Attribution Science and the Loss and Damage Fund
At 2022’s COP27, participating states agreed to set up a Loss and Damage Fund to financially assist communities struggling with climate impacts. Implementing this idea will be controversial because it involves issues of fairness and solidarity. Although attribution science can put intergovernmental negotiations on fact-based footing, thinking of it as a silver bullet would be naïve. This field has deficiencies that could be politicized – most notably, the way that data inequality maps onto broader global inequalities. Such data inequality needs to be remedied.
At the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27), participating states agreed to establish a Loss and Damage Fund to provide financial assistance to communities and nations highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This fund aims to counterbalance the unequal burden of climate change-related losses and damages through financial resources provided by the major historical polluters. If set up effectively, the decided “fund for responding to loss and damage whose mandate includes a focus on addressing loss and damage” could close previous gaps in loss and damage financing, especially those related to losses and damages already incurred. Thus, it could achieve a breakthrough toward global climate justice.
In 1990, the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), an intergovernmental organization of low-lying coastal and small island countries, was founded. From its inception, AOSIS and other vulnerable states began calling for the creation of a mechanism to provide compensation for losses and damages related to climate change. Over the years, several initiatives were launched to this end. At COP19 in 2013, for example, the Warsaw Mechanism began working on possible measures. At COP25 in 2019, the Santiago Network was established to form the operational working strand. Yet despite loss and damage being anchored in the architecture of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in such ways, the modalities of a Loss and Damage Fund are still up in the air. Which states are to pay into the fund? Who will receive money? And what kind of losses and damages will be singled out for financial assistance? A Transitional Committee was set up at COP27 in 2022 to make “recommendations for consideration and adoption by COP28.” Consequently, the particulars of the fund will be a key topic at COP28 in late 2023. Given that the outcomes of COPs are based on intergovernmental bargaining and power relations, the highly political topic of apportioning liability is likely to continue to be problematic.
The Loss and Damage Fund can only be a success if many countries contribute to it, and it relies on transparent criteria for justly distributing its means. If, by contrast, there is a sense that the fund is becoming a political football – for example, if payouts are subject to political conditions – that could reduce the willingness of countries such as China to provide financial support. Scientific findings could help oblige states to contribute financially and identify recipients of the fund’s disbursement mechanisms. If such findings can serve as unbiased criteria, they will likely increase acceptance for the fund.
Four Ways Attribution Science Can Inform the Politics of Loss and Damage
The Loss and Damage Fund has at least four major gaps that, if left to politics and diplomacy alone to clarify, will create suboptimal results. As detailed below, attribution science can provide a solid basis for addressing each of them.
1. Attribution of Losses and Damages to Climate Change
One branch of climate science aims to attribute extreme weather events to anthropogenic climate change and ascertain whether and to what extent certain events have become more frequent or more intense because of it. By elaborating different climate models, changes in the probability or frequency of occurrence of such events can be calculated. Furthermore, trend attribution can ascribe so-called slow-onset events – for example, sea level rise – to climate change. Therefore, the consequences of both single events and longer-term shifts that are related to climate change can be identified by science and quantified as economic losses and damages. There are, however, also losses – namely, non-material losses such as those of human lives or cultural assets – that attribution science cannot quantify. It remains a moral question how these should be monetized.
2. Identification of Donor States
Scientific studies can also help attribute responsibility for negative impacts related to climate change, which is vital to helping solve a significant political problem – identifying which states should donate to the Loss and Damage Fund. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has long recognized that such studies produce useful evidence, and they are already used in the growing field of climate litigation.
At COP27, the EU – among others – suggested that donors should not be identified according to what it considered outdated UNFCCC metrics that were based on classifications into industrialized and non-industrialized countries from 1992. As attribution science can map the causation of climate change through historical emissions and the overshoot of a country’s carbon budget, it can provide a more precise allocation of polluter states that also includes emerging countries that have become large emitters in the last 30 years. Thus, it can provide fact-based recommendations for the selection of donor countries that are more widely accepted.
3. Identification of Legitimate Claimants
In 2022, potential donors to the fund, such as the EU, not only demanded that a greater range of countries pay into it than those defined by the UNFCCC, but they also wanted to limit the recipients. That is why the COP27 decision on loss and damage narrowed the beneficiary countries down to “developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.” Which countries are considered “particularly vulnerable” is, however, still disputed. Because attribution science can identify which countries have been rendered vulnerable to climate and weather events – and should therefore receive financial support from the Loss and Damage Fund – it provides a framework for compromise between hardened political fronts.
4. Attribution of Risks and Drivers
Some states would be deterred from contributing to the fund if its payouts were tied to political criteria; others would balk at contributing to an open-ended fund that lacked payout criteria. Attribution science could help break this stalemate because it could be used to decide how to respond to specific events.
At a basic level, scientists from the fields of impact and event attribution can conduct calculations to determine which part of total damages can be attributed to increased risks due to climate change. But more than this, modeling can be used to show how the probability and frequency of environmental impacts vary with anthropogenic climate change. Thus, attribution can play a role in identifying the risks, drivers, and regional differences in climate and weather changes.
Uneven Data Make It Challenging to Integrate Attribution into the Loss and Damage Fund
Despite the promising applications of attribution science detailed above, it is not foolproof. Its reputation could be damaged if its results are misrepresented in negotiations or relitigated as corrections to its data emerge – especially in today’s highly politicized environment.
For attribution studies to be robust, they must be based on high-quality long-term data and accurate climate models. Unfortunately, data quality varies considerably from region to region. In many low-income countries, records of meteorological data either are not accessible in digital form or do not exist at all. Low-income countries have fewer weather stations than high-income countries. Moreover, researchers in many low-income countries lack access to resources and infrastructure.
Consequently, fewer attribution studies are conducted in low-income countries, and the results produced in them lack reliability. This leads to a substantial disadvantage for vulnerable states because weaker results make attributions to climate change less certain, which, in turn, significantly limits the applicability of attribution to the Loss and Damage Fund. Therefore, this data gap and the unevenness of research infrastructure worldwide must be considered when applying attribution science to the modalities of the fund.
Using Science in a Pragmatic Way
Regional disparities in data and research infrastructure must be counteracted. Funding needs to be made available for attribution research, expertise, and infrastructure in low-income countries. Archival weather data must be digitized and made accessible. By processing data from weather records and proxy data, climate time series can be extended backwards, and improved models can be developed. The World Climate Research Programme of the World Meteorological Organization, for example, could be commissioned to carry out such initiatives, which can address existing inequalities in preconditions for attribution studies in the long term.
Furthermore, working with averages instead of individual case studies can help prevent disadvantages resulting from comparisons based on unequal data. Instead of attributing total costs related to climate change through exact calculations resulting from a detailed study of a single event, these costs ought to be estimated based on current scientific data. These criteria can then be improved as more knowledge is gained. Not only is this approach more practical and cost-saving than detailed individual studies, but it also yields prompter individual payouts.
If data inequality – the major problem in attribution science – was depoliticized, the Loss and Damage Fund could use attribution science in its day-to-day work. If scientists were to establish criteria to determine which weather events should be financially supported and in what form – and those criteria would also be continually improved according to current data – they could work out averages in climate change causation for different event types and regions on which to calculate climate-related damage. Attribution studies would thus estimate an average percentage contribution of human-induced climate change to the causation of an event type. Based on this, the climate change-related costs of losses and damages could be calculated. This pragmatic application of attribution science to the Loss and Damage Fund would generate greater acceptance and thus a more effective fund.