PARIS (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Hurricane Katrina brought storm surges crashing into New Orleans in August 2005, Beverly Wright lost all her family photographs, going back to her great grandparents, in the flood.
“You cannot replace all of the memorabilia, or pictures you cherish and pass on from person to person,” said the executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “There are things that cannot be replaced monetarily.”
She gave this as an example of “loss and damage” from climate change, and told journalists at the U.N. climate change talks in Paris that experts are still figuring out how to address people’s loss of homes, community culture and family stability after they are hit by extreme weather or rising seas.
New Orleans has changed since the Katrina disaster, she said. Some black households forced to flee their homes are still trying to go back but rents are now too high and public education can be difficult to access, she said.
In the climate negotiations, there is still a lack of clarity on what “loss and damage” is, and how to resolve it.
That is one key reason experts say a permanent mechanism to deal with it must be anchored in the new global deal on climate change due to be sealed at the Paris summit next week.
Humanitarian agencies say loss and damage is the harm that occurs when stresses made worse by global warming - such as prolonged droughts and melting glaciers - are too severe for people to overcome.
“For too long, reducing emissions and scaling up adaptation support has been hopelessly inadequate,” said Sandeep Chamling Rai, an adaptation expert with green group WWF.
“This has resulted in worsening climate change impacts that exceed the ability of people and ecosystems to cope.”
WWF and two aid charities, ActionAid and CARE, urged negotiators in Paris to agree to extend an existing U.N. body on loss and damage, set up in 2014, beyond its 2016 lifespan.
The Warsaw International Mechanism was established in the face of opposition from the United States and some other industrialized countries that worried it could be used to make them pay for the cost of climate damage.
The mood shifted after developing countries - which see loss and damage as a key issue since they are worst-hit - stopped linking it to compensation obligations.
Washington and the European Union now recognize the importance of including it in the outcome of the Paris talks, but how to do that remains a sticking point.
President Barack Obama made a point of meeting with the leaders of five island nations while in the French capital this week to help open the summit.
Afterwards, Marshall Islands President Christopher J. Loeak said Obama had confirmed “he will stand with the island states as we enter the final stretch of negotiations on a new international climate agreement”.
Commentators took that as a positive sign on the loss and damage discussions. Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists said “the atmospherics ... seem to have improved”.
But negotiators have yet to agree on compromise text on the issue, and may not do so before a Saturday deadline to submit a new draft deal before ministers take it up next week, he added.
At issue, said the European Union’s top negotiator Elina Bardram, is where loss and damage is placed in a “Paris package”.
Developing countries want it in the binding agreement that is expected to form the core of that package. But some rich nations have been pushing for it to be included in a set of accompanying decisions that will not have legal force.
Todd Stern, the U.S. special envoy for climate change, told journalists on Wednesday that Washington is “supportive of the concept (of tackling loss and damage) broadly speaking” but would not “accept the notion of liability and compensation” being part of it.
“We are making progress,” he said, referring to the president’s meeting with small island states, but added the “conversation will continue for a while”.
Developed countries have been quick to get behind the expansion of insurance against weather hazards for the poor as a potential solution, with the launch of the G7 Climate Risk Insurance Initiative this summer.
But experts in Paris said that would only be a partial answer to the problem, and could not address the displacement of people by rising seas or melting glaciers, for example.
Farah Kabir, head of ActionAid in Bangladesh, said some of the vulnerable communities she works with have had to move 30 times in 15 years due to erosion of crumbling river banks and cyclones.
“How do you compensate them for the loss of the graveyard of their mother or father?” she asked.
Farmers are becoming fishermen or rickshaw pullers because they can no longer earn money from growing crops, and some have had to migrate to seek work.
“They are faced with so much uncertainty,” Kabir said.
Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org