In a poignantly intimate article, Loss and damage: What happens when climate change destroys lives and cultures? the authors reference a glacier in the Peruvian Andes whose disappearance is equated with the departure of the gods.

This is just one example of non-economic loss and damage (NELD) or intangible loss and damage, which refers to losses that cannot be quantified. In UNFCCC jargon, the term Loss and Damage has been used for many years as countries in the Global South seek recompense from the North to help them address the consequences of a climate crisis for which they bear little if any responsibility. 

In the belief of the Quechua people, Mount Ausangate is a powerful god of the landscape and the decline of the glacier that sits atop it is a sign of the “wrath of the deity”. The glacier’s retreat has also put a stop to the centuries-old practice of collecting small blocks of ice during an annual pilgrimage, which are thought to have healing properties when consumed.

Intangible loss and damage can result from climate-induced harm to:

– Biodiversity and species
– Culture, traditions and heritage
– Ecosystem services or habitat
– Human life
– Human mobility
– Human identity
– Knowledge and ways of knowing
– Mental and emotional wellbeing
– Order in the world
– Physical health
– Productive land
– Self-determination and influence
– Sense of place
– Social fabric
– Sovereignty
– Territory

University of Exeter Professor Neil Adger defines intangible loss and damage as a “catch-all term” for any type of loss that cannot be given a monetary value.

“We’ve got a category of things that are economic – and then we’ve got a category of things that we should really care about. Economics looks pretty unimportant if there’s a risk you’re going to lose your life.”

“Kailash is not the biggest mountain in that area – there are taller mountains – but because of its shape, its look, the sense of spirituality it inspires…if it loses its snow, would it still be Mount Kailash?” asks Janita Gurung, an ecologist who works at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, Nepal.

“For us, in the mountains, it is not just economic possessions that are important, it’s also the karmic accumulation that you have at the end of your life that’s going to decide how you die or how you feel about dying, right? And going on pilgrimages, doing good things – that is what’s going to contribute to that.”