Five Innovative Strategies to Minimize Loss and Damage from Climate Change

Coastal communities are among the areas most affected by climate change. Photo: ADB
Coastal communities are among the areas most affected by climate change. Photo: ADB

By Jon Barnett, Arghya Sinha Roy

Climate change is threatening vulnerable communities throughout Asia and the Pacific. To minimize the losses, five key strategies should be pursued.

The adverse impacts of climate change are being felt across Asia and the Pacific. For example, the 2022 floods in Pakistan cost the economy $30 billion, and in 2018 Cyclone Gita caused damages equivalent to 38% of Tonga’s gross domestic product.

However, climate impacts are not only caused by extreme events, they are also caused by slow-onset climate trends. For example, in Fiji coastal erosion is causing villages to relocate to higher ground.

The science is clear that without deep cuts in emissions and improved adaptation processes these impacts will amplify, and it is the most vulnerable – such as rural farmers, fishers and informal workers in cities - that will be most impacted.

Rapidly increasing climate risk means we are fast approaching the “limits” to adaptation, leading to increasing loss and damage. This includes both economic and non-economic losses, the latter including the loss of lives, lands, sacred places, community cohesion, and cultural traditions. 

While some of the limits to adaptation are “hard” and can only be avoided by more ambitious climate mitigation, many of the limits are “soft” and can be pushed with more ambitious climate adaptation. Minimizing losses requires urgent action to push the limits to adaptation. 

These five strategies will help push the soft limits to adaptation to minimize loss and damage.

First, adopt people-centered approach in understanding climate risk. Non-economic losses often reflect the intersection of people's relationships with their environment and society. To understand climate risk it is therefore critical to understand people’s sense of loss and to co-produce strategies to minimize these.

This approach can empower vulnerable communities, foster collective action, and build a sense of care and responsibility in adaptation efforts. Strong partnerships between government, technical organizations and community-based organizations will be critical for success. This new generation of people-centered assessment can be promoted as part of multi-hazard risk assessments.

Second, adaptation pathways should guide decision-making. Adaptation entails adjusting long-standing development processes and institutions that may be no longer fit for purpose in a changing climate. Developed in a participatory manner, adaptation pathways help us understand when adaptation needs to happen. This involves starting small and preparing for change to be implemented at key moments as climate changes.

The process involves identifying climate tipping points, developing plans to minimize the impact of these, and socialising alternative responses in advance. Developing adaptation pathways also provides an opportunity to work with developing countries so that they own the processes for building long-term resilience, including through strategic plans that transcend individual investments, improved governance, and political and financial commitment. Adaptation pathways also provide opportunities for long-term programmatic financing that is needed to build resilience.

Third, increase investments in ecosystem and nature-based solutions. Compared to climate change, human uses of the environment are often more responsible for stresses in vulnerable ecosystems. For example, in riparian and wetland ecosystems, human diversions of water are often a larger driver of change than climate. In coastal areas, poorly sited and designed structures can have a bigger impact on erosion than sea-level rise. 

Climate impacts are not only caused by extreme events, they are also caused by slow-onset climate trends.

In these cases, the limits to adaptation are ‘soft’ in the sense that loss and damage can be averted with improved practices in natural resources management so that ecosystems are more resilient to climate stressors. In addition, investments in infrastructure that work with biological and ecological processes to reduce vulnerability to climate risks such as coastal erosion and urban heating can also deliver efficient and more sustainable adaptation outcomes.  

Thus, investments in such ecosystem and nature-based adaptation can help minimize loss and damage to people who depend on climate-sensitive ecosystems for their welfare.

Fourth, investments in human and social development will be critical to reduce vulnerability to climate risk. Climate risk is shaped by environmental and sociocultural processes. For example, the effects of climate change on hunger is due to many co-drivers that increase vulnerability, including marginalization of women from decision-making in households, and secondary malnutrition due to lack of access to quality water supply.

While adaptation is frequently a matter of local actions, co-drivers often emanate from deeply rooted sociocultural institutions that reduce people’s choices to adapt, including those associated with gender norms, conflict, caste, and land use. Recognition of the multiple drivers of vulnerability, however, also means there are multiple options to push the limits of adaptation.

Examples include incorporating adaptive features in social protection systems so they help build households’ capacity to adapt and better respond to climate events. Decentralization of programs to improve the participation of poor and marginalized people in resilience-related decision-making processes is also important. Such strategies enhance the choices people have to adapt to climate change in ways that minimize what they would consider to be intolerable losses and damages.

Fifth, establish systems to continuously learn from and innovate from the experiences gained in implementing adaptation solutions on the ground. A key limit to adaptation in any given place is simply a lack of knowledge about what can be done effectively to reduce climate risk, which is continuously changing.

To better adapt to climate change, we need to learn from successful examples and see adaptation as a continuous journey towards climate resilience. Being innovative and knowledgeable about adaptation is key to improving our ability to adapt. Regularly reviewing and assessing previous adaptation efforts can help us learn what works best and understand how to do it effectively.

So too does establishing institutional systems that adopt participatory processes for monitoring changes in people’s immediate environments and daily lives.

Implementing these five strategies can minimize the impacts of loss and damage through investments in climate adaptation and resilience.

This blog is based on a background report developed by Prof Jon Barnett with inputs from Arghya Sinha Roy for the Asian Development Bank.