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Climate Change

One thousand ways to experience climate loss


Article: Tschakert, P., N.R. Ellis, C. Anderson, A. Kelly, and J. Obeng (2019). One thousand ways to experience loss: A systematic analysis of climate-related intangible harm from around the world. Global Environmental Change, 55, 58-72.

This article was originally posted in April 2019. It has been re-posted here following a server issue in which the original post was accidentally removed.

Figure 1: Flooding in Mozambique after Cyclone Idai (photo: Twitter / @wfp_mozambique).

Climate-driven shifts in our atmosphere and ocean have already caused devastation to our environment and its inhabitants. To name a few examples: more catastrophic tropical cyclones fueled by ocean heat have cost coastal communities billions of dollars; 50% of coral reefs have died in just two years due to bleaching from warmer waters; and ocean ecosystems are becoming less diverse and less productive amid unprecedented warming. These shifts are sensitive to even just 0.5°C of extra warming and could produce multiple climate hazards at a time, threatening our environment, health, food supply, infrastructure, and livelihoods.

As a student of oceanography, I tend to focus on the physical and biological processes that lead to these environmental effects, most of which are driven by warming due to greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. This month, I decided to write about a climate study that tackled something different: the experience of harm and loss due to climate change.

A science of loss

“They are saying, ‘I’ll take you for one night.’ I had visions of having to carry my belongings round every bloody different night because no one, nobody will take you. I was becoming homeless, there was nowhere else to go.”
– a UK woman displaced for 1 year due to flooding in Carlisle in 2005
(Carroll et al., 2009)

Researchers from a 2016 study outlined a science of climate loss as a way to study our experience of unavoidable loss in a world of frequent and concurrent climate hazards. They describe loss as arising “when people are dispossessed of things that they value, and for which there are no commensurable substitutes,” pointing out that harm and loss are often intangible – that is, unable to be defined explicitly. Intangible harm and loss occurs amid more direct and taxing loss of money, property, health, and loved ones, often making it easy to devalue or overlook. What people value but may not be able to touch or even concretely describe – such as natural sites, social practices, cultures, sense of self, stability, and belonging – can often slip away barely acknowledged.

Research on climate harm and loss aims to investigate different forms of them, and determine  which of them and for whom they are considered important. The hope is to provide space to confront rather than ignore the complex ways we experience harm and loss, and by doing so, engage with our grief and find the motivation to seek change.

One thousand ways to experience loss

“I don’t like my children to see me upset because it upsets them. I have gone to the farm and I’ll stay there for hours and cry loudly. I’ll cry for my son’s woes, my daughter’s destiny, my husband’s hopelessness and my family’s poverty. Then I go home and act as if nothing has happened.”
– a woman experiencing drought in Iran (Keshavarz et al. 2013)

Dr. Petra Tschakert of the University of Western Australia and her co-authors published a recent study that applied this “science of loss” to our current world by collecting a number of peer-reviewed studies that examined how people and communities have already experienced climate-driven harm and loss. By interpreting these case studies, the researchers sought to outline the climate-driven intangible harm and loss that has already been experienced and how it has affected people.

Case studies were selected by establishing a list of personal and cultural values threatened by climate change. These included values such as: our cultures, traditions, and heritage; our knowledge and intellect; our mental, emotional, and physical well-being; our social environments; and so on. After screening each study for quality, details, and scope, 106 total studies were chosen for interpretation of interviews, surveys, and discussions contained within them. They were organized according to values addressed, methods, degrees of harm experienced (at-risk, damage, and loss, with loss being the most severe), and geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts. They covered a variety of climate stressors around the world, including drought, flooding, extreme heat and storms, wildfires, sea level rise, and ice melt. Combined, these studies documented more than one thousand ways that people have already experienced harm and loss from climate-driven events.

What can we learn from loss?

The study revealed a myriad of ways that climate harm and loss can manifest physically, mentally, and emotionally in people’s everyday lives over a range of geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic contexts. One key finding was that intangible loss in poorer countries had not been represented equally among the chosen studies.

“That stuff [unusual season recurring], that to me is taking away our culture, it’s taking away our traditional lifestyle, it’s taking away our heritage, it’s nipping into who we are, ice people, […] people of the snow.”
– an indigenous community member experiencing melting ice due to warming in Canada
(Wolf et al. 2013)

Studies in higher-income countries (such as the US, Canada, and in Europe) placed more emphasis on intangible climate loss – that is, loss of identity, self-determination, dignity, and so on. On the other hand, studies from lower-income and impoverished countries (such as in sub-Saharan Africa) focused more on the loss of basic needs and immediate survival – like health, economic opportunities, and human life. For instance, “loss of identity” was discussed in 58% of studies in high-income countries, and not once mentioned in studies of low-income countries. This result highlights the variable representation of loss for different socioeconomic circumstances. Lower-income countries, despite experiencing the same types of climate events, could therefore be experiencing a degree and complexity of harm and loss vastly underestimated by researchers.

The study also pointed out how climate stressors can threaten personal well-being in multiple ways simultaneously. They noted that indigenous peoples rely more strongly on nature for their health and livelihood, suffering climate-driven harm to their lands and harvests. At the same time, indigenous peoples revere natural wonders such as glaciers and the snow-covered high mountain peaks of the Andes and Himalayas that are melting in warmer temperatures. In this way, these communities experience multiple layers of loss, both tangible and intangible, concrete and spiritual, which amplifies harm to the community. Compounding effects can overwhelm a person’s ability to cope with loss, but it is often overlooked by researchers who do not share the same values. Who, then, gets to decide what types of harm and loss are considered tolerable or intolerable?

A way forward

Figure 2: The Andes between Chile and Argentina (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Different degrees of climate-driven harm are gradually becoming ubiquitous. This study provides some of the first empirical evidence for the complexity of this harm in nearly 50 countries across the world. While there are no simple links between climate stressors and the intangible loss they may cause, this study has outlined the nuanced ways that people have been affected by abnormal conditions likely caused by climate change in different cultural and socioeconomic contexts.

It has also raised important questions about how climate loss should be approached in future studies. For example, how do personal and cultural values affect a person’s sensitivity to climate change? Who gets to decide whether intangible loss centered around certain values is considered acceptable or unacceptable? These questions are key to defining what climate justice might look like for humanity, particularly the most vulnerable and disenfranchised communities of the world.

The researchers suggest a more socially engaged approach to navigating climate loss by taking account of the cultural differences and systemic inequalities that permeate humanity. By allowing space for underrepresented communities to tell stories of their experiences, we could restore hope by allowing people to embrace loss, grieve, and collectively adapt to a rapidly changing world.


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