LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Developing countries and climate experts are calling for U.N. climate talks, which begin in Warsaw on Monday, to set up an international mechanism to deal with losses and damage linked to climate change, which a new report says are already harming vulnerable people.
The question of whether to establish a new global body was controversial at last year's negotiations in Doha, with richer nations fearing it could be used to make them pay compensation for the consequences of their planet-warming emissions to poorer countries suffering the worst impacts of more extreme weather and rising seas.
After fierce last-minute wrangling, it was agreed the upcoming 2013 climate conference in Poland would "establish...institutional arrangements, such as an international mechanism...to address loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change".
Quamrul Chowdhury, a lead negotiator for the group of Least Developed Countries (LDCs), told Thomson Reuters Foundation creating a mechanism is of "paramount importance" at the Nov. 11-22 Warsaw talks.
"Climate change has already caused loss and damage in almost all 49 LDCs," he said by email. "Who is going to compensate for the additional costs the tens of millions of people of the LDCs - farmers, fishermen and their governments - have already borne?"
A set of local-level case studies from developing countries, launched on Thursday by the Institute for Environment and Human Security at the United Nations University (UNU), shows that current efforts to adapt to climate change impacts, including worsening droughts and floods, and to cut greenhouse gas emissions are insufficient to avoid harm from climate risks.
Despite adopting coping and adaptation measures, 96 percent of households researchers surveyed in selected districts in Ethiopia, 78 percent in Nepal, 72 percent in Burkina Faso and 69 percent in Mozambique said they still experienced severe negative effects on their household budgets. Three out of four households - mostly small-scale farmers - reported cutting down on the number of meals or reducing portion sizes.
"Research shows that food consumption, people's jobs, their livelihoods, their physical safety, their cultural integrity - in rural areas and in urban areas - are impacted by climate-related stressors, and what they are doing now isn't enough. They experience loss and damage today," said Koko Warner, scientific director of the initiative on loss and damage in vulnerable countries at the UNU.
"The changes that are upon us are so profound that you're going to need research, policy and action hand in hand," she added, calling for new solutions to the problem on a larger scale.
SOCIAL & CULTURAL LOSSES
Climate change and disaster risk experts urged the 194 governments taking part in the U.N. talks not to get hung up on the issue of "compensation" - essentially who will pay to repair the loss and damage from climate impacts. The United States, in particular, has opposed a new loss and damage mechanism fearing it could lead to huge financial liabilities stemming from historical emissions.
"Compensatory approaches are asked for by some countries. But equating the full loss and damage discussions with that element of the debate would trivialise the whole agenda. So it is definitely not a starting point," said Sönke Kreft, team leader for international climate policy at advocacy group Germanwatch.
Climate researchers point out that the concept of "loss and damage" - which the UNU defines as the "negative effects of climate variability and climate change that people have not been able to cope with or adapt to" - is not just about economic cost. There are social and cultural aspects too.
For example, a UNU case study in Micronesia found that local people were removing stones from a centuries-old fort to build a sea wall, literally deconstructing their heritage. And in northern Burkina Faso, when pastoralists lost their cattle due to a major drought a decade ago, it undermined not only their livelihoods but also their community status, with some leaving their villages due to the shame of not being able to protect their animals.
Experts who have followed the loss and damage debate closely say that, even though many poor developing countries feel they do deserve financial compensation, given they have done little to cause the climate change problem, they may avoid using it as a negotiating chip in case it backfires.
One way forward is for the Warsaw talks to agree on setting up an international mechanism under a standing body or committee that would then be charged with working out how it would operate over the next year or so - sidestepping some of the thorny questions for now.
Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), said industrialised-country negotiators should accept the need for a new mechanism, and stop trying to push loss and damage into other workstreams, such as adaptation.
"The loss and damage genie has left the adaptation bottle. They are better off dealing with it as a separate issue and finding common ground," he said. The Warsaw conference could set up a loss and damage mechanism "without necessarily jumping to conclusions" about what it was going to do in the future, he added.
Harjeet Singh, international coordinator for disaster risk reduction and climate adaptation with the charity ActionAid, told Thomson Reuters Foundation such a body could bring in experts from humanitarian agencies to improve understanding of the new types of loss and damage being caused by climate change. These include gradual events like desertification, loss of territory and ocean acidification.
The body should also evaluate the different financial and non-financial approaches for tackling these situations, from insurance to technical expertise and capacity building, he said.
This would be a process from which developed countries could also benefit, he argued, considering the rising bill they face from extreme weather events and higher seas themselves. A year ago, superstorm Sandy caused the United States around $65 billion in damages and economic losses, for example.
"I don't think developed countries should be scared of (a mechanism). Instead they should work together and work constructively to invest into this issue - which touches everybody. Sandy impacted the United States so badly. And on adaptation, and on tackling loss and damage, there is so much that developed countries can learn from developing countries," Singh said.
Experts also noted that although some scientific progress has been made in attributing individual weather and climate events to rising global temperatures, it will be a long time before liabilities for climate disasters can be legally apportioned.
Huq said richer countries are concerned that a loss and damage mechanism could open the door to financial liability in the future, but it would be in their interests to work out how to deal with this potential scenario now.
"You're better off agreeing on limited liability under a U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change rules-based approach," he said. "If you don't agree (rules) in advance, once harm is done and harm can be attributed, then you're opening yourself up to unlimited liabilities... We know this problem is going to happen - let's deal with it now."