“Loss and Damage” in the Context of Small Islands

By Yana Nazarova

No surprise:  the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasized that climate change will continue to pose great risks to natural and human systems in all countries worldwide.

The case of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) is especially striking.

SIDS are currently threatened by submergence, coastal flooding and coastal erosion; and these threats intensify year after year due to the increasingly significant impacts of climate change.  Over the past several decades, the SIDS have come to understand that the traditional policy tools - climate change mitigation and adaptation - will no longer be sufficient. Additionally, in the context of small island States, the financial and social costs of climate-change-related damage are projected to be very high –  another dimension which needs to be taken into account when developing coping strategies.

In parallel, the topic of “Loss and Damage” has gained considerable attention within the international community at large. The discussion resulted in the establishment of the “Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts”, during the 19th Conference of the Parties (COP 19) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2013. Recent developments that paved the way for the establishment of this Mechanism were analyzed in the previous editions of the MECC Newsletter (Issue 36 and Issue 46).

It might be argued that the concept of “Loss and Damage” is not as new or innovative as it may appear at first glance. In fact, small island States have been demonstrating a strong interest and commitment to the issue for a long time, even encouraging innovative policies related to the topic.

In 1991, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) put forward the concept of an “International Insurance Pool”. The Pool’s aim was to compensate low-lying islands for the loss and damage associated with sea level rise. However, this provision was not included in the UNFCCC when it was adopted in 1992. Nonetheless, the Kyoto Protocol (Article 3.14) subsequently considered the establishment of insurance mechanisms amongst other issues.

Following these developments, the AOSIS revitalized their political commitment to the question of compensation through insurance when it proposed to establish a “Multi-window Mechanism to Address Loss and Damage from Climate Change Impacts” during the COP 14 in Poznan in 2008.  This mechanism included three components: i) Insurance; ii) Rehabilitation/Compensatory; and iii) Risk Management. Even if this initiative has not yet yielded concrete outcomes, it is still under consideration within the UNFCCC.

Not even five years later, in 2012, the AOSIS put forward similar proposals in their Recommendations on loss and damage ahead of the COP18 in Doha, and once again called for the creation of a compensation package. In 2013, the AOSIS renewed their appeal to establish such a system.

The history of the emergence of the “Loss and Damage” questions within international climate negotiations clearly demonstrates that small island States have played a significant role in the establishment of the Warsaw Mechanism. Even if the spotlight is currently directed towards the financial implications of such a system, the Warsaw Mechanism is an important achievement that would allow climate change impacts to be addressed from diverse and broader perspectives.

While the tangible financial impacts of climate change can be calculated, social and cultural losses are more difficult to quantify. Non-economic losses, as acknowledged in the 2013 UNFCCC Technical Paper on Non-economic Losses, may include some forms of human mobility, and specifically: displacement, loss of territory, loss of cultural heritage, or loss of local knowledge, among others. The Warsaw Mechanism refers to the decision 3/CP.18 which acknowledges the need for further work to “advance the understanding” of non-economic losses. “In the context of small islands, it can be argued that non-economic losses need to be given as much attention as the financial implications.” In the context of small islands, it can be argued that non-economic losses need to be scrutinised as diligently as the financial implications.

Indeed, it is now recognized that some islands might in the future face physical disappearance. This means that new homes on other islands or elsewhere will have to be found for the affected populations. A permanent resettlement, if not planned and managed, might lead to the disappearance of unique cultures and traditions, including the loss of cultural identity among inhabitants.

For many citizens of SIDS, transmitting customary knowledge is indispensable for the survival of traditional livelihood means. In the case of displaced persons, traditional societal skills and knowledge might become irrelevant in a new context and thus induce feelings of social inadequacy (Edwards, 2013).

This less-known dimension of cultural discrepancy needs to be further understood and addressed. The concept is already taken into account in some examples of permanent climate-related relocation of populations. For instance, briefly looking into the example of the Carteret Islands in Papua New Guinea, we can see that this relocation planning tries to encourage affected individuals to keep ties with their island of origin, notably through the establishment of a conservation area which is freely accessible to natives (Rakova, Patron and Williams, 2009).

Adaptation initiatives that give due consideration to non-economic losses will lessen the societal and individual impacts of climate change. Hopefully these initiatives will come in time for these vulnerable communities, and successful adaptation will become an expected reality.