Loss and damage: Who is responsible when climate change harms the world's poorest countries, and what does compensation look like?

You may be hearing the phrase “loss and damage” in the coming weeks as government leaders meet in Egypt for the 2022 U.N. Climate Change Conference.

It refers to the costs, both economic and physical, that developing countries are facing from climate change impacts that they are unable to adapt to. Many of the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries have done little to cause climate change, yet they are experiencing extreme heat waves, floods and other climate-related disasters. They want wealthier nations – historically the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions – to pay for the harm.

A powerful example is Pakistan, where extreme rainfall on the heels of a glacier-melting heat wave flooded nearly one-third of the country in the summer of 2022.

The flooding turned Pakistan’s farm fields into miles-wide lakes that stranded communities for weeks. More than 1,700 people died, millions lost their homes and livelihoods, and more than 4 million acres of crops and orchards, as well as livestock, drowned or were damaged. This was followed by a surge in malaria cases as mosquitoes bred in the stagnant water.

Pakistan contributes only about 1% of the global greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change. But greenhouse gases don’t stay within national borders – emissions anywhere affect the global climate. A warming climate intensifies rainfall, and studies suggest climate change may have increased Pakistan’s rainfall intensity by as much as 50%.