(This article has been written by Zeenat Masoodi who is a Lawyer from Srinagar and is also a COP 22 online fellow for Climate Tracker)

Just as I write another piece on climate change, yet another extreme weather event – Cyclone Ockhi has wreaked havoc across the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Claiming scores of lives, destroying homes, livelihoods, and infrastructure, the cyclone has left behind a trail of destruction. While the storm has now passed over, hundreds of fishermen still remain missing.

Ranked by the Global Climate Risk Index 2018 as the sixth most vulnerable country on earth in respect of disasters, India with its large geographic area and diversity faces several threats of climate-change induced  ‘loss and damage’. Even a cursory look at major weather related events in the past few years – cyclone Aila (2009), Uttarakhand flash floods (2013), cyclone Phailin (2013), J & K floods (2014), monsoon floods (2015 and 2017) – reveals the massive extent of ‘loss and damage’. Millions of people have been displaced, countless hectares of agricultural land have been destroyed, and livelihoods lost.

What is ‘loss and damage’?

Within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) framework, the concept of ‘loss and damage’ was first suggested by threatened small island states in 1991. However, it was in 2007 that the idea was again discussed at the 13th Conference of Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC at Bali, Indonesia. 

Finally in 2013, at the 19th COP at Warsaw, the UNFCCC member countries established the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) to address ‘loss and damage’ associated with climate change impacts. In 2015, when the concept found place in the text of the Paris Agreement (Article 8), it firmly became embedded in the international climate change regime as the ‘third pillar’.

Simply put, ‘Loss and damage refers to negative effects of climate variability and climate change that people have not been able to cope with or adapt to.’ Saleemul Huq, Director of Bangladesh based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, and a world expert on ‘loss & damage’, breaks down the definition further:  

 “Loss refers to things that are lost for ever and cannot be brought back, such as human lives or species loss, while damages refers to things that are damaged, but can be repaired or restored, such as roads or embankments.”

The recently concluded COP 23 hosted by Fiji – a low lying country threatened with rising sea levels – had raised hopes that countries would discuss and deal appropriately with the issue of ‘loss and damage’. However, as the talks progressed, ‘loss and damage’ was relegated to the side-lines. ‘Loss and damage’ is not part of the political space within the UNFCCC. The meeting of the Executive Committee of the WIM also did not result in any concrete results. There is, however, an expert dialogue scheduled in May 2018 to take the discussions on the subject further.

The Ad Hoc working Group on the Paris Agreement – the body responsible for drafting the rulebook operationalising the Paris Agreement – does not feature ‘loss and damage’ anywhere in its agenda. Addressing ‘loss and damage’ also has no financial support from the global north. The decision of the 21st COP at Paris also rules out the possibility of compensation for ‘loss and damage’ caused by climate change. Instead, developed countries strongly backed insurance mechanisms to deal with ‘loss and damage’ and lauded the setting up of the Clearing House for Risk Transfer

Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for the non-profit, ActionAid, pointed out that the Clearing House is nothing more than an online portal for insurance buyers to meet appropriate insurance sellers. Most of the insurance providers are wealthy companies from the global north. This in fact will have the effect of poor and vulnerable people footing the bill for climate change.

What does ‘loss and damage’ entail for India?

The situation in India is also worrying. While millions of people have been directly affected by climate change related ‘loss and damage’, there is hardly any awareness about the concept. Parliamentary and policy debates on the issue are all but absent. Unsurprisingly thus, a simple search of the website of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change does not result in even a single hit on ‘loss and damage’.

Repeated drought and floods have created thousands of climate migrants. Stories abound of people who have left ancestral homes and traditional lifestyles in order to live in cities and urban areas and search for new livelihoods. Nearly 40 percent of the population is expected to live in overcrowded cities by 2031. Of this a significant percentage will constitute climate migrants.

Loss of agricultural land will also sharply affect food production and create massive food shortages – between 10 and 40 % of cereal produce according to some estimates. For India, the costs of climate change are approximately $10 billion per year. Climate change also robs India of nearly 1.5 % of its GDP.

Way ahead

A holistic approach is needed to tackle the problem. Natural disasters and their aftermath are erroneously considered exclusively as disaster management issues. Instead, it is crucial to view climate related disasters from a climate change perspective and not just through the lens of disaster management. 

The data on climate change induced ‘loss and damage’ is alarming, and yet there is not enough alarm at the highest levels for change of policy and initiation of efficacious action. Lacunae in law and policy must be suitably addressed. Recovery and rehabilitation must be undertaken fully and commensurately. The ‘third pillar’ of climate change regime must be given the attention it deserves.