Loss and damage is a major topic at COP23 in Fiji-in-Bonn this year. Since it is an area of growing prominence in climate change discussions, I am writing a four-part series to explore the issue, its ethics and intricacies, its history and role in the COPs, and potential future policy solutions.

In Part 1 below, I share an overview of what loss and damage really is and why advocates urge for swift action to address it.

The need for a definition

Before we dive deeper into the issue, we must first ask: what exactly does loss and damage mean? Although it has been discussed at the COPs for decades now, there is no internationally established definition. This poses a problem: It is important that nations agree in the precise interpretation of terminology when negotiating legal international agreements across languages. This is particularly true for issues such as loss and damage, which could feasibly involve large transfers of wealth between nations.

What is loss and damage?

I find useful the definition proposed by the International Centre for Climate Change and Development and the Brown University Climate Development Lab. They define loss and damage as the “irreversible losses (e.g., loss of human life, species, and land to rising seas) and damages of significant economic cost (e.g., destroyed infrastructure) resulting from climate­related disasters.”

It may also be helpful to consider loss and damage in the context of mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation reduces planet-warming gases to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and adaptation lowers the risks of these effects on communities. When mitigation and adaptation fail, loss and damage occurs. Loss and damage is a catch-all term describing the injuries of climate change on individuals and communities.

Why the growing attention?

Recent events have propelled the issue of loss and damage to the forefront of climate change discussions. Our planet has increasingly been facing extreme weather disasters. People around the world are being harmed by floods, droughts, heat waves, and even slow onset events such as rising sea surface temperatures. In recent years, it has become clearer that the growing frequency and intensity of these events are attributed to human-induced climate change.

The urgent need for action

These catastrophic events are jeopardizing the livelihoods of those in both developed and developing nations. For example, the recent hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and the southern U.S. killed over 200 people and caused $300 billion in damages. To piece together what they can of their lives, impacted communities need money.

Post-disaster reconstruction mechanisms may exist in developed nations to support individuals and communities to rebuild their lives. However, this may not be the case for lesser developed nations, who generally have contributed little to climate change but often suffer the worst effects. The world’s most vulnerable are facing catastrophic loss and damage and governments are unprepared to deal with this. Nations have realized that they must develop a robust mechanism to avert, minimize, and address loss and damage before circumstances become more dire.

Diving deeper

In Part 2 of this series, we explore the intricacies of loss and damage, such as extreme vs. slow onset events and economic vs. non-economic losses. We also consider the ethics of loss and damage and how it ties into adaptation and mitigation. In later parts, we delve into how loss and damage has historically fit into the COPs and how the UNFCCC may address it in the future. Stay tuned!


Tasfia Nayem is a first-year Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Nicholas School of the Environment focusing on environmental economics and policy. Prior to Duke, she worked as a climate change communicator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where she helped develop and implement strategies to promote climate science literacy and better engage the public in climate action.