Most of the ancient ruins that Moses Ittu, 67, a resident of Lelu Island in the Federated State of Micronesia, visited and played around during his childhood have since disappeared into the ocean.
In the last few decades, residents of the island have increasingly used the ancient stones to build walls to shield their homes and livelihoods from pounding waves and creeping sea water. "The sea keeps on rising, and the people need to protect themselves," Ittu told researchers who studied adaptation in response to coastal erosion in Micronesia for The Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries initiative at the U.N. University in Bonn, Germany.
Micronesia is one of nine nations that researchers recently reviewed in a report assessing loss and damage from climate change. Researchers conducted 3,269 household surveys, more than 200 focus group discussions and open interviews about the economic, social and cultural losses incurred by climate stressors in Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Micronesia, Mozambique and Nepal.
The multicountry studies found that the residual impacts of climate stressors, including floods, sea-level rise and droughts, occur even though adaptation measures seem enough. Researchers also point to irreversible cultural and social impacts that could exceed monetary loss as a topic that should infuse climate negotiations this year and into the Paris talks in 2015.
An overview of the nine studies was published in time for negotiations in Warsaw, Poland. In November, countries will meet for the 19th session of the Conference of the Parties for negotiations under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, where loss and damage from climate variability and climate change will be vital to discussions.
The limits of adaptation are the underlying focus of the study, said Kees van der Geest, a co-author of the overview and senior researcher at the U.N. University's Institute for Environment and Human Security. Koko Warner, the executive director at the university’s Institute for Environment and Human Security, was also an author of the overview published in the International Journal of Global Warming.
People 'beyond their capacity to adapt'
After the climate science has been established and the role of emissions pinpointed, solutions now rest on developmental issues that cause vulnerability to climate stressors.
"There are limits to adaptation and limits on vulnerable communities when they are beyond their capacity to adapt," van der Geest said.
"We see that the situation is partly because of a lack of success in global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but when you go to a rural community in Africa, Asia or the Pacific, then the kinds of questions you need to ask is which ways they incur damage and how they make efforts to adapt."
The Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries initiative particularly focuses on the gradual or slow-onset effects of climate change like sea-level rise, subsequent saltwater intrusion into land, and droughts.
Extreme droughts that occurred in 2004 and 2010 in northern Burkina Faso led to migration and loss of traditional practices in pastoral populations. Researchers examined the impact of the droughts on households in 10 villages. Of the respondents, 96 percent experienced negative effects on their crops and 87 percent said their livestock suffered losses. The cascading impacts, which begin with the lack of water affecting crop yields, affect food security and capacity to cope with future events, the study says.
Compared with weather events like floods or cyclones, the droughts are a slow-onset manifestation of changing climate. Yet compared with glacial melt or sea-level rise, drought is an immediate impact that also alters traditional and cultural practices.
During the Burkina Faso droughts, pastoralists lost entire herds and were forced to venture into agriculture, giving up a way of life or moving to other areas to herd other people's cattle.
"Reduced mobility and increased integration of crop production and livestock raising seems to have made people more vulnerable in times of extreme drought," the study says.
When shock overcomes resilience
At the household level and in response to the extreme droughts, respondents reported ways in which they coped. Among respondents, 87.1 percent changed their food consumption, and 41.3 percent said migration was an option to deal with the droughts.
"When their main source of food disappears, a community is resilient when they can recover from a shock that is not erosive in the long term," van der Geest said.
As policymakers use the term "resilience" to further convey stronger infrastructure or more efficient food delivery systems, that road is becoming more of a zigzag than a straight line.
"Resilience has become the opposite of vulnerable, but it's not exactly the opposite," van der Geest said.
"Resilience is the ability to bounce back before a shock, which has to do with vulnerability. A way to address loss and damage would be to support people to become more resilient to these climate stressors or to make people less vulnerable."
Such a shock occurred in Bangladesh in 2009 when Cyclone Aila lashed the coast and flooded agricultural lands with salt water. Years before the cyclone, a government-backed adaptation initiative led to the development of saline-tolerant rice to combat increasing saltwater intrusion. After Aila, farmers experienced three years of low harvest, revealing the limits of developing nations' ability to adapt.
The nine studies attempt to go beyond purely material losses and shed light on under-represented social and cultural losses incurred due to climate change.
Iris Monnereau, a co-author of the study on Micronesia, recalled how a resident on the main island of Kosrae used his own money to jump-start funds for building a seawall.
"The seawall we have is not enough, and when it floods, the water comes right up to the house," Alek Alokoa, 64, told Monnereau and her fellow researcher last July.
Futile struggles with a rising sea
To stop the flooding in his bakery, Alokoa decided to use his and his wife's own money to buy 150 bags of cement. "Not all at once -- every month, I would buy a few bags and cement the area in the back," he said. The project cost $500, which is as much as their bakery's revenue in three months.
After residents built seawalls, the government moved to build a barrier in 2004, followed by Alokoa's most recent initiative.
In more dire situations, Monnereau said, villagers pile trash, logs, car tires and other material to defend their homes and livelihoods.
At times, "there is nothing else to use other than rocks and material from ancient heritage sites," she said. Villagers are also ending an ancient practice of burying loved ones near their homes due to the rising sea, the study says.
"They have limited technological capacities and finances, which have certain implications on culture that are irreversible -- giving up their private land, changing customs and moving elsewhere."
In some areas, seawalls are causing more coastal erosion. Other alternatives include gabions, or cages, of net or metal wire that are filled with rocks to fortify shorelines. Compact underwater gabions also dot the surrounding reefs to absorb the energy of waves, while tree planting helps prevent water inundation.
Most efforts are based on trial and error and have yet to receive enough institutional funding from the government or international sponsors.
"The lives of the pastoralists [in Burkina Faso], in a way, is similar to the experience of these atolls," van der Geest said. "The place is no longer habitable, and in some cases, it no longer exists. There's a discussion about whether or not migration is adaptation."
Each study shows how vulnerable nations are already experiencing the impacts of climate change.
"But migration can be a successful adaptation that would vary from case to case. The more voluntary the migration, the more successful it is."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of focus groups researchers studied for the Loss and Damage in Vulnerable Countries initiative.