Damage today. Among these new studies is the story of 82-year-old farmer Noren­dranath Mondol and his community in Satkhira district, Bangladesh.

The story of Norendranath and his neighbours in Satkhira is a desperate one: over the years, creeping sea levels and frequent cyclones have damaged the rice harvest. Villagers turned to salt-tolerant rice varieties to preserve their staple food and source of income. This seemed to work for a while, until in 2009 a catastrophic cyclone swept through, causing a spike in the soil’s salt content.

During this and the next two years, farmers lost almost all the rice harvest and the population was thrown back into abject poverty.

I didn’t get a single bag of rice from my seven acres in 2009 and in the past two years the harvest has also been extremely poor,” said Norendranath.

His fish died when salt water from the cyclone flooded his ponds, and he faces high healthcare costs now that this family is suffering from water-borne diseases.

In Budalangi, Eastern Kenya, climate change is also causing irreparable loss and damage. The River Nzoiya bursts its banks with increasing frequency, and flooding has become more severe in recent decades. Last year, faced with the further loss of crops and livestock, most local residents fled to relief camps for food aid. They tried to recover by selling their remaining livestock for cash, so that they could afford to reconstruct their homes. Now without livestock, they have lost the ‘cushion’ that would help them withstand future disasters.

These studies and other new evidence from the Loss and Damage In Vulnerable Countries Initiative will inform a U.N. work programme that has sprung up to consider the extent of Loss and Damage. The U.N. is even considering whether it should set up a fund that would compensate poor countries for their climate-related losses.

Inevitably, there is a maelstrom of debate on how to apportion responsibility for climate-related disasters and so, who should pay compensation (climate science is making it increasingly possible to determine what proportion of weather disasters is human-induced, and what proportion is natural).

One thing is clear: with their tiny greenhouse gas emissions, the Least Developed and most climate-vulnerable countries do not bear historical responsibility for the weather disasters and slower, more protracted climate impacts that now harm them.

If these harrowing stories of Loss and Damage do anything, surely they must galvanise action by the large emitting countries to make deep, sustained cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. This month, PwC released its Low Carbon Economy Index saying that the world must reduce the carbon intensity of economic output at more than five times the current rate if we are to hold average global warming below two degrees Centigrade, long considered the threshold for a climate-safe world.

Now that we can see how perilous life is for the world’s poorest, even before we reach the two-degree threshold, we know we can’t afford to live in a world that’s any warmer. We must address the climate-related Loss and Damage that’s happening now, but we can’t treat large-scale Loss and Damage as inevitable. It must not become the “new normal”.

We have the power to stop further, dangerous levels of climate change, and that is global leaders’ most critical task.

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