IPCC Vice Chair, Dr Adelle Thomas on addressing the “third pillar of climate action”: Loss & Damage 

By Climate Champions | May 27, 2024

As the 4th International Conference on Small Island Developing States begins, Dr. Adelle Thomas, Climate Adaptation Lead of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and IPCC Vice Chair of Working Group II, emphasizes the critical challenges these nations face due to climate change.

With economic constraints and high debt levels, SIDS struggle to allocate sufficient funds for crucial climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Dr. Thomas advocates for innovative financial solutions such as debt relief and climate swaps that deliver climate justice to those most impacted. She stresses the necessity for increased international financial support to close the significant adaptation finance gap, enabling these island nations to more effectively combat the impacts of climate change which they have not caused.

Economic constraints make it particularly challenging for SIDS to respond to the impacts of climate change. Many SIDS have high and unsustainable levels of debt, limited economies of scale, significant reliance on imported goods, and trade policies that do not consider the small export capacities of these island nations.

Servicing these debts in the context of these structural characteristics shifts scarce national resources away from sustainable economic development, climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction, which in turn increases vulnerability to climate change.

For example, in 2015, the Caribbean region’s total debt service payments represented on average over 20% of total government revenue. This means that money that could be going towards investments – that would decrease vulnerability to climate impacts, or to improve the lives and wellbeing of citizens – was instead going towards repaying debts, often at high interest rates.

The debt that island nations incur often also increases after the impacts of an extreme event. Tropical cyclones that have been increasing in intensity due to climate change are more destructive, causing in some cases multiple times the annual GDP of a small island state.

So, we see multiple forms of injustice, where SIDS that contribute the least to the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change are suffering disproportionate impacts and going into debt to respond to these impacts. As a result, scarce resources are shifted away from sustainable development and SIDS are placed on a downward spiral of debt and increased vulnerability to climate change.

There is clearly a need for new approaches to respond to these challenges. Debt relief, debt restructuring, and debt-for-climate swaps have been identified as modalities that can address the crippling debt facing SIDS and increase climate action. However, what must underpin any of these modalities is a climate justice lens which highlights that SIDS are being tasked with responding to outsized climate impacts that they are not responsible for.

Loss & Damage

The international community has begun to take steps towards addressing loss and damage with the creation of the UNFCCC Loss and Damage Fund. The pledges made by countries at COP28 were the beginning of a much needed process to get funding and support to communities that are already being devastated by climate impacts. However, there is much more that remains to be done.

This year is a critical time for the Board of the Loss and Damage Fund to flesh out the details that will make the fund operational. This includes selection of the Executive Director, ensuring that the World Bank is able to meet the requirements of the Fund, selection of a host country for the Fund, and access modalities.

There is also a need for increased pledges of  finance for the fund and most importantly turning these pledges into commitment. The pledges that were announced at COP28 for the Fund are nowhere near the scale needed to actually respond to loss and damage on the ground.

Developing countries have estimated a minimum of US $300bn per annum is needed to have a meaningful impact on addressing loss and damage. Increasing pledges and commitments from developed countries to meet these needs is critical.

Additionally, the new collective quantified goal for climate finance is now being discussed in the UNFCCC. This will replace the US $100bn goal that was unfortunately never met. It is imperative that loss and damage finance have an individual sub-goal  with others on mitigation and adaptation. This will help to cement recognition of loss and damage as the third pillar of climate action and acknowledge the scale of accessible and reliable finance that is needed to address escalating impacts of climate change.

The most significant barrier to adaptation in SIDS is the lack of financial support

International support is critical for adaptation in SIDS. SIDS are faced with limited national resources that are being used to support sustainable development. Most SIDS acknowledge that adaptation is an additional burden that requires international support to address. Multiple studies, including the IPCC, have found that the most significant barrier to adaptation in SIDS is the lack of financial support.

Without the financial resources that are needed to adapt, SIDS have been stuck in a pattern of adaptation planning and only being able to implement small pilot adaptation projects. There is simply not enough money available for SIDS to access that will allow for adaptation at the scale that is needed to significantly reduce climate risks. This adaptation finance gap will only increase as global temperatures rise and the risks of climate change increase. It is therefore imperative that financial support is provided for adaptation in SIDS.

SIDS have been outsized advocates for ambitious climate action, having for decades experienced disproportionate risks that climate change poses for island nations. SIDS, through the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), have been stalwart advocates of not giving up on the need to address loss and damage and their persistence has paid off with recent and long-overdue advancements in loss and damage governance and finance.

AOSIS’s efforts have paved the way for all developing countries to now have a forum and modalities to address the barrage of climate impacts that they are experiencing by those that have contributed the least to climate change. The effectiveness of SIDS in advocating for policies that are critical to their development cannot be over-emphasized. AOSIS has exemplified the Bob Marley lyric: “If you are the big tree, We are the small axe”


From the Climate Champions: At COP28 in Dubai Loss and Damage was one of the key issues being discussed with the adoption of the decision to operationalise the Loss and Damage Fund (LDF). The negotiations on the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage (SNLD) then became the key focus of Loss and Damage negotiations as Parties worked to select the host of the SNLD secretariat, elect the members of the SNLD’s Advisory Board and agree to any other matters needed to enable the Santiago Network to begin catalysing the delivery of technical assistance to developing countries, as soon as possible.

A new publication analyses the decisions taken in Dubai — and where necessary those taken at COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh — which included not only the decision on the SNLD but also related decisions on the LDF, the first Global Stocktake of the Paris Agreement, and the Executive Committee of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage. The briefing then turns to outlining the fundamental role of the SNLD’s Advisory Board, before unpacking its first meeting — which took place from the 18-20 March 2024, in Geneva, Switzerland. The brief concludes with a timeline of work for the year ahead that would ensure a fully operational Santiago Network by the time Parties arrive in Baku, Azerbaijan for COP 29 in November 2024.

Read the briefing here

The views expressed by the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or opinions of Climate Champions or any affiliated organizations.

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