World Humanitarian Day 2021: The sector’s climate change reckoning

World Humanitarian Day

Climate change is changing the nature and severity of humanitarian emergencies at a terrifying and unprecedented speed. This summer alone, wildfires have ravaged the Mediterranean basin, including in France, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Algeria and Morocco. Deadly heat waves have scorched parts of western Canada and the United States, and floods have decimated parts of Germany and China. In its most recent report, ​​the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued a ‘code red for humanity’ and it stated that much of the human-caused environmental damage is irreversible for hundreds or thousands of years to come.

But many of the world’s most vulnerable people have long-been confronted with the devastating effects of climate change and environmental degradation. In the absence of emergency preparedness, adaptation and resilience plans, millions of those who have contributed least to the global climate emergency have already lost their homes, their livelihoods and their lives. For this year’s World Humanitarian Day, the United Nations aims to highlight the immediate consequences of the climate emergency and put the needs of climate-vulnerable people at the top of the agenda at the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November. 

In order to properly address these needs, humanitarian organisations and humanitarianism itself must undergo massive transformations. Discussions have been taking place over the past several decades about how to improve participation, localisation, emergency preparedness, resilience and adaptation, among other things. But research shows that key challenges and barriers remain, and the humanitarian sector has only recently started to recognize the deeper social, political and economic factors that drive humanitarian and climate change crises. 

Last year, The New Humanitarian news outlet launched a 10-part series called Rethinking Humanitarianismto explore the future of the sector following the disruption brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate change, which relates to this and future global pandemics, is arguably the biggest of the many threats faced by humanitarian workers around the world. In Episode 8 of the series, Aid’s Climate Challenge, host Heba Aly asks what kind of rethink is necessary to the way aid agencies work in the face of this impending threat. She spoke to Paul Knox Clarke, the head of the Complex Humanitarian Crises initiative, and Donna Lagdameo, the senior policy adviser and Asia Pacific focal point for the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre

Among the most important points to emerge from this rich discussion is that while many humanitarian organisations have begun to establish anticipatory approaches to climate change-related disasters, they often do not have a tangible response plan in place for bigger, imminent and more frequent crises. As Knox put it: “Humanitarians are pitching up late, but pitching up to our responsibilities around anticipatory work. The concern I have is, how many humanitarian organisations have not seriously thought about the response part? When a crisis hits and the resilience and anticipation have not covered for that … How are humanitarian agencies going to fit into some sort of huge response for which they’re not financed, not necessarily skilled, and not structured? That is a big and open question.” 

Lagdameo echoed Knox’s concerns and stressed that one of the biggest challenges for the sector is how to build resilience today for the risks of tomorrow. “What is happening right now is we’re responding to current risks, nothing more. In the humanitarian sector, I think what would be really good to see is how to shift the mindset and really focus on risk-informed actions.” 

Building countries’ resilience and adaptation to climate change are among the main goals of the COP26 agenda. How to mobilise the finance needed to build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure and agriculture will be another key question at the upcoming summit. But these questions cannot only be addressed by world leaders on the global stage. People, and particularly young people, must be the medium of change. In order to create and implement the change process needed within the humanitarian sector, students should be given the opportunity to engage critically with the history, politics and social and economic practice of humanitarian action around the world. It is within this context that meaningful discussions around progressive, inclusive and sustainable reform of the humanitarian sector can begin to take shape. 

SOAS is ranked number five in the QS World University Rankings in Development Studies. The university offers a range of study programmes on climate change and development that address important questions about the role of humanity and humanitarianism in responding to climate change. For example, the Climate Change Adaptation module, offered under the MSc Climate Change and Development programme, explores what adaptation means for development, the governance and architecture of adaptation, and how to ‘mainstream’ adaptation thinking into development. Similarly, the MSc Humanitarian Action programme engages with questions surrounding how and where humanitarian aid is given, how critiques of humanitarian aid have impacted humanitarian action and how South-to-South emergency assistance impacts the practice of humanitarianism. To learn more about these and other available programmes, including how to apply, visit the Department of Development Studies website.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in South East Asia and West Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes


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