Sea-level loss and damage: When adaptation is not enough

Sea level rise

Editor’s Note: This guest post was authored by two senior scientists at the United Nations Environment Programme. They are writing because some places exposed to rising sea-level are literally being evacuated. This is an evolving story of how risk is managed at the local, national and global levels. The discussion is no longer about reducing emissions or adaptation. It’s about loss and damage.

By Jacquie McGlade, Chief Scientist, United Nations Environment Programme, and Zinta Zommers, (PHD), Programme Officer, Division of Early Warning and Assessment.

This week, the world’s attention will turn to the iconic paradise island of Samoa, as government leaders gather to discuss the future of small-island developing states (SIDS). SIDS have bountiful supplies of renewable resources but the challenges ahead are daunting. Isolation and remoteness coupled with climate change, the impacts of natural disasters, and out-migration means that even island life itself is being threatened.


Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries Initiative
With locked in emissions, scientists warn of future impacts on society and nature that could exceed development thresholds of people and countries. The “Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Country Initiative” was set up to support Bangladesh and the Least Developed Countries in their voice to call for action of the international community.

Global financial shocks, plus increasing fuel and food prices mean that core economic sectors such as tourism will become vulnerable if a business-as-usual approach is adopted. Salemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development, sees the world entering a third era of climate change negotiations, from emission reductions, to adaptation, and now to loss and damage. These are the negative effects of climate change that people are unable to adapt to.

With seas rising at 10 mm per year in some parts of the Pacific and the cumulative costs of storms and disasters growing to 90% of GDP over the past two decades, loss and damage presents both challenges and opportunities for island communities.

A new report from the United Nations Environment Programme, GEO SIDS Outlook, analyses the current situation and proposes policies for plausible futures. From the creation of local markets in electric vehicles to the use of social media to increase global awareness of SIDS’ unique cultural heritage, the report shows that there is much that the islanders can do to anticipate environmental problems and their economic consequences.

As UNEP chief scientist, Jacqueline McGlade states “By diversifying their economies, and avoiding loss and damage, through fiscal reforms and risk assurance, and innovative planning and actions, SIDS can develop an island voice in the global discourse to ensure that they are not simply swept along by larger outside forces beyond their control.”

Koko Warner, a lead author of the IPCC Working Group 2 Fifth Assessment Report, presents a challenge to the private sector, “Can we design tools that allow some form of resilience while countries and communities figure out how to create a safe operating space?”

Microinsurance mechanisms may play a role. According to Swiss Re the value of the commercially viable micro-insurance market is 33 billion USD with a potential market size of 2.6 billion people. Additional forms of social protection – social insurance and social assistance – are also needed. With a funding gap of more than US$95 billion for adaptation, a future based on a blue-green economy with technological leapfrogging, that reconnects with nature and preserves their unique island culture looks like a safer bet for small developing island states than business-as-usual.

Note: this post was edited by Tim Nixon, Managing Editor of Thomson Reuters Sustainability