Climate loss and damage: practical action

The report is a synthesis of different views and analyses of practical action for addressing climate loss and damage. It considers mobilising and innovative finance, assessing needs and delivering actions.

4 Non-economic Loss and Damage

This section considers what non-economic loss and damage is and provides a summary of recent evidence-based research on how it can be assessed and addressed. A selection of case studies are used to expand this summary and exemplify types of loss and of action to address. This is followed by a discussion of possible next steps for addressing non-economic loss and damage.

4.1 Concepts

Received wisdom on the nature of non-economic loss and damage largely stems from technical experts with Global North perspectives. This conceptual basis does not always accurately reflect the experience of people at the climate frontline. Affected communities and societies seldom, if ever, perceive climate impacts as 'non-economic' or 'economic'.[76] This delineation ignores interconnectedness and how economic impacts can cascade into non-economic impacts and vice versa.[77] Box 3 summarises how non-economic loss and damage is incorporated into the UNFCCC.

Box 3 Non-economic loss and damage in the UNFCCC

An influential technical paper commissioned by the UNFCCC in 2013 focused on the different "types" of non-economic loss.[78] The ways this paper proposed to assess and address non-economic loss are still prominent within current non-economic loss and damage discourse. According to this conceptual framework, what is prone to non-economic loss includes items "that are not commonly traded in markets". Moreover, the technical paper proposes a set of main types of non-economic loss and damage that include: life; health; human mobility; territory; cultural heritage; indigenous knowledge; biodiversity; and ecosystems.

At COP18 in Doha in 2012, non-economic loss was included as one of the action areas for the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.[79], [80] While the UNFCCC adopted the terminology non-economic loss, practitioners and researchers have preferred to work on non-economic loss and damage. The inclusion of damage is important as non-economic aspects can sustain damage which can be recoverable. An ecosystem, for example, can be restored (close) to its previous state.

Conceptual understanding of the types of non-economic loss and damage have been scrutinised in recent literature. Pill[81] finds that these typologies are not reflective of the broad range of non-economic impacts that exist; Boyd et al.[82] propose that non-economic losses and damages are potentially infinite as they are dependent on diverse beliefs and worldviews. In an attempt to cohere existing typologies, Serdeczny et al.[83] combine the previous approaches and propose an elaborate conceptual framework containing 30 diverse items distributed among ten meta-categories.

Various characteristics of non-economic loss and damage are important in assessing and addressing actions. First, non-economic losses and damages are incommensurable[84]with economic ones.[85] Moreover, the value assigned to non-economic losses and damages relies on various personal, environmental, 'cultural and socio-economic factors.[86] For example, Hindu communities can value cows more than people following other religions due to the animal's high cultural value within Hinduism. These characteristics complicate quantifying, valuing and monetising non-economic losses and damages.

To avoid the technical and/or north-centric approaches described above, researchers in Bangladesh proposed applying locally led approaches to establish local values for things at risk from climate change.[87] Case study 19 explains how this approach was conducted.

Case study 19: A values-based approach to loss and damage in Bangladesh – ICCCAD & IIED

During a study in north-central Bangladesh on loss and damage, researchers applied a values-based approach. The process starts with the concept of lived values to explore what affected people and societies value most in their daily lives and in the places where they stay.

Together with participants, this data is condensed into a set of local values to guide the assessment. The researchers asked participants to rate the importance of each value on a five-point Likert scale to assess how different groups value various aspects of life. The younger generation values education more, while the elderly gave more priority to health, and women gave more importance to mental health than men did.

This assessment unifies economic and non-economic impacts by assessing both, allowing a more complete reflection of on-the-ground experiences. Thus, a house provides more than shelter: it is a place of memories, hospitality, and safety; a school signifies striving for a better future and knowledge creation; and income allows parents to provide for their families in different ways. Participants in the research emphasised the value of family, religion, nature, education, and health in their lives.

The approach of using predetermined categories in an assessment of loss and damage could unintentionally have the effect of constraining communities' ability to articulate how they experience climate impacts. However, by doing this in a locally led way, the assessment approach will be tailored to the local context and provide flexibility for respondents to articulate the losses and damages using their own language. Moreover, it gives the community the power to determine what researchers will assess. Lastly, a values-based approach to loss and damage highlights the importance of non-economic climate impacts.

4.2 Evidence from research

Non-economic loss and damage has been explored through case studies that either analyse a range of types, or focus on specific aspects, such as biodiversity loss, displacement, or mental health impacts. Most case studies aim to assess how people experience non-economic loss and damage. Some specifically focus on a particular dimension, such as gender and displacement.

Such case studies repeatedly show that experience of non-economic losses and damages is context-specific. In New Guinea, climate change threatens biocultural heritage by causing local extinctions of wild foods[88] and fisherman in the Caribbean face psychological distress at the destruction of their fishing equipment.[89] They also show that climate change impacts can differ within communities. For example, girls in Bangladesh can be forced into arranged marriages earlier due to income loss and food insecurity resulting from climate change[90] and low-income households in Japan face problems in accessing education for their children.[91] However, evidence-based research on non-economic losses and damages rarely looks at intersectional vulnerability, instead defining people by single metrics, such as age, or gender. There is little focus on pre-existing and intersectional vulnerability in the overall loss and damage discourse.[92]

4.3 Different types of non-economic loss and damage

Though not an exhaustive list, to demonstrate the complexity of conceptualising non-economic loss and damage and the variability and intersectionality of such impacts, three types of non-economic loss are considered here: biodiversity; displacement; and, mental health. The following case studies are used to exemplify these types: Losses and damages to ecosystem services in the Artic Circle from ODI, Participatory Resource Allocation of Loss & Damage Funds in the Pacific Islands from Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and Gender-based violence and mental health in Malawi – The Mary Robinson Centre for Climate Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University.


Biodiversity means "the variability among living organisms from all sources, including, inter alia, terrestrial, marine, and other aquatic ecosystems and the ecological complexes of which they are part".[93] Loss and damage in terms of biodiversity can, for example, mean the disappearance of species and/or damage to ecosystems due to changing weather patterns. Reports assessing non-economic loss and damage often have a separate category for biodiversity and ecosystem services.[94] However, these assessments still focus on biodiversity in terms of utility; there are few assessments of the intrinsic value of biodiversity with regard to non-economic losses and damages.[95] Ecosystems and key elements of biodiversity are often of significant cultural value to indigenous people. Assessments of biodiversity loss only consider harm to people, leaving out how climate change can cause losses and damage to, for example, animals, trees, and plants.[96] Thorough assessments of the intrinsic value of biodiversity and harm to the natural world are needed to get a complete picture of climate-related impacts and the effects of future policy. Case study 20 from ODI illustrates these issues.

Case study 20: Losses and damages to ecosystem services in the Arctic Circle – ODI[97]

Around 400,000 indigenous peoples live in the Arctic today, including the Sámi in Sámpi, which covers part of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia's Kola Peninsula; the Aleut, Yupik and Inuit in North America and Greenland; and the Nenets, Khanty, Evenk and Chukchi in Russia. While these communities have diverse cultures and histories, their ways of life have all been fundamentally shaped by their inhospitable natural environment. Most depend heavily on endemic species such as caribou, seals and whales, which provide food, clothing and fuel. Herding, hunting and fishing are also a source of identity and pride, enabling Arctic peoples to use traditional skills and provide for their communities.

Climate change jeopardises this way of life. Thinning and disappearing sea ice affects the Arctic people's ability to hunt seals and whales, while extreme weather events make hunting more dangerous. The Sámi have observed rising ocean temperatures which are shifting some fish stocks from warmer waters into the icy ecological niches to which Arctic species like whitefish and Arctic char have adapted, while ocean acidification is impacting marine species such as corals that make shells and skeletons from calcium carbonate. Warmer temperatures lead to rain on snow, which thaws and freezes into ice and prevents reindeer from finding food underneath. On Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island), the Inuit have observed declining populations of hunted species such as caribou and narwhals.

While current and anticipated loss and damage to natural and cultural heritage has caused profound grief within Arctic indigenous communities, many are leading or contributing to strategies to avert, minimise and address such loss and damage. One strategy involves knowledge exchange among Arctic communities. In Canada, human activities such as logging have contributed to a long decline in some caribou species, while climate change means that moose are increasingly seen in the high elevation alpine tundra and subalpine forests that caribou prefer. The Nunatsiavut government is supporting workshops where First Nations hunters from the Northwest territories can train the Labrador Inuit in harvesting and processing moose. While the Labrador Inuit face a loss to part of their traditional diets and practices, the initiative will enable them to continue subsistence hunting for deer species – a pivotal part of their cultural heritage.


Extreme events, such as tropical cyclones, have caused widespread displacement in vulnerable regions such as small island developing states and in the Bay of Bengal.[98] Climate-induced displacement can lead to migration and can cause economic and non-economic losses and damages, such as a loss of culture, agency, or physical and mental health. For example, drought can impact fresh water supply and crop yield, causing people to migrate from villages to urban areas to find alternative livelihood options.[99] This leads to them having to abandon their local language and culturally relevant places[100]. In some cases, displacement can happen to complete populations. For example, the entire population of Ragged Island in the Bahamas was displaced as a result of Hurricane Irma in 2017.[101] Displacement often means that people face new and possibly greater climate vulnerability as described in the CBF case study 5, and it imposes both economic and non-economic losses and damages.

Case study 21: Participatory Resource Allocation of Loss & Damage Funds in the Pacific Islands, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC)

The goal of this initiative led by UUSC and funded by the Scottish Government through the Climate Justice Resilience Fund is to model a community-led, participatory approach to fund ways of addressing loss and damage associated with climate-forced displacement.

UUSC worked with partners to design an in-person convening in Fiji that brought together frontline communities, grassroots organisations, and regional partners, with equitable representation and meaningful engagement of Pacific Island women, youths, and elders. Various types of civil society groups were included in the meeting e.g. traditional leaders, grassroots organisers, policy and legal advocates, storytellers and activists. Facilitation was provided by the Pacific Climate Warriors, who helped shape the agenda and ensured that the gathering was grounded in traditional, place-based practices and context. There was ample time and space during the convening for participants to relax, restore, and re-connect. There was clarity about how decisions would be made; namely, that the initiatives to be funded would be selected by the communities and UUSC's grassroots partners.

Partners defined that success and impact should be measured through the experiences felt and shared by the communities. They noted that whether a project is successful or not takes time to evaluate, and that one indicator of success would be to secure a long-term funding stream.

At the conclusion of the convening, participants co-created and adopted an outcome statement committing to, among other things: continuous learning, sharing and collaboration; holding decision-makers accountable for sustained climate action; and prioritising loss and damage funds to support communities directly experiencing climate-induced loss and damage.

Projects selected for funding through this process included: piloting organic farming to promote food security and educate youth in Tuvalu; rebuilding water systems; developing an early warning system for climate-related disasters; protecting traditional knowledge through storytelling and intergenerational dialogue.

The convening reaffirmed that sustainably addressing loss and damage means centring the wisdom, experiences, and priorities of frontline communities. When frontline communities exercise their self-determination to respond to the climate crisis, their solutions are more likely to be successful than the solutions proposed by "experts" with less proximity to the problem.

Discussing funding of loss and damage through a non-economic and economic loss and damage framework was found unhelpful in this context. Because communities experience both impacts simultaneously, the distinction was foreign to them.

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee firmly believe in the importance of devolving decision making on what and how to address loss and damage to the local level. Determining needs through consultative processes that are grounded in traditional, place-based practices and context have been used to understand the existential risks from climate induced loss and damage faced by Pacific island communities. This approach is akin to the participatory methods used by SCIAF and partners in Malawi (Case study 10) but adds a cultural dimension through the use of storytelling as a traditional way to share learning and understanding. The finding that the dichotomy of non-economic and economic loss and damage is not useful in this context resonates with the findings in Case study 19 from Bangladesh.

Mental health

Mental health is often referred to as mental or psychological well-being in reports on non-economic loss and damage. Tschakert et al.[102] refer to "a state of positive well-being contributing to mental health, life satisfaction, coping ability, and overall human well-being". Loss and damage can be interpreted from the perspective of value (impacts on something valuable) or harm (impacts that cause harm).[103] Losing something of value or experiencing harm can have profound impacts on mental health. Therefore, mental health can be seen as an overarching aspect of loss and damage, it is always present when losses and damages occur. A study found that depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress are the most common mental health impacts related to climate change.[104] They also found this is particularly true for children, women, and residents of low-and middle-income countries. Mental health impacts can happen immediately, be delayed (e.g. post-traumatic stress), or even be transmitted to later generations.[105] Case study 4.3 provides further insights on this critical topic.

Case study 22: Gender-based violence and mental health in Malawi – The Mary Robinson Centre for Climate Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University

This study aims to put the lived experiences of rural women in Malawi in the spotlight, co-identify approaches with a wide range of stakeholders, and provide recommendations to protect women from the mental health impacts of climate change whilst also addressing gender-based violence. The effects of climate change on gender-based violence and mental health are two of the most prolific yet least understood study areas due to a lack of evidence-based reports. Evidence is crucial to help in our understanding of the issues and rebuild the lives of the people most impacted by climate change. This project collaborates with Mzuzu University, Life Concern, and the Malawian Ministry of Health.

The team used a participatory approach, focussing on learning from grassroots experiences of climate change by women. This allowed them to connect to local perspectives and ambitions and identify potential approaches to people's needs. A gender equality officer was appointed to ensure gender equality across the project. Moreover, a wide range of experts in psycho-social counselling, gender-based violence, women's economic empowerment, and vulnerable populations was engaged. A mental health district nurse was available to provide psychological support to participants during fieldwork. Additional funding was invested for post-project support.

The study resulted in a set of quantifiable indicators: the majority of those surveyed stated that weather changes affected their mental health and well-being, whilst only a small percentage had any coping strategies, and approximately two thirds were aware of gender-based violence in their community being exacerbated by climate change. All of the women took up the opportunity of counselling services offered by the project indicating that women urgently need support.

Quantifying evidence is vital for generating substantial documentation of non-economic loss and damage. However, there are few pre-existing and robust approaches to doing this. Moreover, building trust with communities, placing Indigenous voices at the heart of the process, and empowering women to take ownership in the design and development of practical solutions proved to be the key to success. Challenges in this process were building trust while making sure that processes were safeguarded and procedures followed at all times to ensure that no further distress was caused by having difficult conversations concerning mental health.

4.4 Addressing non-economic loss and damage

As demonstrated in the case studies and discussion above, non-economic loss and damage is highly context-specific and differentiated according to different people's circumstances and characteristics, making actions to address this form of loss and damage challenging. In this section ways to assess and to address non-economic loss and damage are explored using case study evidence from Bolivia and Bangladesh.

Assessing Needs

The UNFCCC[106] has proposed four approaches to measure non-economic loss: economic valuations, multi-criteria decision analysis, risk indices, and qualitative and semi-quantitative assessments. These methods have been applied in the analysis of case studies from different sources to greater or lesser extents. Qualitative assessments are most common. Quantitative approaches are also used, but they risk giving a reductionist view of non-economic losses and damages as they do not encapsulate the contextual factors that mediate climate impacts (Tschakert et al., 2019). Moreover, attempts to attach monetary value to non-economic losses and damages risk "commodifying incommensurable values, and ignoring those that cannot be costed, thereby undermining practices for recovery and renewal".[107] Preston[108] argues that the UNFCCC's four proposed approaches all involve some form of implicit weighting by the experts or decision makers using them, giving external actors, rather than affected communities, a say in what counts and how much it counts.

Addressing Non-economic Loss and Damage

Addressing non-economic losses and damages means devising ways to address these impacts, having first assessed how different people are affected. There are different methods for this, and key lessons are identified here alongside options for further research and future interventions.

Non-economic losses and damages can be irreplaceable or replaceable. Irreplaceable items are those whose value is an "end" in itself, meaning that no other item or aspect of life can replace the loss. Irreplaceable losses can be partially addressed through compensation, such as offering alternative livelihoods to fishermen who lose their cultural fishing grounds. However, such payments cannot restore people's well-being if the losses are irreplaceable.[109] Serdeczny et al. recognise that acknowledging loss is critical in achieving recognition for societies facing irreplaceable losses.[110] McNamara et al.[111] derived a list of 20 measures from peace studies, disaster studies, and approaches used by First Peoples which can address irreplaceable impacts by focussing on recovery, healing and maintaining people-ecology interactions. Their report shows that experts consider measures such as: education and training; documenting and recording traditional and local knowledge; engaging with the natural environment; community activities; and direct action and activism as the most useful ways of addressing these types of non-economic loss and damage.

Replaceable non-economic losses and damages also fulfil specific purposes. Ideally, these can be replaced by different means that serve a similar purpose[112] The intrinsic and cultural values of traditional fishing grounds cannot be replaced once lost. Ecosystems are often valued because they provide resources, such as herbal medication. Thus, a response to the loss of ecosystems can be providing alternative options of medication but the traditional knowledge associated with herbal remedies may be lost.[113]

Non-economic losses and damages are highly differentiated – the associated significance varies between people, communities and regions. For example, in Bolivia, women have fewer livelihood options, meaning that measures aiming to reduce internal migration and preserve cultural heritage should be different for men and women. Measures that address loss and damage should take account of these differences. Case study 23 from WFP explains this issue further.

Case study 23: Preserving Indigenous people's cultural heritage through resilience building – World Food Programme (WFP)

WFP is currently implementing a project to address the climate vulnerability of the Indigenous Uru Murato community who live in Bolivia. The aim is to diversify livelihood opportunities and improve access to water resources, which helps to safeguard and preserve their culture and traditions.

The Uru Murato reside in the altiplano (highlands) of Bolivia on the shores of Lake Poopó, which used to be the country's second largest lake. Lake Poopó is a significant part of the communities' cultural identity. Many of the communities' traditional livelihoods such as fishing and making handicrafts from aquatic plants depend on the natural resources of the lake. However, drought intensified by climate change and water management issues is leading to reduced water levels in Lake Poopó, impacting the Uru Murato's livelihood options and food security, and forcing them to migrate to urban centres. This threatens their cultural heritage, including the potential loss of their language.

In the past five years, WFP has helped members of the Uru Murato community with food assistance. The project has installed nearly 30 kilometres of pipelines to provide the communities with water, four storage tanks, 31 photovoltaic pumps, over ten facilities for small animal husbandry and vegetable production, and two handicraft centres. In addition, the project supported women artisans with technical training on small business management practices and has facilitated their participation in local and national markets to generate income and showcase their culture to a broader audience. This project was developed with the Uru Murato through a participatory and equitable consultative process respecting their norms and traditions and jointly identifying the differentiated and everyday needs, interests and priorities of men, women, and youth.

The activities have contributed to a reduction of migration and, therefore, cultural preservation. At this point, the most crucial lesson is that programmes must be designed and developed in consultation with community members in a way that respects their ancestral knowledge and norms in the process. Moreover, language constraints can also pose a challenge. Thus, it is critical to have a person who can speak the local language and translate during community consultations to ensure the inclusion of older community members. In addition, to implement such a project successfully, it is essential to address gender inequalities.

Through the community consultations, it became clear that there was an unequal opportunity gap between men's and women's livelihood options, with many women dedicating their time to household chores and herding camels. Moreover, many adult women are not formally educated, hampering their access to better income-generation opportunities. It is, therefore, essential to include project activities that directly target and are inclusive of women. In addition, the implementation of this project required relationship and trust building with both the Uru Murato and traditional government authorities, which is crucial for project replication.

Some non-economic aspects of people's lives are closely connected to economic elements. For example, economic stability is closely connected to mental stress.[114] Therefore, restoring a household's economic status after a hazard such as a flood or drought can alleviate some of the mental stress involved. An example is climate impacts on the Puja, a Hindu ritual where flowers and fruits are offered to holy spirits. Hindus in Bangladesh are facing complications holding the Puja as increased salinity levels in ground water impairs their ability to grow fruits and flowers.

Many now must buy these items at the market to keep up their religious practices.[115] This example shows that some non-economic losses and damages can be addressed with financial compensation. However, this measure will rarely fully address the impact. For example, compensating only the market price of fruit and flowers for the Puja does not restore the lost value that Hindus attach to the practice of growing fruits and holy flowers themselves. Case study 4.5 from ICCCAD and IIED provides further information on this area.

Case study 24: Local responses to climate-related non-economic losses and damages – Bangladesh, ICCCAD and IIED

People in coastal Bangladesh are exposed to various climate-related hazards. Sudden onset events such as cyclone Sidr in 2007, Aila in 2009, and Amphan in 2020 caused widespread losses and damages, such as the loss of houses and prolonged waterlogging. However, slow onset processes such as increased temperature, rising salinity levels, and changing rainfall patterns significantly impact the livelihood of communities already living in subsistence conditions.

The study was guided by ten pre-determined types of non-economic loss and damage derived from the literature. The structure of the study is in two parts. First, it explored what non-economic losses and damages people in coastal Bangladesh experience.

Second, it examined existing local responses to these impacts. The study focuses on local-level experiences by conducting interviews and group discussions with affected communities, primarily with housewives, day labourers, and small-scale farmers. Participants were Muslim, Hindu and Munda.

Women in the research area face a wider range of non-economic losses and damages and experience some to a greater extent, especially regarding mental and physical health. Causes for this include household responsibilities and substantial exposure to saline water, which can cause skin disease and gynaecological issues. Impacts also differed per religion. Munda people cannot find culturally relevant food, the disappearance of cows creates problems regarding Hindu rituals, and Muslims cannot always attend the mosque or madrassa (Quran education).

Affected communities have formulated coping responses to almost every impact. For example, they pray when facing mental stress and replant trees lost due to cyclones. However, these responses rarely restore these aspects of their lives to previous levels as they need more adaptive capacities, such as financial resources or access to public services. Moreover, coping response mechanisms often come with additional cost, putting an additional financial burden on people already living in subsistence conditions. Interventions to address loss and damage could improve this by providing financial resources to enhance local responses.

4.5 Key Findings

Non-economic losses and damages result from complex human-environment interactions and are influenced by people's experiences and perceptions. This means that people living in different socio-economic situations and holding different belief systems will experience and perceive non-economic loss and damage differently. It also means that some groups will be more exposed and therefore vulnerable to impacts of slow and sudden onset hazards.

Previous evidence-based studies on non-economic loss and damage have not focused on vulnerability and, instead, often take a normative perspective concerning communities or societies. Moreover, the few studies that focus on differentiated vulnerabilities do not account for intersectional experiences of non-economic loss and damage. However, it is possible to disentangle the drivers of vulnerability and assess who face most losses and damages.[116] Examining and addressing the root causes of vulnerability is not only crucial to minimise future loss and damage, it can also be part of developing compensatory measures to achieve just, fair, and effective outcomes that reduce inequalities and vulnerabilities on a long-term basis.

Investigation into non-economic loss and damage largely focuses on assessing the different impacts that people experience. This research is crucial due to the potentially infinite ways this experience happens, especially in regions where there have been few studies explicitly focusing on non-economic loss and damage. Therefore, future research should increase its focus on the needs of affected societies with regard to non-economic losses and damages to ensure that funds will be utilised effectively and fairly. This means engaging with affected societies to map their experiences and to find solutions by gathering their perspectives on addressing these complex, subjective, and sometimes irreplaceable losses and damages.

Letting go of pre-determined typologies of non-economic loss and, instead, adopting a locally led approach is one way of helping outsiders to understand local peoples' experience and insights. Affected societies can establish the parameters that studies focus on and thereby have a voice in process, thereby transferring the power from decision-makers to affected societies. Another way of doing this is applying narrative and first-person storytelling that can give those affected the chance to reveal underlying worldviews that shape their perspective on non-economic loss and damage.[117] Moreover, assessments should start to include impacts on the natural world to adequately report the range of impacts resulting from climatic hazards.

Implementation strategies that are participatory, use intersectional gender transformative methods, shift decision-making power to local levels, and are context-specific are not new and they are beginning to frame climate justice and international development best practice. This is particularly relevant for non-economic loss and damage as the case studies above have illustrated.



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