Although changes in climate do not cause extreme weather events, most climate scientists believe that they do influence the events’ frequency, duration, and intensity. While the gradual warming of the planet is certainly a cause for concern, the extreme weather events associated with climate change pose some of the greatest challenges to humanitarian professionals. Rising sea levels and altered ocean currents make storms more severe, while rising air temperatures contribute to an increased risk of drought. When combined with existent vulnerability, extreme events such as drought, flooding, and hurricanes create disasters that wreak havoc on the lives and livelihoods of the affected populations. As of 2012, climate change is responsible for an average death toll of 400,000 individuals per year, including 1,000 children per day. These deaths are largely attributed to the communicable diseases that arise after major floods and drought-related hunger and disease. (Climate Vulnerability Monitor, 2012.)
Extreme weather events also heighten the likelihood of conflict. As refugees flee from disaster areas, they are at risk of coming into tension with residents of the new host areas. The social consequences of a disaster, therefore, reach beyond the domestic changes in demographics, economies, and infrastructure; the effects of climate change have the potential to reach even those countries that are directly unaffected.
Climate Change and Vulnerability
In this context, vulnerability refers to the extent to which climate change can damage a system. The relationship between climate change and vulnerability is cyclical: disasters resulting from climate change at once arise from and contribute to vulnerability. This exposure can be attributed in part to the geographic proximity of many of the poorer states to the equatorial zone where the risks of drought and flooding increase.1
Vulnerability is not solely a product of pre-given environmental and geographic conditions, however; it is a political and social condition. As articulated by the World Bank, “these should be considered as human disasters occurring when extreme natural events create situations exceeding a society's capacity to absorb and survive the event shock.”2 While only 11% of those affected by floods, droughts, earthquakes, and windstorms live in the poorest countries, they comprise 53% of total fatalities.3 Even after the disaster, consequent changes in the demographics, infrastructure, economies, and local environment all disrupt social stability in the short- and medium-term. As a result of these disruptions, multiple scholars now argue that climate change increases the risk of violent conflict, especially when the social tensions are compounded by governmental and economic instability.4
The following conditions exacerbate a country’s vulnerability to climate change:
- Poor Maintenance of Environment and Infrastructure – A government’s failure to enforce building codes, preserve wetlands, and control soil erosion makes a region more susceptible to catastrophic environmental events. Likewise, persistent deforestation and desertification in rural areas increase a region’s susceptibility to drought.
- Urbanization – As the population densities of the world’s coastal cities rise, so too does the risk that a greater number of people will be affected by events such as flooding and cyclones.
- Poverty and Conflict – Poverty and conflict reduce a community’s ability to adequately prepare for and mitigate the effects of natural hazards, both on the individual and collective levels.
- Youth and Elderly Populations – As in other types of crises, the youth and elderly are especially vulnerable in situations of natural disaster; the growing “youth bulge” in the developing world only exacerbates this risk factor.
Meanwhile, for the most vulnerable countries the primary consequences of climate change therefore center on:
- Loss of livelihood due to decreased agricultural productivity in times of drought and flood, the negative relationship between heat and work productivity, the heightened risk of conflict, the destruction of necessary infrastructure and important environmental resources, and the health consequences after flood and drought.
- Loss of life due to disease, conflict, increased poverty, and the strain on public services.
Climate Change, Resilience, and Adaptation
A community’s resilience to natural disasters describes its ability to absorb and recover from hazards within a reasonable period of time. The concept includes the rebuilding of the physical and social structures that existed prior to the event.
A country’s ability to thrive even with the persistence of climate change depends on two elements: its ability to adapt to climate change over the long term, and its ability to recover after disaster in the short term. Efforts to support the capacity to adapt therefore focus on developing new agricultural technologies for wet and dry environments, eliminating water subsidies (so as to preserve limited water in the long term), strengthening local early warning networks, and educating communities and governmental institutions on the costs of inaction. Meanwhile, efforts to promote recovery in the immediate aftermath of a disaster include extensive training local rescue and relief capacity, diversifying incomes beyond single sources of livelihood, strengthening government institutions’ abilities to coordinate disaster response, and improving insurance institutions and social safety nets.
Existent Measures to Address Climate Change
In 1988, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and World Meteorological Organization (WMO) established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to advise UN member states on climate change science, its implications for people and the environment, and relevant policy options. From 1992-3, 166 UN member states signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), a non-binding treaty aimed at reducing countries’ greenhouse gas emissions. Most significantly, the UNFCCC set the framework for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The Kyoto Protocol provides various mechanisms for reducing emissions, including emission trading on the “carbon market” and the provision of “carbon credits” through the Clean Development Mechanism. However, the Protocol is criticized for its limited financial assistance to aid developing countries with reducing their emissions, for the weakness of its commitments, and for its overall ineffectiveness.
In addition to the Kyoto Protocol, the United Nations efforts to address the effects of climate change are led by such agencies as the WMO, UNEP, IPCC, UN Development Programme (UNDP), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR). These agencies work together (as in the case of the joint WMO-UNEP formation of the IPCC) and individually to mitigate the effects of climate change in their given issue areas.
At a more general level, most national, international, and intergovernmental humanitarian organizations have addressed climate change through the implementation of:
- Disaster risk reduction (DRR) projects to mitigate the effects of climate change
- Building communities’ capacities to respond through education and training
- Political advocacy through research, consultancy, testimony, and public awareness campaigns
The Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies are especially active in disaster risk reduction, initiating flood mitigation projects and hygiene trainings that incorporate education on the risks of climate change. They and other national and international organizations employ engineering, medicine, economics, nutrition, and political expertise and resources to increase the capacity of the affected country to prevent and respond to disasters. Means of reducing vulnerability to environmental impacts include improving local capacity to conduct accurate weather forecasts, restoring damaged infrastructure, and developing drought- and flood-resistant crops.
Given the persistent trend of global warming, humanitarian organizations will continue to play a critical role in preparing for and responding to the negative consequences of climate change.
1International Impacts and Adaptation.” United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
2 Juan Carlos Barhona et al., “Facing Natural Disasters in a Vulnerable Region: Hurricane Mitch in Central America (Lessons Learned).” INCAE, 1999.
3“Reducing Disaster Risk: A Challenge for Development.” UNDP, 2004
- “Bridging the Gap: Integrating Climate Change and Disaster Risk Reduction.” Case Study, IFRC, 2008
- “Climate Vulnerability Monitor: A Guide to the Cold Calculus of a Hot Planet.” DARA and the Climate Vulnerable Forum, 2012.
- “Kyoto Protocol.” United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
- Mackinnon Webster et al., The Humanitarian Costs of Climate Change.” Feinstein International Center, 2008.