Climate change fuelling humanitarian crises, UN panel says for first time

Survivors of the flood in Buzi alight from a boat at Praia Novan Beach, next to Beira port. Recovery after Cyclone Idai in 2019. (Credit: Denis Onyodi/Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre)

Climate change is hitting millions of people, forcing people to flee weather events, and search for food and water security, according to a UN key climate report that for the first time explicitly recognises the humanitarian implications of rising temperatures. 

 Roughly 3.5 million people – making up half of the world’s population – are highly exposed to worsening climate impacts, including droughts, floods, hurricanes and heat waves, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said on Monday.

“Nearly half of humanity is living in the danger zone – now,” UN secretary general Antonio Guterres said at a press conference in reaction to the report.

“Today’s IPCC report is an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of  failed climate leadership.” 

In a 36-page summary for policymakers, approved line by line by the IPCC’s 195 member countries, the scientists warned that “climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with high vulnerability” and “driving displacement in all regions”. 

Erratic precipitation patterns, extreme weather events and infectious diseases – all driven by climate change – are destroying crops, livestock, fisheries and other food sources, leaving millions of people to go hungry. As global temperatures rise – especially above the 2ºC limit –  the risk of malnutrition will go up as well, with sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia, central and South America and small islands being the worst hit, the report states.

How much time do we have?

A group of experts from the panel gave a code red alert in a first report last August about the climate undergoing “unprecedented” changes in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, causing irreversible damages and this is majorly due to greenhouse gases emitted by human activities, including fossil fuel burning and agricultural production. 

In this second report, another group of scientists is warning that the consequences on humans and ecosystems are much worse and coming faster than previously thought. This means that coping or adapting with such changes is getting harder as time goes by, especially for those in most need. 

“While the results aren't shocking, the major implication here is the urgency. The report talks over and over again about this limited window of time to make big changes,” said Erin Coughlan, lead author of the report and advisor at the Climate Centre, which helps the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) address the humanitarian impacts of climate change.

“Previous reports have made links to impacts in society that we would of course recognise as humanitarian impacts but this is the first time that the term humanitarian appeared in the summary for policymakers.”

How can we adapt?

Despite the bleak outlook, the report stresses the many solutions that exist to cope with the climate challenge, many of them that the humanitarian community is already investing in, according to Coughlan.

From early warning systems to restoring wetlands and rivers so that they can better retain water excess, measures to reduce water-related risks can save lives, according to the document.

There is also growing evidence that agroecological practices, where food is grown in harmony with natural processes, can also help support food security and the well-being of communities, according to the report.

While there are a wide variety of solutions out there, they are still “fragmented, “small in scale” and often focused on planning instead of implementation, the report warns. There is also a huge disparity between rich and poor regions, with underfunding being a major hurdle.

UN chief Guterres has called multiple times on countries to deliver on their commitment to provide half of climate funding to adaptation measures, but the report shows that most financial flows are directed towards mitigation measures meant to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Are all solutions good?

The report also warns that there is growing evidence that some solutions are doing more harm than good, raising a flag on what it calls “maladaptation”. 

“This can be for example buying lots of air conditioners to deal with extreme heat and then emitting tons and tons more greenhouse gas emissions,” said Coughlan.

In other cases, measures can have negative effects on certain groups of people. “It's not necessarily what we do, but it's how we do it,” Coughlan said, citing the example of early warning systems. 

“We found examples of people investing in early warning systems and saving millions of lives and other examples of early warning systems that didn't reach the most marginalised populations who, for example, may not have had a cell phone.”

Urban greening projects that displaced marginalised populations, including indigenous peoples, would also be considered maladaptation, she added, noting the importance of inclusive governance.

“It’s about having people around the table. If people are consulted and different marginalised groups are put in leadership roles and in helping to plan and design adaptation solutions, we see that this can help those solutions be more successful,” she said.

What if we can't adapt any longer?

As temperatures rise and the impacts of climate worsen, our capacity to adapt also shrinks. The report warns of the limits that could be breached if the world warms up above 1.5 degrees.  Experts warn that some ecosystems have reached their limit to adapt, including some coral reefs, coastal wetlands, rainforests, and some polar and mountain ecosystems. This means that they can no longer provide the services that people depend on for food, water or protection. 

As limits are breached, the risk of losses and damages also increases. “This is an important message for the humanitarian sector. You might say, we're going to build an early warning system and it might help with evacuation but might not help with building damage,” Coughlan noted.

This is a thorny issue, as demands from developing countries for richer nations to provide funding to help them deal with the costs of climate change have been repeatedly ignored.

At the approval session, the United States reportedly tried to remove the reference to losses and damage, which could be linked to the developed world’s financial responsibilities as the main contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The topic is likely to cause political confrontations at the next climate summit in Egypt in November.