Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

A Conversation with Saleemul Huq

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Saleemul Huq

On January 19, Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD), joined Chris Field, director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, in a conversation addressing adaptation to climate change in the most vulnerable countries.

Watch the video of the event.

What are your takeaways from COP26 in Glasgow and the focus on loss and damage?

My analogy with where we are now is of the mythical frog in slowly warming water. We've had 25 conferences a party's over more than two and a half decades of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Every year countries come together, they promise to do things. Then they do a little bit but they don't do everything they promised. However, when we came to Glasgow for the 26th Conference of Parties, it was a game changing COP, because prior to that, on August 9, 2021, we had the publication of the Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sixth assessment report. And that was a game changing report, in my view, because for the first time in well over 30 years of IPCC reports, the working group one who are highly qualified scientists and very conservative in what they say, actually came out and said they now had unequivocal evidence that human induced climate change is occurring, and therefore the impacts of human induced climate change because of the temperature increase of well over 1 degree that we have already seen since the industrial revolution are now happening. 

So we have already transitioned into a climate change impacted world no longer something that's going to happen that we have to plan for and anticipate and be prepared for, but something that's already happening and in the UNFCC language, the way we describe that is loss and damage from climate change is our reality and happening. COP26 is the first cop in this new era of loss and damage from climate change, because it's going to get worse. We are now inescapably going to see impacts due to human induced climate change every single day somewhere in the world. 

What are big differences between “loss and damage” and adaptation in terms of climate change impacts?

Loss and damage is actually a euphemism without a definition in the framework convention. And that is deliberate. It's a way for all countries who haven't agreed on everything, to agree on some language that each can then interpret in their own way. It doesn't have an official definition. So there is a functional definition which I use, which is that we use the term loss to refer to things that are completely lost. So if a human life is lost, that's gone forever. If an ecosystem is lost, or a species is lost, it's gone forever and no amount of money given to the victims will compensate them for the loss that's gone. On the other hand, damage refers to things that can be repaired, a road can be repaired, a house can be repaired, an embankment overtop by floods can be repaired. If you have enough money, you can repair the damage that was done. So loss is irreversible loss. Damage is repairable damage. 

The overlap with adaptation is not a fine distinction. It's a fuzzy overlap, in my view, a sort of before and after scenario. Before the impacts happen, we prepare ourselves. That's adaptation. That's what I've been working on for the last 20 years. As you know, I've been a lead author in the IPCC, third, fourth and fifth assessments on adaptation chapters. That's been my bread and butter for a long time, but adaptation is in anticipation of the impacts of climate change. But once those impacts actually happen, they've occurred, loss and damage is now happening, then it's beyond adaptation. 

You’ll recall with Hurricane Ida last year, it hit the coast of Louisiana, but it traveled all the way up to New York and New Jersey, causing floods in New Jersey. And more than 50 people lost their lives in New Jersey in the United States of America, the richest country, most technologically advanced country in the world. And that was climate change. That would not have happened with a normal hurricane. And so even in the United States of America, you're suffering loss and damage. 

How do you measure success in terms of loss and damage or adaptation?

The importance of loss and damage in a scientific context, in my personal view, is that in the future, the success of adaptation and the success of even mitigation will be determined by how much loss and damage we can minimize, because we are not going to be able to avert and minimize all of it. We will have loss and damage from climate change every year everywhere going forward. And so our efforts to minimize it on the one hand are by reducing emissions to keep the temperature below a threshold of 1.5 degrees, and at the same time, our efforts to adapt and be better prepared. All of this goes towards the ultimate indicator being how successfully are we able to minimize the damage and loss that is occurring because of these events and the increased temperature. To me, this is now a new metric for measuring success or failure of adaptation and mitigation efforts going forward.

And how do you think we're doing?

Not well at all. We had 25 years to avert it. We didn't do it. It's happening now. So we have failed the first test. The second test for us now is over the next 10 years, whether we can minimize even worse impacts in the longer term. But the next 10 years is basically locked in. We have to just deal with the impacts as best we can adapt to them and prepare ourselves for them. We must do as rapid emission reduction as we can within those 10 years because that will determine whether or not we can segue into a less than two degrees temperature rise, which would minimize the even bigger impacts of the future. But we are in a climate change world. It is already happened. It is get getting worse, not better. And we just have to be prepared for that.

How can we think about assembling the whole solution to climate change and not only focusing on the negative damages?

Bangladesh is a country of well over 160 million people living in less than 150,000 square kilometers. A tiny little area with a population density of well over 1000 people per square kilometer, which is usually what you find in a city state like Hong Kong or Singapore, not in a country. It’s located on the delta of two of the biggest work rivers in the world. The Ganges Brahmaputra regularly get flooded and hit by cyclones coming in from the Bay of Bengal. It's a very poor country. It's one of the least developed countries, and it is susceptible and very vulnerable to climate change. Now, as it happens in Bangladesh, we have known this for a long time. We developed our own climate change strategy and climate change fund. The National Exchequer is now going 8% of the national budget this year and is allocated to dealing with climate change. 

I often argue that Bangladesh has the highest awareness of climate change in the whole world. You can ask anybody on the street in Bangladesh about climate change, and they'll know about it… We have segued from emphasizing vulnerability, which hasn't gone away, to emphasizing our resilience. 

What do you think about the approach of developed countries towards loss and damage discussions regarding climate change?

To me, this is an extremely non-political end, which is the reality of climate change. It's happening. It's affecting people. We're going to have to deal with it. Whether we accept it as human induced or not human induced, it doesn't make a blind bit of difference. If your house is hit by a fire or a snow storm or a rainstorm, you are in trouble. If my house is hit, I'm in trouble. If I can help you or you can help me, we should do that. We should just do that out of a sense of solidarity, a sense of humanity. And to me, that end of the spectrum of reaching out to each other and helping each other is far more powerful than the other end of the spectrum, which is about reparations or compensation or who pays for this. Those are arguments that will happen. We can't ignore them. But to me, those are not the interesting arguments. The interesting bits are what do we do in practice? How do we deal with the reality of the problem and find ways to help each other deal with the reality of problems? 

How can students best contribute to climate change solutions?

Young people in general, have a major role to play and they're actually being mobilized at scale. I'm sure you're aware of the Friday's for future school kids who come out every Friday all over the world, millions of school kids connected to each other, emulating Greta Thunberg. To me, young people are the future. We need to get them to be much more effective in actual activities and doing things. We need to be capacitating them so that they can go out and become solutions. 

Explore More