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Building climate resilience in conflict zones requires less emergency aid, not more

Humanitarians should see COP28’s new declaration as a chance to start working more closely with others – not as an opportunity for more funding.

People walking around The 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto
COP28, which took place from 30 November until 12 December in Expo City Dubai, featured more humanitarians than ever before at a climate summit.

Launched at COP28 earlier this month, the Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace Declaration marks the first clear recognition by a UN climate conference of the specific climate vulnerabilities of people living in areas of protracted crisis. Signed by over 80 states and 40 organisations so far, it calls for “bolder, collective action” to scale up climate finance and action in these settings. 

But we must be careful that this declaration isn’t used to create a shopping list to fund ever more humanitarian work. Instead, it should be viewed as a chance to rethink the role of humanitarians in building true climate resilience.

Treating the symptoms, not the cause

It has been almost 30 years since Sadako Ogata, the first woman to head up the UN’s refugee’s agency, UNHCR, said: “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” Yet some entities at COP28 were still pushing an unhelpful narrative: one in which climate change is primarily a humanitarian crisis, for which the main response should be to expand the role of humanitarians and their resources.

This is evident in messaging about the climate “crisis” or “emergency”, which brings a sense of urgency focused on individual events – such as flooding or droughts in Libya, Somalia, and South Sudan – and reinforces the impression that anticipating and responding to, rather than preventing, crises is the most critical piece of the climate puzzle.

While this framing works well for fundraising purposes – as evidenced by the UK’s recent decision to sign a blank cheque that considers 30% of all humanitarian aid as international climate finance, or in the launch of the UN OCHA-managed Central Emergency Response Fund’s Climate Action Account, where donors can deposit climate finance – it will not tackle the root causes of climate vulnerability in fragile and conflict-affected states. It could also, as in the case of the UK decision, open the flood gates to double counting of climate and humanitarian funding, where the latter should be new and additional. 

Likewise, while scaling up anticipatory action was a major theme of humanitarians at this year’s COP, we must see it as a last resort and not a starting point. In areas of protracted crisis in particular, where many people are already operating on the margins of adaptation, the ability to cope with new shocks is limited, even when the risks are known.

Unnatural disasters

Ultimately, while humanitarian aid and anticipatory action are crucial for saving lives in the midst of crises, including climate disasters, they cannot bring about the systemic change needed to help fragile and conflict-affected countries to increase their ability to withstand and move forward through climate shocks. To help countries build true climate resilience, we must get to the bottom of what makes a climate hazard a ‘disaster’. 

The fact that fragile and conflict-affected countries are also among the most climate-vulnerable is not just geographic bad luck: People living in these places are particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts precisely because conflict and fragility have undermined the institutions and government support on which they rely to adapt to these shocks.

In such situations, a climate hazard such as a drought or flood can quickly become a disaster, because people lack the ability to anticipate, absorb, or adequately respond to new hazards. (The fact that climate disasters are created – frequently through bad development decisions – is often missed in humanitarian rhetoric, which treats disasters as a naturally occurring phenomenon: an attitude evidenced in lines such as “the rise in the incidence and intensity of climate-related disasters”.)

Building resilience to climate change, therefore, is more than just the work of one sector. It requires us to address the underlying structural problems and inequalities that make people vulnerable to climate shocks.

“The role of humanitarian aid must be the last rung in the ladder: helping to minimise the impacts of – and pick up the pieces of – those disasters that can’t be avoided.”

In this response, the first priority must be to reduce global heating, so we lessen the frequency and severity of future climate-related events. We can then minimise the impact of existing climate change on fragile countries and communities through peacebuilding, development and disaster risk reduction – creating the foundations for countries and communities to better develop markets, institutions and support systems that help them to adapt to climate risks.

Residual risks will then need to be managed via anticipatory action and other tools that can help us act ahead of disasters. The role of humanitarian aid must be the last rung in the ladder: helping to minimise the impacts of – and pick up the pieces of – those disasters that can’t be avoided. Over time, the scale of humanitarian response needed should shrink, as countries are able to build forward better, and the size and frequency of climate-related ‘disasters’ is reduced.

This is not to deny that humanitarians have an important role to play in addressing the climate crisis – but it is a role that requires them to work more closely alongside long-term processes that address the underlying structural problems and inequalities, rather than expand their role and remit.

Humanitarians’ expertise will be invaluable in helping development, disaster risk management, and climate actors navigate the risks of working in difficult and hard-to-access areas, and in sharing critical information about some of the world’s most climate-vulnerable people, through more frequent communication and knowledge-sharing with other sectors. In her speech at the launch of the COP28 Declaration, OCHA’s Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Joyce Msuya, was right to stress that “the need to reach across the humanitarian, development and climate silos” should be the Office’s main offer.

Following the climate, not the weather 

We need a new narrative for the humanitarian sector: one in which anticipatory action, relief, and response are integrated into longer-term measures that tackle the causes – not the symptoms – of climate disasters in areas of protracted crisis.

We must focus not on addressing humanitarian needs in the climate sphere, but rather focus on human needs for resilience, opportunities, and growth – and recognise that people’s climate-related needs can be met in a multitude of different ways, including through mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development. 

We know what can be done better. It involves deepening our understanding of how conflict and fragility impact the various risks that individuals, communities, and systems face – in both the immediate and long term – and working to address them in ways that are tailored to the realities of conflict and fragility. This knowledge must be accompanied by sufficient adaptation finance, which should flow not just towards coping with disasters, but also towards peacebuilding, stabilisation, and socioeconomic development.

To do this well, we need a humanitarian sector that is focused on pulling others into the places it works, not on expanding to fill the gaps: a sector that focuses on being the best it can be as the last resort, when all other links in the chain have failed, not one that assumes it has all the answers; a sector that advocates relentlessly for the rights of the most vulnerable rather than for an increased slice of the climate finance pie. Humanitarians are saying all the right things; the right actions need to follow.

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