The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage (L&D) associated with Climate Change Impacts (WIM) was established in 2013 to advance i) knowledge generation; ii) coordination and iii) support to address losses and damages under the UNFCCC.

So far, the work undertaken by the WIM Executive Committee (ExCom) has focused on enhancing understanding and awareness of the issue and promoting collaboration with relevant stakeholders. Delivering on the WIM’s third function on action and support has lagged behind, and ‘the political’ nature of L&D has often been blamed for this. Key terrains of contention among Parties have included the positioning of L&D governance vis-à-vis the adaptation space and struggles around state liability and compensation. As a way to facilitate discussion on implementation options, recent research has suggested de-politicising aspects of the L&D debate; yet we have very little insight into how the politics are understood within the realm of international L&D governance.

This paper brings an analysis of ‘the political’ into the picture by identifying the complex and underlying issues that fuel contention within UNFCCC L&D negotiations. It gives centre stage to the way different framings of norms and material interests affect the debate, and challenges the tendency in current L&D literature to overlook the socio-historical and political underpinnings of this area of policy-making.

We employ a qualitative multi-methods research design which draws on content analysis of 138 official Parties’ submissions and statements, 14 elite interviews with key current and former L&D negotiators and is built on a foundation of 3 years of participant observation at COPs and WIM meetings. We approach this data with a political ethnographic sensibility that seeks to explore how meanings are constructed within and across different sources of data. Our empirical results show that, rather than being a monolithic dispute, L&D catalyses different yet intertwined unresolved discussions.

We identify five areas of contention, including continued disputes around compensation; conflicts on the legitimacy of L&D as a third pillar of climate action; tensions between the technical and political dimension of the debate; debates over accountability for losses and damages incurred; and the connection of L&D with other unresolved issues under the Convention.