Climate Change is a Humanitarian Issue
We need to admit that climate change is ravaging vulnerable communities around the world, from Somalia to California. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report spells this out in excruciating detail. Climate change, the great prism of our planet’s most powerful systems, will create the great correction, reducing, if not eliminating, the dominant species that has taken too much for too long. Fires and droughts will consume far, far too many.
We need to admit that our governments will fail to address climate change. The IPCC report says that governments must create “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050.” The actions needed to do this are unrealistic. Governments haven’t taken the steps required to even come close to this for over 20 years and now we find ourselves with the destructive forces of Trumpism and other belligerent, mean-spirited, politics that simply don’t care.
Instead, the planet will spin and its bilious gasses will slowly engulf us, only to slow and calm for whatever the era beyond us may hold. This is inevitable and has been for a long time, the earth slowly churning along, while governments feebly try to find a collective response. We humans can be amazing at the micro—the love, creativity, and energy we have for our families, friends, and communities is amazing. We get pretty screwed at the macro level where cliques, groups, politicians, and nations tend to scream in their self-serving ways.
We need to admit that climate change is leading to waves of migration and misery. People around the world are already facing the effects of drought and food insecurity. We faced four famines in 2017, some of which may still come to fruition. Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia, and Yemen faced famine and only herculean efforts in Somalia staved off mass mortalities there while Yemen is falling closer and closer to widespread famine as the conflict rages on. The Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) estimated that approximately 70 million people needed food assistance in 2017, up 40% from 2015. With shocking correspondence, UNHCR states that 68.5 million people were forcibly displaced in 2017. The growing frequency of droughts, floods, and devastating storms will continue to batter the most vulnerable, whether directly or through increased food insecurity. This leads to a World Bank report that states that climate change is expected to cause forced displacement for over 140 million people by 2050, making current humanitarian efforts seem minuscule.
We need to admit that climate change affects the most vulnerable amongst us. I live in Washington D.C. I shop at Whole Foods. My kids go to good schools. We live in a nice house. We have health care and other services that allow us to use our talents and pursue our dreams. I might look at all these warnings and say, well, it looks bad but I’ll be fine. Yet, I am also a humanitarian who works in places like Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Somalia, Gaza, etc. I’ve shared tea with families living in tents. I’ve talked to old farmers who have seen their fields turn to dust. I’ve talked to mothers who walk miles upon miles to get their children food. They share their hopes and dreams. They tell me that the tea made by their mothers was always sweeter and what their homes looked like in better times. They tell me stories about how their daughters are the best in science class and how their sons do the chores after homework. They tell me that they believe things will be better and they often cry when they talk about all of their desperate needs. They ask me about “America,” and I share my own stories and we laugh and tease and, together, we hope for better days.
We need to decide if we are going to rise up to be our best selves or descend into selfishness and meanness, living in walled cities while the rest of the world bleeds. Do we construct walled cities/nations for the rich and privileged, watching from these bunkers as millions die and a few escape on spaceships? Or, do we prove our humanity by sacrificing for those whose lives will be ravaged by climate change? Will we open our homes to those who have hit the road with nothing left but their children and their fears? If the vast majority of us will remain on this cataclysmic planet of ours, how do we go out with dignity and grace? It is no longer about going out with a whimper or a bang. It will be with a whimper. How do we minimize the cries of the most unfortunate and rise up together to be our best selves?
We need to take action if we are going to let our light, not our darkness, shine upon all of our brothers and sisters around the world. As global citizens, we need to do three things:
· Recognize how much is enough. Those of us living in “developed” countries have a lot. Maybe too much. It is absurd. People live in mansions and have access to every conceivable material good. How much is enough? Do we really need to have millions and millions of dollars? Why in the world do we glorify all of these rich people and all of their things? Why do we seemingly want more and more without being satisfied with what we have? This has nothing to do with capitalism or hard work. It is just by dumb luck that some have so much while others do not. The era of entitlement must come to a close. We need to decide how much is enough and then be willing to share enough with those who have so little. Climate change is already making people flee their homes and face starvation. Do we really need a new iPhone every year?
· Become extreme activists. We need to move beyond governments and toward direct sustained action, acting and giving, over and over again. Of course, we need to be politically active and try to pressure our governments. Yet, this tends to get lost in the swirl of opposing forces, diminished to the lowest common denominator, if to anything at all. We need to seek out organizations, programmes, new activities, new innovations, that serve those who are being negatively impacted by climate change. We should have applications that track how much we give, how much we do, and celebrate those who do the most. Mostly, we need to act, every day. Do something every day to help those around the world who need so little to achieve so much.
· Invest in the next generation. Instead of hand wringing about the world we are leaving to our children, we need to invest in their talents and fuel their passions. We need to have the best schools, from kindergarten through graduate school. We need education approaches that enable the different and the strange to flourish, letting them arrive at new ways of thinking about the same old problems. This includes a recognition that we don’t have the answers and that to find them we need to create conditions where every possible idea is recognised and encouraged. We need an explosion of talent.
As humanitarians, we need to do a lot of things:
· Link climate change to humanitarian action. At the moment, climate change is seen as a development issue. It is debated by governments, the World Bank, UNFCCC, et. al. It focuses on issues of mitigation and adaptation, hedging the global bets that maybe we still have a chance to turn all of this around. We don’t. We need to focus on the communities that are already being negatively impacted and develop strategies for how to help them as they move to countries that can support them. Food security and migration are the issues and we need much more focus on how to bring these issues firmly into the fold of humanitarian action.
· Maintain our independence from governments—we serve people; not ministries. All the moves to develop the humanitarian—development nexus are overwrought. Of course, humanitarians needs to be mindful of how we support families and communities so that our assistance can enable them to overcome vulnerabilities and move toward better lives. We need to know what will happen once we leave and make sure that things are safer and better than they were before we arrived. However, we also need to maintain our independence from the governments that are often inept or contributors to peoples’ miseries. We have to avoid the politics and instead focus on action. When politics enter the fray, from Rwanda to Lebanon, we tend to make mistakes. Let development actors continue to work with and assist these governments. That’s all fine, I guess. As humanitarians, however, we work on behalf of all people, regardless of their governments.
· Respond early. We cannot wait until people are dying in mass in the deserts around the world. We cannot wait until there are pollical agreements or grand decisions from on high. We need to act early. We proved this in Somalia in 2017 when the international community responded with over $1 billion to prevent a famine, learning from the lessons of 2012 when over 250,000 people died from famine. Early action not only saves lives but we are also learning that it is cost effective and creates the conditions for more durable solutions.
· Prove what works and scale up best practices. We have so much experience and yet we still tend to act from scratch in each response. We need to leverage best practices, analyse and measure everything that we do, demonstrate effectiveness and impact in ‘real time,’ and adapt, change, and improve as we go. Once we know what works where and how, we need to repeat it over and over again, scaling up as we can, reaching more and more people with each improvement.
· Be proud and committed humanitarians. The essence of being a humanitarian is being human, providing respect and dignity to the people we serve. We are all on this planet together and we can’t let divisions tear us up. Not as humanitarians. We need to work on behalf of everyone who faces despair and who have no choices but the worst choices imaginable. We need to be at the forefront of what it means to be human, proving that we are filled with grace and love and that we do care about all of those who will suffer as the world turns toward its new era.