At a turning point – climate change and the responsibilities of humanitarian actors

Author: Andrea Steinke
Date: 17. October 2022

Climate change is going to be the game change to the humanitarian world. How? By sheer necessity. There is no other way. Otherwise, the humanitarian system will be overworking its way into exhaustion and oblivion. The current international humanitarian system is not fit for purpose to stem what is coming its way. The latest IPCC report presented alarming evidence for what is at stake with half of the world’s population living in areas highly vulnerable to climate change. António Guterres called the report “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”. The list of horrifying alerts seems endless: 2015-2021 were the warmest seven years on record. We might have already overturned at least five of the core tipping points of no return influencing the climate. 

At the same time, humanitarian need is skyrocketing. In 2022 alone, 274 million people were projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 14 percent of the year prior – one that already broke the records. These numbers were published prior to February 24, when the Russia-Ukraine war moved to another level. In September 2022, the numbers escalated to 313 million people in need. 

Today, with all of its floods, fires, and storms, also the small but powerful Western world has realized that climate change is no longer only an issue of charity and carbon offsets. It is not “only” about small islands in the Pacific perishing or children starving as a consequence of droughts at the horn of Africa. A large part of the world is on fire, under water, overheating, shook, and dried out, including those parts of the Western hemisphere that have been relatively spared by catastrophic effects of the forces of nature in the past. 

The humanitarian system as a whole, and humanitarian organizations in particular, are not prepared or equipped to face the climate crisis, financially, technically and capacity-wise. Scaling–up and skilling-up are the two core paradigms of the humanitarian future. Change is needed, in the way humanitarian organizations plan and run their operations, in terms of the norms and principles that are the foundation of humanitarian work as well as regarding the humanitarian mandate and its limitations, especially considering its short-term cycled thinking. 

Concerning the normative framework of humanitarian action, the climate crisis might offer the chance to revisit some of its core assumptions by taking a look into the questions of compensation and justice surrounding the discourse on climate change. For decades, the climate justice movement has advocated for political intervention emanating from the vast difference in responsibility for and vulnerability to the effects of the climate crisis. Both are unequally distributed around the globe and often the division is running along colonial fault lines. 

The recent floods in Pakistan make it painfully clear, once more: those who have contributed the least to climate change, have to pay the highest price of climate change. In loss of life and loss of a livable future. While Pakistan’s greenhouse gas emissions account for only 1 percent of the overall total, it is among the ten countries most affected by climate change. In August 2022, one third of the country was flooded, more than one thousand people died, more than 30 million people are internally displaced. A catastrophe for those affected and a massive challenge for humanitarian actors and their responses. 

The flooding in Pakistan is only one example among many, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, laying open the intimate and destructive relationship between colonial models of space and power. Colonized people, people of color and poor people are disproportionally affected by the consequences of climate change, within nation states as well as globally. The poorer the neighborhood the more exposed it is to the effects of climate change, nearly everywhere in the world. The distribution of environmental risks spatially mirrors the historically generated unequal distribution of access to power, capital and knowledge. More often than not, it is exactly this divide that humanitarian action operates in. 

With the accelerating climate crisis, the movement around climate justice gains political momentum. The latest IPCC report of February 2022 featured justice quite ostentatiously. The upcoming COP 27 has chosen its motto: Together for just, ambitious implementation NOW. Also, the discussions around loss and damage for nations severely affected by climate change within the COP context are a start. The Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with climate change impacts formalized the discussion around loss and damage in 2013. The Santiago Network initiated at the COP 25 in 2019 intends to support developing nations with technical expertise. Yet, the question of funding and compensation is still high up in the air. 

Next to the local first responders, international humanitarian organizations are at the forefront of the fight against climate change and its diverse effects and thus need to claim more space, advocate better and make more demands in this discussion. Humanitarian actors can help the loss and damage framework to grow beyond technical support into a compensational mechanism that does justice to the unequal distribution of cause and effects and ultimately into an accelerator for a renewed and revisited understanding of responsibilities and commitments, with additional benefits for internal debates around the normative bedrock of humanitarianism.  

One idea debated mostly behind closed doors so far is using a seat at the table to demand a specific percentage of GDP funding for the climate crisis to allow for scaling-up and skilling-up. A part of that percentage can be reserved to compensate countries affected by climate change within the loss and damage framework. When offset against a possible 18% global GDP loss as an effect of global warming recently projected by the second largest reinsurance company, a 0.7% or even 2% GDP share for measures against climate change seems like a reasonable investment. While the core argument should be one of compensation and shared responsibility, these calculations might also convince those more prone to utilitarian thought.  

As the ones faced with the catastrophic effects of climate change as a baseline of their everyday work it is the responsibility of humanitarian actors to make clear how much the world is at a turning point right now and that mitigating the effects of climate change will be to the benefit of everyone in the long run.  

Andrea Steinke is a research fellow at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). She heads the research project on Climate Change and Humanitarian Action.

This article was first published on the Public Anthropologist Blog.