Aid and activism need to join forces on climate ‘loss and damage’

A person uses a megaphone as other people hold signs, as they take part in the Global Climate Strike of the movement Fridays for Future in Berlin, Germany, September 23, 2022

A person uses a megaphone as other people hold signs, as they take part in the Global Climate Strike of the movement Fridays for Future in Berlin, Germany, September 23, 2022. REUTERS/Christian Mang

As losses grow on a hotter planet, combining humanitarian and climate expertise could help find smarter ways forward.

Mattias Söderberg is co-chair of the climate justice group ACT Alliance and chief advisory to DanChurchAid. Paul Knox Clarke is principal of the Adapt Climate and Humanitarian Initiative.

Amid the growing debate about how the world should respond to climate-induced disasters and the loss and damage they cause, people in both the humanitarian and climate ‘bubbles’ are starting to realise that their agendas overlap.

While climate experts talk about cyclones, floods and droughts as effects of global warming, humanitarians talk about the need to assist those affected by the same events. While climate activists call for loss and damage finance, humanitarians call for more humanitarian funds to respond to the emergencies that cause loss and damage.  

We don’t think so. We should be allies, and must learn from each other to ensure that nobody is left behind.

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Humanitarians have decades of experience in responding to climate and weather-related disasters. They are skilled at approaches which will become increasingly important in responding to rising loss and damage from climate change: rapid cash transfers; common logistics platforms; decentralised funds; shared technical standards; and inter-agency coordination.

In addition, humanitarian aid follows clear principles. These state that people in need should receive assistance irrespective of who they are or what has caused the need. This is an important lesson to apply to discussions around loss and damage.

While it is not always easy to determine if a particular event is related to climate change - experience with the Green Climate Fund shows the difficulty of showing a particular intervention is climate-relevant - questions of attribution shouldn’t prevent assistance to people in need.

We can also learn from the mistakes made by humanitarians over the years and not repeat them in responding to loss and damage.

Power and funding in the international humanitarian ‘system’ have been concentrated in a small number of organisations (donors, UN agencies and international NGOs) headquartered in some of the world’s richest countries.

The governments of crisis-affected states, as well as civil society organisations, have received little direct funding and have little influence over how funding is used.

Similarly, humanitarians have, for decades, struggled with issues of accountability to the people they serve. Accountability to crisis-affected people and states should be a key concern of those considering mechanisms for addressing loss and damage.

On the other hand, there are important experiences from working on climate change which could add value to existing humanitarian initiatives.

Unlike traditional disasters, events resulting from climate change can be linked to human activity, overwhelmingly in the rich world, but the effects are felt most strongly by people and communities in poor and vulnerable countries.

For this reason, discussions around loss and damage must be linked to issues of justice and equity.

While this perspective is central in the climate debate, it may challenge humanitarian principles, which include neutrality and impartiality and tend towards an ‘apolitical’ approach.

We do not see this challenge, and the debates and arguments that will undoubtedly flow from it, as a bad thing. A respectful dialogue between the two perspectives can add value to both humanitarian and climate endeavours.

Climate experts, working on the basis of broad scientific consensus, recognise that the climate crisis requires action to prevent further global heating (mitigation), to decrease the impact of climate effects (adaptation) and to respond to these impacts when they occur (loss and damage).

This means integrating long and short-term responses. Humanitarians have long struggled with integrating their short-term actions with longer term development: looking at this challenge from a climate perspective may help.

The debate about loss and damage has a broad scope which goes beyond the focus of humanitarian aid.

Climate change will lead to many types of loss and damage, including forced migration, loss of biodiversity, and loss of places or artefacts of cultural importance.

While these risks may not be considered as humanitarian needs, they may still be highly relevant to consider in relation to humanitarian action and provide humanitarians with a more holistic understanding of the damage done by climate-related events.

Climate activists and humanitarians have common interests, and dialogue and cooperation are important. In the coming years, the focus on loss and damage will increase.

When new instruments are developed, the experiences from humanitarian aid should be considered. Not because loss and damage instruments should become new humanitarian funds, but because it's important to build on experience.

Existing humanitarian instruments should also learn from climate specialists to become better at addressing climate-induced loss and damage.

The climate crisis requires us to value each other’s skills, respect our differences and, even when we don’t agree on everything, work together!

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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