Loss and Damage, Mitigation, Adaptation. It’s time to use the right words

Over the past few months – as Italian Climate Network and as European civil society – we are trying to draw the attention of policymakers and the public to the so-called Loss&Damage, the topic of losses and damages related to climate disasters. However, this has not been easy. On one hand, because the climate emergency continues to remain, in the eyes of the public, a problem that is “too distant,” “too high,” too big to touch the chords of individuality and daily life, despite everything. On the other hand, because in this context of limited (in)formation, many definitions and numerous terms are often confused, often perceived as too technical, to the point where they create confusion and distance us from the problem.

However, we believe it is time for the right words, to be shared with the piece of mind of those who want to embark on a journey together, without pretending to teach or admonish anyone, but simply helping each other understand what is happening. This has always been the spirit underlying the work of the association of which I am the President, Italian Climate Network. And in this way, we would like to accompany you in reading this article.

What happened this year in Emilia-Romagna and in the north of the Mugello valley, brings us closer to the theme – of loss and damage – and provides us with yet another experience, but perhaps it still does not provide us with a commonly understood language. It is evident that in Emilia-Romagna, there have been losses: irreparable losses such as human lives (17 deaths), animals, economic losses, and losses to businesses, for which families and companies will have to start from scratch, supported by public finance. It is evident that there have been damages, where damages refer to the damage, breakages, temporary inaccessibility, somehow reparable, fixable, always with the necessary support of institutions, business categories, and communities, hopefully in the shortest possible time. The concept of loss and damage would seem quite intuitive, thinking about our Italy. Unfortunately, it often isn’t, and it becomes even less so when we try to connect this concept to global warming, its effects, and responsibilities.

Whose fault is it? Is it due to hydrogeological instability and neglect of the territory? Cementification? Natural meteorological variability? Or climate change? Are those losses and damages really attributable to a changing climate and therefore to our policies in terms of greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere? The answer to the last question is yes: it is also fault of climate change, which greatly amplifies the danger we are exposed to, our vulnerability to risk. And to try to provide a quantitative estimate of how global warming can enhance the impacts of a meteorological phenomenon, there is the so-called Science of Attribution. This science – like all sciences – does not aim to provide certainties but rather data and additional information to better assess what has happened and define the best strategy to manage present and future risks.

A science that is gaining more rigor and importance, so much so that with every publication comes a stir, as happened a few weeks after the flood in Emilia Romagna (here is the [link] to the blog article on Climalteranti.it to delve into the debate that emerged from the premature publication of the World Weather Attribution). Thanks to this small Italian example, it may now be easier to understand the attribution issues necessary to address our starting theme: Loss and Damage.

But there is another difficult step to take. Even if we manage to quantify the losses and damages attributable to global warming that need to be compensated, according to what insurance or reimbursement schemes can entrepreneurs, farmers, and affected families be compensated, relying on public finance mobilized as “climate finance”? This question has been asked for years in Mozambique, Pakistan, various parts of the world, at the UN, and at international conferences. Today, we are starting to ask this question in our extremely fragile Italy.

If losses and damages are attributable to climate extreme events becoming more frequent, who should pay? Who are the main culprits of global warming? Who has emitted the most greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution? These are difficult questions, for which there is a very simple answer (only it is difficult to digest).

A completely different matter is talking about adaptation to climate change, although – quite incredibly – there is still much confusion between adaptation and loss and damage, especially at the political level. At COP27, seven months ago, some governments (such as the United States) introduced proposals for “preventive adaptation” regarding loss and damage, while others insisted that compensation should not be paid to countries affected by loss and damage if there were previous cases of maladaptation in that country. But let’s try to clear the field from doubts with a bit of vocabulary.

In climate policies, we talk about mitigation to refer to all policies aimed at reducing emissions of gases capable of altering global temperature. We also talk about adaptation to refer to all policies and projects that help local communities prepare in the safest possible way for a changing climate. Adaptation actions are those aimed at reducing the vulnerability of a territory and its inhabitants, reducing and managing risks. To be managed and addressed, risks must be known and understood, within the limits of available scientific models. In this, the role of Civil Protection is fundamental, in full synergy with the national, regional, and local government levels, such as the development of regional prevention and alert systems that we already know in Italy (and yes, we know them, but not enough). In more fragile countries, adaptation also means relocating coastal villages to hillier areas in anticipation of rising sea levels, protecting food cultivation and food processing locations, changing types of crops to those more resistant to the new climate, for example. These things are already happening and often have very problematic social and cultural implications.

Mitigation, adaptation, and loss and damage can be viewed in a logical sequence: the more we act on mitigation, the less burdensome the need to act on adaptation in the future. Loss and damage occur when the mitigation actions of previous years were not sufficient to avoid the impact of climate extreme events, and adaptation actions were not sufficient to prevent loss and damage in the face of extreme events, where extreme events refer to particularly intense calamitous meteorological phenomena. It seems simple, yet for many governments, it still isn’t.

The Paris Agreement of 2015, on which the climate policies of all countries in the world are based, states in Article 8 that countries “recognize the importance of avoiding, minimizing, and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change.” From that formulation, so vague but so important, policy has made progress since 2015, and in 2022, we reached the adoption of the key decision of COP27, which envisages the launch of a multilateral fund (an entity managed by all countries that collects and then allocates resources according to shared criteria) precisely for compensating loss and damage for the most affected countries. It is evident that those countries, that less than a year ago were trying to divert attention from economic compensation to those affected by loss and damage by talking about “preventive adaptation”, have attempted to add some confusion to the mix to arrive at a less ambitious final recipe. It is no mystery that many Western governments do not want to invest new resources in loss and damage suffered by distant countries, based on generic historical responsibility for emissions.

However, talking about adaptation and loss and damage is not  the same thing, as we have seen. That is why it is necessary to clear the playing field from any attempts at induced distraction, focusing on all three objectives simultaneously, without mixing them in policy writing. It is urgent to reduce emissions to zero, to invest in risk prevention and management for the changes already underway, and to allocate adequate resources for those who will find themselves in extreme situations, especially in the most fragile contexts.

Skipping even one piece of this framework will be more damaging than useless.

Article by Serena Giacomin, President of Italian Climate Network

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