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Adapting humanitarian action to the effects of climate change: An ALNAP Lessons Paper

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Adapting humanitarian action to the effects of climate change: an ALNAP lessons paper

Humanitarian agencies need to reflect on the past, learn from the present and actively imagine the (near and increasingly threatening) future. Humanitarian actors, working on the ground to deal with the effects of climate-related disasters, are well placed to observe the intensification of the effects of climate change, and the increasing complexity of the weather events, often extreme, they cause in all regions of the world, including regions where such events were previously rare or unknown. Humanitarian actors can confirm that in the context of the climate crisis we are heading into the unknown. Lessons from previous experience will help mitigate some of the disasters that result from extreme weather events, some of which continue to follow familiar patterns, but new guidance - new lessons - are needed in the face of inevitably more complex disasters, some of them not yet imagined, much less understood.


The climate crisis and changing patterns of disasters

From excessive consumption to the over-exploitation of natural resources, polluting activities to large-scale deforestation, humans have already dramatically changed the Earth’s climate and environment. In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that ‘Human influence on the climate system is clear’ (IPCC, 2014: 2). The first words of the latest IPCC report provide a much starker warning: ‘It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land’ (IPCC, 2021: 5).

In 2020, average global temperatures reached levels not seen for several thousand years (IPCC, 2021: 5). This global heating affects climate systems significantly, in ways that are well documented – changing the circulation of air masses, raising the temperatures of the oceans and creating new patterns of thermodynamic exchange between oceans and global atmosphere (Josey et al., 2013; Sutton et al., 2007). Sea levels are rising due to a volumetric increase of water caused by global heating and because of increased flows from melting ice – particularly from the Earth’s poles.

As a result of these climactic and environmental changes, we are experiencing more frequent and more intense weather events, including droughts, flooding and tropical storms. And these events are forecast to increase in the next 10 to 20 years (World Bank and United Nations, 2010; Royal Society, 2014; IPCC, 2021). Urban areas will suffer from severe flooding (Shukla et al., 2019); longer, more widespread droughts will exacerbate regional and global food insecurity (Shukla et al., 2019; Watts et al., 2019); cyclones and other tropical storms will be more powerful (Shukla et al, 2019); wildfires will be more extensive; periods of hot extremes including heatwaves will be longer and more intense (Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2018; Watts et al., 2019).

The humanitarian consequences of these extreme weather events – whether slow onset or rapid onset – are major. Droughts, flooding and tropical storms cause death, disease, destruction and large-scale population displacement. Public health emergencies are already increasing because of these changes. Conflicts and conflict situations may increase, as may the resulting human migration and displacement (Allen et al., 2012; IPCC, 2014;
Bronen et al., 2018; Norwegian Red Cross, 2019).

Adapting humanitarian action to the effects of climate change8 There is a sizeable body of knowledge on how to minimise the human impact of many of these events. Through risk-informed development processes, including resilience work and disaster risk reduction (DRR), international capacity to cope with disasters has improved. However, as future disasters related to climate change get bigger, happen faster and affect more people, our existing knowledge and capacity for response may not be enough. These new, more complex types of disaster may call for new modalities of humanitarian action.

ALNAP commissioned a review of evidence from previous humanitarian interventions to identify lessons and examples of best practice that might be applied when designing humanitarian action in response to future climate-related disasters. Based on both academic and grey literature (such as evaluations and meeting reports) and supplemented by expert opinion, this lessons paper aims to be of use to those designing and implementing humanitarian programmes and projects in low- and middle-income countries. The lessons also have relevance for policymakers focused on improving humanitarian responses to climate-related disasters.