The hidden side of climate-induced loss and damage: Understanding non-economic and cultural loss

Dennis Mombauer

Climate change impacts people, livelihoods, and ecosystems around the world, particularly in climate-vulnerable developing countries such as Sri Lanka. Adaptation measures—for example, flood protection, nature-based solutions, or climate-smart agriculture practices—can reduce the vulnerability of human systems and help people withstand or recover from impacts. However, there are hard and soft limits to adaptation that depend on physical limitations as well as available resources, capacities, technology, and finance.

Loss and damage in the climate negotiations

The concept of “loss and damage” is used in climate negotiations to refer to the negative impacts of climate change on people, livelihoods, and ecosystems that go beyond the limits of adaptation. In the negotiation process under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), developing countries have pressed for an inclusion of loss and damage since at least the 1990s. The concept became formalized with the establishment of the Warsaw International Mechanism in 2013 and the Paris Agreement in 2015, which contains a section dedicated to loss and damage (Article 8). Broadly speaking, key areas of concern are the implementation of comprehensive risk management approaches, improved understanding of slow-onset events, non-economic losses, and human mobility, and enhanced action and support.

The latter point has drawn considerable attention at the last two global climate change conferences (COP26 and COP27) and led to the recent decision to establish a separate fund for loss and damage. However, while negotiations on the modalities and operational arrangements for this fund will take place throughout the year and towards COP28, three other questions are also of crucial importance: what exactly does loss and damage mean for those affected, what kinds of support are needed on the ground, and how can a global fund help to provide them?

Loss and damage comes in many shapes and forms. On the one hand, there are impacts that can directly be measured in economic terms: damage to infrastructure and assets, loss of working hours, reduced productivity, destroyed houses. On the other hand, many facets of loss and damage are intangible or much harder to quantify, for example, loss of life or health; displacement or climate-induced migration; loss of territory, cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, or societal identity; and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

As identified by the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, there is currently a “disproportionate emphasis on economic loss and damage while intangible, non-economic losses and damages are relatively less measured and reported.” Simultaneously, it is clear that “aggregate losses and damages would be higher if non-economic values are considered,” indicating the importance of understanding and considering these aspects of loss and damage in any assessment and intervention.

Cultural loss and damage

Cultural loss is a key aspect of non-economic loss and damage that needs further investigation to enhance a detailed understanding of what it entails and facilitate the development of evidence-based policies, plans, and actions. Especially in the context of the anticipated loss and damage fund and the availability of further means of support through an operationalized Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, it is important for countries such as Sri Lanka to identify and quantify forms of loss and damage as well as potential mechanisms to address them.

Cultural loss can affect individuals, communities, or societies in a multitude of forms. For example, it could manifest as the loss of traditional arts and crafts such as textile-making, masks, pattern stitching, or woodwork. When climate change impacts force communities to change their way of life and migrate away or shift towards new livelihoods, the transition of such practices can get interrupted, and the knowledge lost. Similarly, climate-induced changes to ecosystems can lead to a reduced availability of raw materials or the disappearance of vital species involved in traditional artisanal processes. Depending on the exact climate impacts in an area, communities can lose access to traditional resources, ingredients, diets, meeting spaces, or animals and plants of cultural significance.

For much the same reason, customs, traditions, ritual, or ceremonies can become lost as well, as can local dialects, vocabulary, or even entire Indigenous languages as their speakers are displaced and assimilate into new host communities. Heat can make outdoor places less hospitable and lead to shrinking spaces for informal engagement and meetings, while sea level rise can destroy both tangible and intangible cultural heritage or cause a permanent loss of territory. Further inland, floods, landslides, or storms can irreversibly affect heritage sites, archaeological sites, and places of cultural or spiritual significance.

Cultural loss is very much human loss and can gravely affect individuals or families. Fear of cultural loss can result in worry, anxiety, or sadness, affecting mental health and the underlying sense of safety and security within a community. Furthermore, past losses leave trauma and can lead to long-term psychosocial issues that manifest in substance abuse, depression, or a deterioration of social cohesion and solidarity.

There are many ways in which climate change directly or indirectly impacts lives and livelihoods, be it through extreme weather events or long-term processes. Understanding the exact nature of the consequences of these impacts that go beyond physical or economic loss and damage is an important prerequisite to work with affected communities, design effective interventions, and establish support structures that can channel available funds towards the most vulnerable, which in turn can help to access and mobilize finance from within and beyond the UNFCCC process.

This blog post was originally published as a guest column in Daily Financial Times on January 20th, 2023, and is available here.

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Dennis Mombauer

Dennis Mombauer currently lives in Colombo as a freelance writer and researcher on climate change and education. He focuses on ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable urban development as well as on autism spectrum disorder in the field of education. Besides articles and research, he has published numerous works of fiction in German and English.