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1 March 2022

Death and destruction: the humanitarian crisis of climate change

The latest IPCC report makes it clear that there is nowhere to hide from the impacts of a warming world.

By Philippa Nuttall

The news coming out of Ukraine is horrific. The world’s attention is rightly focused on the country. Unfortunately, though, we do not have the luxury of ignoring another humanitarian crisis that is unfurling. The climate crisis is leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. Yet its fallout is rarely front page news, its impacts seldom provokes universal outrage or immediate action, and its role as a cause of conflict, even war, is barely mentioned.

The disastrous effects of climate shocks today, and in the future, were made clear in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, published on Monday 29 February. Today global temperatures are around 1.2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and the world is suffering from ever more extreme weather. Droughts, floods, storms and heatwaves are all becoming more frequent and intense. Science proves that these changes are a direct consequence of man-made emissions.

“Climate change is contributing to humanitarian crises where climate hazards interact with high vulnerability,” states the IPCC laconically. It qualifies this sentence as being of “high confidence”. In other words, there is no doubt about its validity.

Even a slight overshoot of the 1.5 degrees Celsius target set by the Paris Agreement will lead to greater death and destruction. Despite fine words about climate action at last November’s Cop26, the world is on track for around 3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century. People everywhere will suffer, but the poorest people living in the Global South, those with the fewest resources and who have contributed least to climate change, are on the front line.  

The low-lying, densely populated Bangladesh produces only 0.56 per cent of global emissions, but is facing significant climate impacts, such as rising seas and intensifying cyclones. In July 2021, severe flooding and landslides hit Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where more than 850,000 ethnic Rohingyas who fled from neighbouring Myanmar now live in the world’s largest refugee community.

Coping with one extreme weather event may be manageable. The problem with climate change is that happenings are becoming so regular that communities are unable to recover. 

“Over the last few years, climate-related disasters have increased,” says Harjeet Singh, from the NGO Climate Action Network. “People on the ground are unable to cope and the next disaster hits them harder. Their coping mechanisms are being dramatically reduced and governments in developing countries are finding it hard to meet their needs,” he tells the New Statesman from India.

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In 2019, Cyclone Idai wreaked havoc across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. One year later more than 100,000 people were still living in makeshift shelters, making them even more vulnerable to climate shocks, says the NGO Care International. Two years later, Cyclone Ana swept through the same countries, washing away any recovery efforts.

In Somalia 7.7 million people are experiencing “a shocking increase in humanitarian needs” as the rains fail for a third consecutive season, contributing to potentially the worst drought in 40 years, says Care. “A predicted 1.4 million people will be displaced in the coming months, congesting already overcrowded displacement camps and generating conflict over resources,” explains the NGO.

Nine-year-old Kayd (not his real name) and his family are some of those affected. They live in a village in the Beledweyne district in southern Somalia and used to own a farm and livestock, including camels. Years of droughts and locust infestations have, however, destroyed their farm and killed their animals. Many people from their community have left the area, but Kayd’s family does not have enough money to join them, says Save the Children. Kayd’s family now puts jerrycans on the road and must wait for passing water trucks.

The list of communities in a similar situation is endless and, as Singh highlights, developed countries are no longer immune to climate chaos. Germany and Belgium suffered devastating floods in 2021, forest fires are becoming the norm in Australia and parts of the US, and California is in an almost permanent state of drought.

In 2020, the Red Cross warned that at least 1.7 billion people have already faced serious problems because of disasters caused by extreme weather and climate-related events. Before the Covid-19 pandemic,  two million people a week needed humanitarian assistance owing to the impacts of climate breakdown. In 2020, more than seven million people were displaced by climate-related disasters, and 90 per cent of refugees come from countries that are among the most vulnerable and least able to adapt.

A growing body of research also shows that climate change is a threat multiplier; its impacts, particularly in countries already experiencing insecurity, weak governance or terrorism, can threaten peace and contribute to conflict and even war.

“Climate change makes conflict more likely in the future,” insisted Lieutenant General Richard Nugee from the UK’s Ministry of Defence, during a recent online event. “Those areas most affected by climate change are often those least able to deal with the change.”

In December 2021, Ireland and Niger, who held the UN Security Council presidencies in September and December respectively, co-sponsored a resolution on climate security that would have integrated climate‑related security risk as a central component of UN conflict‑prevention strategies. Russia used its veto to block its passage, suggesting the international community was deeply divided over climate action.

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