There is a lot of hue and cry about the issue of loss and damage at the current Conference of the Parties (COP-19). For those unfamiliar with the topic, in a nutshell the loss and damage discussion is one of attributing particular events and their impacts on poorer countries to climate variability and change that has, to this point, been largely driven by activities in the wealthier countries. At a basic level, this question makes sense and is, in the end, inevitable. Those who have contributed the most (and by the most, I mean nearly all) to the anthropogenic component of climate change are not experiencing the same level of impact from that climate change – either because they see fewer extreme events, more attenuated long-term trends, or simply have substantially greater capacity to manage individual events and adapt to longer-term changes. This is fundamentally unfair. But it is also a development challenge.

The more I work in this field, and the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the future of development lies in creating the strong, stable foundations upon which individuals can innovate in locally-appropriate ways. These foundations are often tenuous in poorer countries, and the impacts of climate change and variability (mostly variability right now) certainly do not help. Most agrarian livelihoods systems I have worked with in sub-Saharan Africa are massively overbuilt to manage climate extremes (i.e. flood or drought) that, while infrequent, can be catastrophic. The result: in “good” or “normal” years, farmers are hedging away very significant portions of their agricultural production, through such decisions as the siting of farms, the choice of crops, or the choice of varieties. I’ve done a back-of-the-envelope calculation of this cost of hedging in the communities I’ve worked with in Ghana, and the range is between 6% and 22% of total agricultural production each year. That is, some of these farmers are losing 22% of their total production because they are unnecessarily siting their fields in places that will perform poorly in all but the most extreme (dry or wet) years. When you are living on the local equivalent of $1.25/day, this is a massive hit to one’s income, and without question a huge barrier to transformative local innovations. Finding ways to help minimize the cost of hedging, or the need for hedging, is critical to development in many parts of the Global South.

Therefore, a stream of finance attached to loss and damage could be a really big deal for those in the Global South, something perhaps as important as debt relief was to the MDRI countries. We need to sort out loss and damage. But NOT NOW.

Why not? Simply put, we don’t have the faintest idea what we are negotiating right now. The attribution of particular events to anthropogenic climate change and variability is inordinately difficult (it is somewhat easier for long-term trends, but this has its own problem – it takes decades to establish the trend). However, for loss and damage to work, we need this attribution, as it assigns responsibility for particular events and their costs to those who caused those events and costs. Also, we need means of measuring the actual costs of such events and trends – and we don’t have that locked down yet, either. This is both a technical and a political question: what can we measure, and how should we measure it is a technical question that remains unanswered. But what should we measure is a political question – just as certain economic stimuli have multiplier effects through an economy, disasters and long-term degradation have radiating “multipliers” through economies. Where do we stop counting the losses from an event or trend? We don’t have an answer to that, in part because we don’t yet have attribution, nor do we have the tools to measure costs even if we had attribution.

So, negotiating loss and damage now is a terrible idea. Rich countries could find themselves facing very large bills without the empirical evidence to justify the size of the bills or their responsibility for paying them – which will make such bills political nonstarters in rich countries. In short, this process has to deliver a bill that everyone agrees should be paid, and that the rich countries agree can be paid. At the same time, poorer countries need to be careful here – because we don’t have strong attribution or measurements of costs, there is a real risk that they could negotiate for too little – not enough to actually invest in the infrastructure and processes needed to ensure a strong foundation for local innovation. Either outcome would be a disaster. And these are the most likely outcomes of any negotiation conducted in blindly.

I’m glad loss and damage is on the table. I hope that more smart people start looking into it in their research and programs, and that we rapidly build an evidence base for attribution and costing. That, however, will take real investment by the richest countries (who can afford it), and that investment has not been forthcoming.  If we should be negotiating for anything right now, it should be for funds to push the frontiers of our knowledge of attribution and costing so that we can get to the table with evidence as soon as humanly possible.