Loss & Damage: Paris should be learning from Bangladesh

On Thursday the 16th of June 2016 a workshop on the contested article eight on loss & damage (L&D) of the Paris agreement took place at the University College London. An eclectic mix of scholars and practitioners assembled at this workshop to discuss this ambiguous article which is in need of further clarification.

It became clear very early on that there is no consensus on how L&D is conceptualised. Both Emily Boyd’s and Lisa Vanhala’s work shed light on how contested it is and how we might understand the different interpretations. In Boyd’s presentation she presented four or even five different typologies that characterise L&D. She presented each typology on a spectrum, on the one side of the spectrum we have L&D as ‘business as usual’ through the, already agreed upon, adaptation and mitigation measures. On the other side of the spectrum we have L&D as ‘inevitable climate change loss‘ as an existential challenge. Different actors seem to prefer a particular typology, Boyd said, depending on what their respective interests are. Therefore reaching a consensus on what L&D is, will be that much more challenging.

However, there may be a benefit to the consensus not being reached as a form of what some call ‘constructive ambiguity’. This came up in the presentation by Lisa Vanhala when she touched upon how L&D was going to be accepted in a treaty; by leaving enough wiggle room for parties, not requiring them to commit to any particular policy measures. Furthermore for Vanhala it was clear that there is a discursive divide in describing L&D, one approach describing it as a measure of dealing with risk and guaranteeing insurance, the other describing it as a measure for ascribing liability and claiming compensation. Respectively each framework has either a focus on uncertainty, the risk-insurance frame, or on harm, the liability-compensation frame. It seems reasonable to question this divide when considering the idea that harm and uncertainty might be contemplated in conjunction.

On the day lawyers, policy makers, philosophers, climate scientists and geographers alike took great interest in this workshop on L&D. This led to a diversity of the use of L&D and, as Simon Caney observed, a very different understanding of what it is about. Policy makers for example were involved in the run-up to and in making of the 2015 Paris agreement, resulting in a view that L&D is a concrete component of the agreement. Whereas academics who were not (generally) involved in making the agreement and only engaged with L&D after it was made, might hold that its constructive ambiguity leads to only a voluntary basis for States to commit to L&D. Moreover it was surprising that there were no economists present, as ‘finance’ is such an important part of the L&D debate.

SEA ANGEL

Flooding in Bangladesh. By Staff Sergeant Val Gempis (USAF) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

All attendees agreed that workshops like this one need to happen more frequently, because L&D is in need of greater exploration. There is a conception that L&D is happening at this moment in time, depending on how the term is understood. Given the diverse ways that it is understood there is a danger that it will take far too long for us to work out its conceptualisation when we need to take action now. A key lesson is that, despite the difficulty of conceptualising L&D, action can still be taken on article eight. A pioneering role-model we might look towards as an example is Bangladesh. Saleem Huq presented the Bangladeshi’s government strategies for handling L&D. The most striking thing about this seemed to be the fact that the government was financing its own responses and does this for at least two reasons: 1. to prove its own independence, and 2. since Paris has not instigated action on L&D when it is needed now. In conclusion this case-study shows that Paris should be learning from Bangladesh, Bangladesh has no need to learn from Paris.

Reflecting on the workshop, when we were making our way home, it seems ironic that L&D was going to play an even more prevalent role in our day. Arriving at Paddington a freight train had caused great damage on the track, our loss because we faced a long journey back.

By Leverhulme Doctoral Scholars Vera Van Gool and Josh Wells