Is it right to count humanitarian aid as loss and damage?

Author: Hugo Slim
Date: 29. August 2023

Humanitarians are setting out their stall on loss and damage, especially the new fund that is intended to invest in projects to ‘avert, minimise and address loss and damage’. The details of this fund will be agreed at COP28 in December, and humanitarians are arguing that humanitarian activities have an important role in loss and damage investments.

But surely, humanitarian aid is not what climate-vulnerable states had in mind when they began to argue for recognition and financing for loss and damage many years ago. They wanted significant structural investments to make good their economic and non-economic losses from climate change. Humanitarian aid may have a small part to play in loss and damage, but it would be wrong to overly identify loss and damage with disaster risk reduction (DRR) and emergency response.

A COP clash?

Humanitarians must make this point as they head towards COP28. If not, they risk falling into a political fight between states who think very differently about climate justice. Many states think that the original legal terminology of ‘loss and damage’ is not a coincidence and should still be linked meaningfully to historical justice and compensation. They will not be satisfied with humanitarian aid – which should be offered anyway in disasters – being double-counted as loss and damage.

COP28 has the potential for a clash between humanitarian ethics and climate justice, with humanitarians caught in the middle. It is very important to recognise that humanitarian aid can never meet the full demands of climate justice on loss and damage – in case some donor states pretend that it can.

The emerging humanitarian view

As the Transitional Committee devises its plans for the fund, humanitarians are clarifying the intersection of humanitarian aid with loss and damage by asking three key questions: What should be in this fund for people most affected by climate change? How can humanitarians contribute to loss and damage activities? And, more privately, what could the fund mean for humanitarian budgets?

Important studies by the Flood Resilience Alliance and by German Watch and the Stockholm Environment Institute make the case that humanitarian activities (like early warning, anticipatory aid and general humanitarian response) can indeed avert and minimise some economic and non-economic loss and damage from climate hazards, as currently framed by the Warsaw international Mechanism for Loss and Damage. The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has taken a similar view.

This emerging humanitarian view is commendably reasonable and realistic. Essentially, it says: we can certainly chip in to avert and minimise, but we will need new money to do so, and we cannot structurally address loss and damage because that is big development and adaptation stuff.

The risk of humanitarianising loss and damage

This humanitarian view is pragmatic, technical and honest. But the politics of loss and damage is heated and unresolved. The political currents around loss and damage run deep and could suck humanitarians into a nasty row in December if some states are suspected of ‘humanitarianising’ loss and damage, so draining it of any link to wider climate justice.

States differ on what loss and damage means in moral terms. The G77 and China argue that loss and damage should be a third pillar of the COP process, alongside mitigation and adaptation, and concerned with damage recognition and compensation of some kind. Direct linkage between ‘adverse effects’ and ‘liability and compensation’ goes way back to Article 13 of the Rio Declaration of 1992, and many United Nations-listed Least Developed Countries and small island states deliberately shaped COP’s loss and damage language with compensatory thinking.

On the other hand, major greenhouse-gas-emitting states have been steering loss and damage away from an explicit link with climate justice and towards a more technocratic understanding of damage limitation and recovery from climate shocks. Their view holds that the fossil fuel era has brought benefits to humanity as well as harms. This makes historical calculation of compensation unrealistic, especially as China and India are now major emitters. For them, justice does not turn on history but on effective damage limitation for people and nature today.

Therefore, humanitarians could easily get caught in a COP trap in December if they are warmly embraced by some states as key players in loss and damage, and blamed by others for de-linking it with climate justice. This would see humanitarians falling out with many governments in whose countries they want to work on loss and damage.

So, how can humanitarian aid count as loss and damage but also acknowledge its insufficient contribution to compensating losses? One way may be to distinguish between two kinds of justice.

Disaster justice and climate justice

Humanitarians would respond to climate-related disasters even without COP’s loss and damage frame. They have been doing so for centuries on the basis of humanitarian ethics, not climate ethics, working on the principle of humanity and not the principle of loss and damage. Humanitarian ethics overlaps with climate justice but is different from it.

Anna Lukasiewicz, Claudia Baldwin and others in the DRR space are developing the idea of disaster justice. States are also clarifying people’s environmental rights at the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council, which now recognise people’s ‘human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment’. Disaster justice recognises people’s rights to prevention, early warning, anticipation, mitigation, adaptation and resilience – all things that are understood as important in COP’s notions of averting and minimising loss and damage.

Disaster justice enables humanitarians to talk about the justice of averting and minimising loss, and lets them acknowledge a distinction between this and the wider justice of addressing loss and damage. Leia Achampong and Erin Roberts rightly note that of the Paris Agreement’s three key words surrounding loss and damage, addressing resonates most with the original appeal to liability and compensation in climate justice. Addressing loss and damage is, therefore, the point at which humanitarians can show how their contribution will always be incomplete as climate justice.

Addressing loss and damage

So, what does it mean to address something? Addressing must mean giving a problem its rightful name and acting seriously to solve it.

To avert or minimise a loss is to postpone it or avoid its worst effect, but it does not address the source, impact and unfairness of that loss. Humanitarian work cannot truly recover or make good the loss and damage experienced by people and nature. Any attempt by states to pretend it can, and to re-badge humanitarian aid as addressing climate change losses, would be morally wrong. It would cover up claims to wider climate justice by wrapping them in a humanitarian blanket.

Disaster justice is part of climate justice, but not the whole of it. Addressing losses is in a different league of justice to averting and minimising risk. Humanitarians should say this at COP28 and make clear that climate justice starts where disaster justice stops.

Hugo Slim leads the ‘What is Climate Humanitarianism?’ project at the Las Casas Institute for Social Justice at Blackfriars Hall, University of Oxford. The project is funded by the Red Cross Societies of Germany, Denmark and UK, and by Caritas Germany, Trocaire and CRS.

This article is co-published by CHA and the Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN).