Complexity is not an excuse for inaction

Citizen Science and Loss & Damage: A call for more collaboration in the context of migration and climate change

For the UNFCCC Subsidiary Bodies 58th (SB58) meeting in June 2023 a delegation from the Climate, Migration and Displacement Platform (CMDP) and the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) paired up with UNU-EHS to hold a working session with Bonn-based researchers from the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS), Miranda House, and the University of Bonn, focusing on the interactions of the environment and migration. The delegates from civil society organizations working to advance the rights of people affected by climate change, migration, and displacement, contributed their findings from consultations held in four regions prior to their participation at SB58. This piece presents some outcomes of the working session focusing on Loss & Damage and some transversal ideas for civil society and research to collaborate on.


What is Loss & Damage?

There is no single definition, but it is a term used in different ways, as the L&D Collaboration puts it. However, Loss & Damage refers to the dialogue within the UNFCCC negotiations. The plural 'losses and damages' refers to the actual impacts. Van der Geest and Warner (2015) define 'losses and damages' as "the adverse effects of climate-related stressors that have not been or cannot be avoided through mitigation and adaptation efforts”. There is also a distinction between Economic and Non-Economic Losses and Damages (NELDS), and a historical reasoning of why developed countries need to step up to address these. It was announced that steps should be taken during the Subsidiary Bodies (SB) sessions in June on the operationalization of the Santiago Network for Loss & Damage. We waited for news, but were disappointed that a decision could not be reached. An inaction that is not in accordance with the urgency of the climate and multiple crises of our times. Moreover, the central question of funding remains unanswered, and a fund without funds is a beast with no teeth. What is true too is that losses and damages will have different dimensions in different latitudes. Appropriate valuations must consider the diversity of worldviews and values that reflect what we can quantify and all that we cannot quantify.


Why do research on losses and damages?


For climate justice, to make human rights and financial claims


We often hear that we need more and better data. But why do we need this data? And do we really need to generate it from scratch? Our discussions circled around the fact that data on losses and damages for a specific locality is not always available to that particular population at all, and even less in languages that are locally used. So, in some cases we will need to do (linguistic and topical) translation work and accessibility work. In others, baseline assessments, sometimes using regressions or historical data, will need to be undertaken for the first time. We need to find a common language to communicate in, particularly for the assessments of losses and damages. Why? Because it is not only about money, but is not not about money. Losses and damages may be economic and non-economic. Why we need meaningful research on this is also a question of human rights and claims. As the negotiations on Loss & Damage pick up momentum (slowly), frontline communities, local and national governments of vulnerable countries will need to be equipped with solid data on the particular losses and damages they are experiencing.


How to conduct research on losses and damages?


Enhance local capacities and work on Citizen Science 


Losses and damages will take different shapes across the various territories and constellations of capacities and vulnerabilities. Quantifying and qualifying the types of specific losses and damages in data can show that an ecosystem of human and non-human interactions cannot bounce back from the impacts of climate change. Global analyses are important, but they are not sufficient to address the needs and circumstances of a specific location. In some cases, the absence of comprehensive baseline studies makes it even more difficult to assess losses and damages in the present, and to make a projection for the future. For remote locations, bringing in large research consortia from abroad is unrealistic, costly, and in some cases, unwanted. Instead, we should enhance local capacities and promote cooperation with local think tanks and scientific research institutions. We say `enhance´ and not `build´ because we recognize that people have knowledge and capacities that need to be taken seriously. Local populations and indigenous groups have particular histories and knowledge systems about the places they call home. This is not news. It is not only about the epistemic violence of failing to recognize other knowledges as knowledge but in some cases, it even infringes on intellectual property law. For instance, the Pacific nations in their 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent have not only recognized the importance of faiths, cultural values, and traditional knowledge but also call for a combination of indigenous knowledge with scientific research on equal footing. What if research projects on losses and damages started with a joint design with communities, and continued with a constant engagement and participation of communities as knowledge makers?


For how long?


Think about the different time scales involved and commit accordingly


By now it should be clear that climate change is not a problem of the future. The climate has changed, is changing and will continue to change. So, how can we grasp this in research on losses and damages that is meaningful for populations on the ground? We need to engage with a fine-tuned eye for time periods and temporal depth. Losses and damages, like slow-onset processes, may take a while to become evident. They may also be sudden. For example, the rise of the sea level is a very gradual process. We may notice very slight changes in nature, such as the color of the tip of leaves changing, years later we can measure an increased salinity in the groundwater, and so on. This relates to our earlier point, enhancing local capacities and working on Citizen Science. Who is better suited to monitor and assess the gradual or sudden changes on their social and ecological systems than frontline communities? Contrary to a visiting group of scientists or humanitarians arriving for a quick needs-assessment, local populations have been around for generations, will be around for the next storm season, the next year, and the next decade.


We are not confused

Losses and damages have been a reality for many people around the globe. They have experienced loss of life, damage to cultural sites, losses of livelihoods and damages to homes, to mention a few. The negotiations on Loss & Damage at the UNFCCC need to consider the wide spectrum of impacts that have generated, are generating, and will continue to generate losses and damages beyond what adaptation and mitigation can avoid. The issue is complex, yes, but it is not an excuse for inaction. And as we share perspectives, ideas, tools, and resources, we know we are not confused.

The collaboration among civil society and research needs to take place on a basis of respect and consent: respect of other ways of knowing, of priorities, and of peoples, and with the consent of people connected to the research process and the impacts the results may have. Another role that research can have is to facilitate/mediate between different languages and existing data to make it meaningful to the everyday work of civil society, be it awareness-raising with youth or lobbying for more inclusive policies with governments. Recognizing local capacities and enhancing them is not so much a task as it is a constant attitude for meaningful partnership. During our discussion it became evident that communities, particularly those with deep connections with the lands and waters they inhabit, are in this for the long run, so the kind of research and responses we design need to consider the past, present, and future. As we move towards COP28 climate impacts continue to affect communities on the ground which are disproportionately exposed to risks, following structural inequalities along the lines of gender, ethnicity, age, and more. Loss & Damage is complex, yes, but it is a serious problem – today and tomorrow.


About the authors

Daniela Paredes Grijalva focuses on human rights, plural knowledge systems, and environmental mobilities in Indonesia for her doctoral research project at the University of Vienna. She has previously worked with migrants' rights, gender and development organizations. She was a visiting scientist at UNU-EHS during the SB58. 

Shakirul Islam is a migrant activist and a researcher as well as the founding chairperson of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a grassroots migrants’ organization in Bangladesh. He has conducted several research pieces on the issues of migration and migrants’ rights with the aim of bringing migrants’ voices and perspectives into the discourse and undertaking evidence-based advocacy. He was part of the CMDP-FES Delegation to Bonn and Geneva.

The opinions and statements of the guest authors expressed in this article do not reflect the position of the editorial team or the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


Annette Schlicht
Annette Schlicht
+49 30 26935-7486
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