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Typhoon Haiyan shows why UN climate talks must deliver on loss and damage

by Saleemul Huq, IIED | International Institute for Environment and Development
Wednesday, 13 November 2013 15:26 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The tragedy in the Philippines demonstrates the limits to adaptation, and why we need a separate way to deal with unavoidable climate impacts

I started drafting this blog on loss and damage from climate change last week before the beginning of COP19, the 19th conference of parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in Warsaw, Poland.

My plan was to try to explain the issue and propose some ways for negotiators to get to grips with it. But having travelled to Warsaw and attended the opening session, I have thrown away my early draft and have rewritten it - for two reasons.

First: the terrible events in the Philippines, hit by unprecedented super typhoon Haiyan last week. The storm is thought to have claimed thousands of lives and has affected some 10 million people in total. The death toll will rise as survivors desperately seek food, water and shelter, and as aid agencies struggle to reach them.

Watching this on television over the past 48 hours has brought home to me the essence of the difference between adaptation and loss and damage.

The Philippines is used to coping with typhoons. It has a good warning, evacuation and shelter systems, and would ordinarily be considered to be well adapted to dealing with typhoons. More than 20 have struck the nation this year alone - but Haiyan was of another breed entirely.

In the case of this super storm, people were indeed warned and did move to shelters. But such was its power that it wiped out even those storm shelters that had saved lives before.

This demonstrates most graphically - and tragically - the limits to adaptation, and shows that a new international agreement to deal with climate change must consider loss and damage separately from adaptation.


The second event that affected my thinking was the powerful and emotional speech delivered by Naderev ‘Yeb’ Saño, climate change commissioner for the Philippines, at the opening session of COP19 on Monday morning. “What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness,” he said. “The climate crisis is madness.”

Typhoon Haiyan affected his own family in his home town. When he spoke, with tears in his eyes, he spoke not as a negotiator, nor from national interests. He spoke on behalf of human beings across the planet whose vulnerability to climate change is now plain to see.

Frustrated with the lack of urgency at the U.N. talks, he even put his own wellbeing on the line. "In solidarity with my countrymen who are struggling to find food back home, I will now commence a voluntary fasting for the climate - this means I will voluntarily refrain from eating food during this COP, until a meaningful outcome is in sight," he said. “We can fix this. We can stop this madness right now, right here."

Sano received an unprecedented standing ovation from delegates from nearly 200 countries when he ended his speech, in which he called on nations to agree an international mechanism on loss and damage over the next two weeks, as they had promised to do at last year’s conference in Doha.

I believe that the announcement of an international mechanism on loss and damage at Warsaw (indeed we may even call it the "Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage") should be the defining outcome of COP19.

The joint statement issued on Monday by the Alliance of Small Island States, the Least Developed Countries group, the Africa group and G77 bloc of more than 130 developing nations sets out the very strong sense of unity among developing countries on this issue.

Yesterday the G77 tabled a comprehensive proposal for such a mechanism on loss and damage, which shows not only the solidarity among diverse and numerous nations but also their ability to put forward cogent arguments.


One of the problems with this topic is that the language of negotiations - such as “institutional arrangements”, “mechanism”, ”functions” modalities”, etc – are too arcane for the general public, so they tend to see this issue through different lenses.

For example, for most of the media and northern civil society, the phrase “loss and damage” is a euphemism for “liability and compensation” - and that is very difficult for the industrialised countries to accept (at least for the time being).

On the other hand, for most of southern civil society, the words “loss and damage” relate to “climate justice (or to be more precise “climate injustice”) in the context of enforcing the “polluter pays” principle.

Hence, negotiators will need to tread carefully to find acceptable language that addresses the core issues in a manner that is genuinely helpful in tackling the reality of loss and damage in the most vulnerable countries.

The next two weeks will see much back and forth, and tough negotiations between the parties. It will sometimes seem that progress is not possible.

However, if delegates take to heart the appeal of Yeb Saño and wish to show their solidarity with him and his compatriots, then they do not need to join his fast. They do need to help deliver an international mechanism on loss and damage at Warsaw.

Saleemul Huq is director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh, and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development.


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