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Humanitarians, scientists, and the battle against climate change

A conversation on joining forces as the planet heats up.

Children play outside a house affected by floodwaters following heavy rains in southern Thai province of Narathiwat on 2 December 2019. Madaree TOHLALA/AFP
Children play outside a house affected by floodwaters following heavy rains in southern Thai province of Narathiwat on 2 December 2019.

In a year when wildfires raged from Australia to the Amazon, floods ravaged urban centres, and 45 million people faced severe food shortages in southern Africa alone, the urgency of addressing displacement and other emergencies linked to or made worse by climate change was increasingly acknowledged across both the humanitarian and scientific sectors.

So what if professionals from the two communities ignored the silos that traditionally keep them in parallel worlds and came together to discuss common concerns – everything from funding gaps to how to communicate amid a babel of alphabet-soup jargon?

As Patricia Espinosa of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) told just such a gathering, they would realise that dealing with the impacts of climate change “is about addressing human suffering and promoting well-being”.

Espinosa was one of seven panelists and two moderators who met via a live-streamed event on the sidelines of both the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, and the UN Climate Change Conference, COP 25, in Madrid.

The rare forum “demonstrates how much we are all realising that we must all work together”, Espinosa said. Addressing the impacts of climate change, bearing its costs, and building greater awareness among the general public is, she said, “a collective responsibility”.

Cooperation could take the form of more regularly and systematically using science to inform humanitarian efforts, or it could include drawing on aid workers’ on-the-ground experiences to feed into the policy work on international climate change negotiations, participants suggested.

Yet humanitarians must push to address the impacts of climate change in ways that reflect the urgency of the situation.

As several speakers noted, adaptation efforts – lowering the risk of climate change impacts through preparatory measures – do not carry enough importance within humanitarian response frameworks, which continue to be tied to delivering aid after disasters happen.

“The shocks and hazards are multiplying, more frequent, more severe.”

Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and a moderator of the event, said the work of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was akin to the bible for climate scientists, but that the humanitarian world “does not have a bible like that”.

With nearly 14 million volunteers affiliated across some 190 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the movement is on the front line of disaster response and serves many of the communities now experiencing the impacts of climate change. Climate-linked disasters already force millions from their homes each year.

Elhadj As Sy, secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said his organisation’s volunteers work with communities facing threats from droughts, to floods, to the increasing scarcity of land and water. “The shocks and hazards are multiplying, more frequent, more severe,” he said.

“We do not need to wait to see floods, cyclical droughts, and dramatic fires,” he cautioned. If we do, “it will become too late for too many.”

As the UN’s recently released annual overview of world humanitarian needs stated: “Climate change is increasing people’s vulnerability to humanitarian crises. The world’s eight worst food crises are all linked to both conflict and climate shocks.”

While speakers emphasised that action and collaboration are needed now, especially in regions where people are doubly threatened by conflict- and climate-induced events, they stressed that no single institution can handle the work on its own; partnerships within and outside the sector are key. So, they stressed, is a longer-term view that allows for investments in local responders and local organisations as well as early warning and preparedness practices – all of which can improve disaster response and prevent loss of life.

If humanitarians and scientists are going to work together, though, it would help if they speak the same language. As one audience member noted, phrases such as “loss and damage’’ – climate-world speak for “humanitarian implications” – can be confounding to outsiders.

Not only do climate and humanitarian professionals speak different dialects of jargon, but the public may understand neither.

“The question of language is very important,” Espinosa of the UNFCCC agreed. “The terminology used in multilateral UN processes is not accessible for the common citizen on the street.”

Here are some of the key topics discussed during the hour-long session. For more on last week’s COP25 and the Red Cross and Red Crescent meetings, see our recent coverage, including takeaways from the Geneva conference.



Patricia Espinosa, executive secretary, UNFCCC

Hoesung Lee, chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Paul Watkinson, chair, Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, UNFCCC

Moderator: Musonda Mumba, chief, Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit, UN Environment Programme


Elhadj As Sy, secretary general, IFRC

Yves Daccord, director general, ICRC

Patricia Danzi, regional director for Africa, ICRC

Regina Gujan, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

Moderator: Maarten van Aalst, director, Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

Focus on prevention: ‘We are not doing enough to anticipate disasters.’

Nearly 168 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance in 2019 because of conflicts and extreme climate events, Regina Gujan of the Swiss Agency for Development noted, citing the UN’s annual overview. Requested funding was nearly $29 billion, yet donors had provided $16 billion for inter-agency appeals. “The needs are big and increasing, and the funding is not enough,” Gujan said.

In a report earlier this year, “The Cost of Doing Nothing”, the IFRC stated that if action is not taken now, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance annually due to the impacts of climate change could double by 2050. Furthermore, financial costs for relieving climate disasters could balloon to $20 billion per year by 2030.

Environmental degradation and climate change affect humanitarian challenges, Gujan added, cautioning that climate change adaptation is not yet prioritised enough in humanitarian work. “There is a lot of focus on delivering aid after disasters,” she said. “We are not doing enough to anticipate disasters. If we work on prevention and work early – we can reduce the impact of natural hazards and save lives.”

Patricia Danzi, ICRC's regional director for Africa, appealed to negotiators in Madrid who were addressing climate change. “Whatever you do, whatever you negotiate, it will always take time for impact to show,” she said. “So, in the meantime, the millions of volunteers – humanitarian actors – will have to fill in.”

Tap local expertise: ‘If you see it, you know it; if you live it, you know it.’

IFRC’s As Sy suggested that the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies can use their permanent presence before, during, and after climate-induced shocks to mitigate risks, alert communities to those risks, and act early to respond. He said there is a need to invest in communities to build local capacities and resilience.

Young people are especially important to building the ability of local communities to withstand the impacts of climate change, he noted. Furthermore, locally available knowledge is often not recognised or acknowledged, he said, noting that farmers have accumulated knowledge and often do their bit to adapt: “If you see it, you know it; if you live it, you know it.”

Invest now: ‘Investment for early action will have a powerful spillover effect.’

“The impact of climate change is real and it challenges the adaptive capacity of society and ecosystems,” IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee told the gathering, calling for immediate action to reduce greenhouse gases.

“I want to particularly highlight food security that will be threatened as a result of worsening climate and also increased competition for land, because the land will be used as a mitigation tool for the rest of the century if we fail to take immediate reductions of greenhouse gases,” he said. “If we fail to take immediate reductions, the world will face increased risks of the loss of biodiversity, increased damage from the ecosystems such that humanity as a whole will suffer from reduced ecosystem services.”

Such action includes investing in new technology and innovations that would bring higher productivity for energy use, as well as laying the foundations for a no-waste or low-waste circular economy.

“Investment for early action will have a powerful spillover effect, impacting other sectors of the economy, improving overall efficiency across human livelihoods,” Lee explained.

Taking immediate action means assuming new costs now, he said, adding, “when we take a somewhat longer view of the investment aspect of taking action, it is very clear that this investment option will give us a great opportunity to make this world cleaner, healthier, and more resilient.”

Note the added threat of conflict: ‘Safety nets don’t exist.’

ICRC's Danzi reminded the gathering about the double threats many communities face as they deal with not only climate events – such as floods and droughts – but also years of conflicts – including communities in Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Sahel region, Somalia, and South Sudan.

“Resilience goes down, safety nets don’t exist,” she said. “What also does not exist, very often, is the presence of the state. Vulnerability goes up, so does fragility, exacerbated by demographic pressure.”

As more people – and their cattle – compete for less fertile land with less safe access, the likelihood of conflict and violence rises, she told the audience.

“Zoom in further. You have to find the most vulnerable.”

As a result, populations are displaced as they flee droughts, floods, and conflicts for urban centres where they frequently live in areas that are unsafe and unhealthy, prone to flooding, or next to garbage dumps. These communities often must take up unsafe practices such as burning wood for charcoal in order to make a living, and as a result contribute to worsening the impact on climate.

Danzi appealed to climate experts: “I can only ask you, please keep negotiating, keep innovating and keep making progress. And always zoom in, look for fertile grounds in terms of your investments, look at the most fragile countries, but then zoom in further. You have to find the most vulnerable in these communities, because these are the ones that will be the most exposed to the risks of climate and violence.”

Take a wide view: ‘How does our work fit in in the wider sphere?’

Paul Watkinson, chair of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice, spoke about how climate scientists could work with humanitarians and pointed to talks on financing the response to humanitarian impacts – “the loss and damage component” – held at COP25.

Such discussions address “how we take on board non-economic losses, the slow onset of events, how we deal with comprehensive risk management, human mobility, and do we mobilise support in the field of action”, he said.

Watkinson also pointed to the task force looking at displacement that was set up after the Paris Agreement as a means of bringing together different communities to address climate change. “We need increasingly to looking beyond our own boundaries, beyond our silos,” he noted. What we must ask, he said, is, “How does our work fit in in the wider sphere?”


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