President Biden speaks at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. Photo @WIkimedia Commons

Climate displacement and the looming but vexing mystery of what to do about non-economic loss and damage

Robert Albro

Robert Albro

Robert lived and worked in Bolivia for several years in the late 1990s, with multiple return visits. His book, Roosters at Midnight, examines the politics of indigeneity in a small Bolivian city. As a sociocultural anthropologist who hangs his hat in American University’s Center for Latin America & Latino Studies, he continues to keep close tabs on events there. When not engaged with Bolivia, he writes about global cultural policy.

Last November’s annual meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or adopting the conventional shorthand, COP27, celebrated what participants and journalists hailed as a ”breakthrough agreement” (1): wealthy countries largely from the Global North finally agreed to a long-standing priority of mostly poorer and more climate-affected countries from the Global South to create a so-called “loss and damage fund” for vulnerable countries hit hardest by the impacts of climate change. The ground-breaking creation of such a fund marked the high point of consensus and optimism amid an otherwise underwhelming annual performance of the inability of greenhouse gas emitting states to stay on track to substantively carry through on the promises of the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The details of this financial mechanism, who should pay, and how it will operate, have yet to be worked out. But this amounts to a commitment in principle on the part of wealthy nations to participate in a fund to provide financial support to countries facing an array of climate impacts. More catastrophic weather events such as hurricanes, sea level rise, flooding, desertification, or increasingly lethal heat waves, along with other human imprints upon the environment such as large-scale deforestation, lead to ecosystem destruction, and increase food insecurity, driving displacement. A historic step in the global effort to combat climate change, this commitment to loss and damage financing has also been hailed as a victory for advocates of climate justice. Wealthy industrialized nations, historically responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions, have agreed to pay into the fund to support the adaptation costs of smaller and poorer countries, primarily from the Global South and least responsible for creating the current climate crisis.

“Loss and damage,” which is sometimes talked about as an emerging third pillar of climate policy alongside mitigation and adaptation, encompasses consequences from the impacts of climate change that cannot be addressed either through mitigation (e. g. by lowering the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere) or adaptation (e. g. by adopting a less carbon-intensive economy and relying more on renewable energy sources like wind and solar). The concept of loss and damage was initially introduced into UN climate negotiations in 1991 by the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu, on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, which proposed the creation of an insurance scheme to help countries overcome the “financial burden” of the impacts of sea level rise. Vanuatu’s proposal was modelled on compensatory mechanisms for communities suffering damage from nuclear incidents, oil spills, or other forms of environmental contamination.

Two kinds of loss and damage are typically recognized. The first is economic loss and damage, which refers to negative impacts of climate change upon economic goods and services, or items traded through markets, and to which can be assigned a monetary value. These are typically material assets or parts of the built environment, from agricultural crops to urban infrastructure, including housing, land, property, and other typically material resources.

President Biden speaks at the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh. Photo @Wikimedia Commons

The second, so-called non-economic loss, is much less well-defined or understood, and at least so far, largely neglected. On the one hand, the definition of non-economic loss is straightforward: forms of loss not easily quantifiable or traded in markets. On the other hand, what this might include has remained open to interpretation and debate. The UNFCCC has identified a broad array of potential sorts of non-economic loss, ranging from the loss of life, and health, through the loss of territory, heritage, indigenous knowledge, and identity, to include the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. But how a loss and damage fund might compensate for such losses remains an open question.

One reason for this is that conceptual confusions quickly arise. Territory – sometimes also referred to as real estate – is, as we all know, widely traded through markets. Ecosystem services (2), to take another example, are defined as the positive benefits that wildlife or natural ecosystems provide to human society, such as a fresh water supply or pollination of agricultural crops. Coined in the 1970s to increase public interest in biodiversity conservation, the concept of ecosystem services highlights the beneficial utility of ecosystems, and has led directly to the development of methods to estimate their economic value, with many such services now incorporated into markets as tradable commodities. The frontier between economic and non-economic loss, in other words, is somewhat arbitrary and the concept of “non-economic loss” is undertheorized.

Identifying discrete types of non-economic loss (e. g. territory, indigenous knowledge, or biodiversity) can also obscure relationships between them and how these losses are meaningfully experienced by displaced communities. Indigenous communities in Andean South America, for example, acknowledge complex relationships between local ecology, territory, and indigenous knowledge. Andean cosmologies (3) articulate the mutual embeddedness of the social with the territorial and the ecological, and communities maintain relations of reciprocity and exchange with local ecological features, understood to possess social agency and to compose a sacred landscape. As glacial retreat, water scarcity, extreme weather, worsening draught, biodiversity loss and declining agricultural production drive migration throughout the Andes, we need a better appreciation of the dynamic interrelationships among what are at present treated as discrete forms of non-economic loss.

If “cultural heritage” is often cited as a potential form of non-economic loss, so far research agendas have been overwhelmingly concerned with climate change’s role in hastening the physical, chemical, and biological degradation of vulnerable built structures, archaeological sites, historical buildings, artifacts, monuments, and sacred landscapes, along with other culturally relevant places. Attention to so-called tangible heritage, in short, drives the research agenda. Intangible heritage – including cultural practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, or skills – is seldom considered and frequently treated as contingent upon the former, as the sites, places, and artifacts through which beliefs, myths, rituals, and stories, among other forms of intangible culture, are expressed. If we hope to better understand the implications of intangible heritage loss in the context of climate displacement, we will need to move beyond limiting formulations of culture as necessarily place-based, embedded in landscapes, or as contained by and only expressible through tangible vehicles, to include how migrants themselves talk about and interpret loss.

For nations and communities, cultural heritage is frequently at the center of struggles over meaning and a potential basis for conflict. Heritage does not possess a unitary or intrinsic significance, but instead often sits at the crossroads of inter-ethnic and nationalist contests and community schisms. It can be a cultural resource used for ideological ends, a cultural site of multiple meanings contested by different groups, or go unacknowledged. Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, for example, features the densest concentration of onshore wind power on the planet, but Mexico’s wind boom (4) has led to new conflicts at local, national and international levels. These turn on competing understandings of the wind. On the one hand, public officials view it as a material force, source of renewable energy amid climate change, and development boon. Local Zapotec activists, on the other, understand it as a nonhuman cosmological and social actor encompassing air, wind, and soul, with whom they maintain a relationship. Intangible loss, in other words, can be contested, variously interpreted, and identified with competing interests. For the case of climate displacement, we have not even begun to consider how to account for contested forms of non-economic loss.

The problem of loss and damage has currently moved to the forefront of global policy discussion about how best to frame the relationship between climate change and displacement, as a third key theme alongside mitigation and adaptation. In the lead up to COP28 this November, and beyond, the details of a new financial mechanism to address climate-induced loss will be widely debated. However, so far these discussions show little sign of taking account of the range of variation of types of loss and their diverse impacts. All forms of environmental displacement and loss are not equally well handled through multilateral or state-based financial compensation. A more concerted effort to identify types of non-economic loss, understand their impacts in contexts of displacement from the perspective of those impacted, and anticipate how best to address these in both policy and practice is long overdue.


Robert Albro



  1. UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), “COP27 Reaches Breakthrough Agreement on New ‘Loss and Damage’ Fund for Vulnerable Countries,” November 20, 2022.
  2. Wallace, K. J., “Classification of Ecosystem Services: Problems and Solutions” Biological Conservation 139 (3-4): 235-246, 2007.
  3. De la Cadena, M., “Earth Beings: Ecologies of Practice Across Andean Worlds,” Duke University Press, 2015.
  4. Howe, C., “Ecologics: Wind and Power in the Anthropocene,” Duke University Press, 2019.
Received: 01.06.23, Ready: 14.06.23,. Editor: Bill Spence

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