The issue of ‘damages and losses’, a concern rarely highlighted when discussing climate change, was put forward early on at the conference. And in honesty, the conversations kicking off the forum were frank and encouraging. But it seems that Day 1 was an exception to the rule. While the ‘damage and loss’ discussion was put forward as a major theme in the opening of the forum, the only session actually meant to go into detail on this… didn’t.
The first half of the session consisted of a host of case studies that may or may not have been relevant. As with many other sessions, it’s hard to say for sure. It was very much a case of attending a university lecture, but without access to Blackboard. The second half of the session consisted of panellists congratulating each other on their findings. While it was no doubt wonderful that the forum brought together all these players to give them the opportunity to validate each other’s findings, none of them really defined what ‘damages and losses’ meant.
According to a member of the panel this forum was neither the time nor the place to deliberate the definitions of ‘damage’ and ‘loss’, and perhaps this was true because the entire discourse on damage and losses was geared towards the idea of compensation. It seemed that every case study and every speaker seemed to hold on to the notion that ‘damage and loss’ estimates of climate change should be discussed in the context of developed nations paying for the cost of extreme weather events intensified by climate change, or the increased stresses on societies and communities from it.
But as a member of the audience suggested, quite rightly, the developed nations of the world would never give a blank cheque to pay for the damages and losses caused by every storm and event linked to climate change, especially given that such events have been happening for thousands of years, and as such the conversation should really be about any additional damages or losses from storms worsened by climate change. He didn’t seem too happy with the lack of response either, and a few moments later the session wrapped up.
After the session closed, I followed up with a key panellist, and he was of the opinion that the UNFCCC was the only democratic institution to hold this discussion on defining ‘damage’ and ‘loss’, where apparently progress is being made. Also, according to him, there were no decision makers here at the forum… And that we (although I’m not sure he was including himself in this generalisation) really should all “just get ready” for the storms that are going to be more frequent (e.g. floods that previously came every five years, could now be annual instead). His patronisation, and my own background in meteorology aside, surely this cannot be the case (not the floods, that bit it is quite true). While the UNFCCC may take their time in deliberating the actual compensation component that developed nations should be chipping in for, there are actual impacts going on right now that are not being assessed in any formal way. And getting an idea of the damages and losses is an essential part of understanding the impacts of climate change.
Other sessions in the forum stressed the importance of making the business case when it comes to climate change so as to engage the private sector. In fact, as Lucy Emerton (Chief Economist, Environment Management Group, USA) emphasised (in the final plenary of the day), the audience at the forum was composed predominantly of representatives from development and government backgrounds, who are well versed in making the “public case”: the issues from a social perspective, why a project should be done for the benefit of the community, and arguments along this train of thought. However, and more importantly, on the flip-side – when it comes to making the “private case” – these same representatives are uniquely unqualified because they entirely “miss the point”, as “it’s a completely different paradigm”.
In fact, the importance of engaging the private sector was discussed most frankly by Harsha de Silva, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. While swearing himself an economist, he put forward a strong case that while civil society does have money, it doesn’t have the “real money” to bring about the changes that scientists say are necessary to combat climate change. What’s needed therefore would be an alignment of interests between the private and public sector.
And nothing speaks faster to the private sector than numbers: what’s hitting the profit margin and what’s affecting the product image.
Additionally, formal methodologies to assess damage and losses would bring together a truly staggering number of stakeholders, who are usually not too keen on sharing data. Besides ministries, agencies and departments in national and local governments, particularly in a developing country context, it would also have the keen involvement of NGOs and INGOs taking part in relief, and create an opportunity to slowly bring in affected private sector stakeholders as well. Such an assessment would incorporate an assessment of damages and losses, breaking down this data broadly by sector (e.g. housing, agriculture, transport), but also by a division of public and private, and potentially and crucially, a breakdown of insured vs. non-insured damages and losses.
And these numbers talk. Even without going into a debate on the enhanced resilience a society would have through a joint public-private delivery of goods to the public, we can perhaps agree on the importance of insurance at the least. Insurance is the first line of defence to an economy, and yet even disregarding individual households, if you were to look at businesses, aside from the larger organisations, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are not very invested in insurance in developing countries. And this is not a good thing – too many livelihoods are one bad day away from destitution.
But there are solutions. Much like getting a better deal on your power supply as a collective switch, insurance works the same way (albeit they call them “portfolios”). Maybe one SME won’t be walking away with the best premium ever, but convince all the SMEs in a sector to come together, and suddenly the coverage seems more viable, especially in an era of insurance and re-insurance. And this can only happen by engaging the public: or better yet, by giving these companies the real and striking numbers to convince people why they should be insured. The publicity campaigns could then fall within their happy interests, and their significantly deeper pockets and outreach. And once the next blip comes along, as it surely will, the benefits will be clear to the beneficiaries (and clearer to the business next door?).
You don’t believe me. Well, consider this. The seatbelt you strap on every morning when you get into the car – did society as whole take a sudden and jarring safety conscious leap forward? Or could it have been, as Harsha Perera put it, an alignment of interests, where an insurance incentive played a part in translating into a remarkable change in behaviour? And this is just one case of private interests aligning to great effect, and there are others, but we still need to work on them earnestly “so that climate financing (itself) will be(come) sustainable”