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Published: August 8, 2023

Climate Change and Security: how do we move the conversation forward?

By: Megan Hooson

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In our latest blog, GISF's Megan Hooson asks how climate-related risks intersect with existing risks to aid workers, and why NGO security managers have a responsibility to act to mitigate against the risks that arise for their colleagues.

We all know climate change is catastrophic. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve read the figures and seen the pictures of wildfires still ongoing in Greece, more fires spreading into the US from Canada, record-breaking temperatures sparking fears of a drought in China, and the news that July will be the hottest month ever recorded. Climate news seems inescapable at the moment, and yet, it remains a secondary thought on the agendas of too many. The effects of climate change exacerbate the pre-existing crises and risk factors that aid workers already face daily, as well as creating their own risks. We need to start acting to mitigate these risks now.

Back in 2020, GISF released a podcast speaking to one of our members about the role of security managers in better understanding, forecasting, and mitigating climate change risks. In 2021, for our World Humanitarian Day blog, GISF interviewed several members about the challenges climate change could pose for the humanitarian sector and the role security managers can play in addressing them. In 2022, we hosted a webinar examining the security implications of the Horn of Africa droughts and the impact on SRM and access; and one of our members also shared a blog about their experience supporting communities after the floods in Pakistan, reflecting on how their organisations had to respond rapidly to facilitate new programmes and emergency responses. And earlier this year, at our Spring Forum, our context session focused on climate change, examining how climate-related risks further exacerbate access and security for aid workers in different operational contexts.

Throughout the past few years, we have gently been delving into the topic of climate change, but this issue needs to be further integrated into all aspects of humanitarian action. With the announcement earlier this month that NATO is stepping up its work on climate change and security, it is clear that climate change directly influences and exacerbates the security risks facing aid workers. Considering climate-related risks when assessing risk and creating security plans is more important than ever.

So, the question is, how do we move this conversation forward? And how do we keep this issue on security managers’ radars?

With everyday resources and life continually being disrupted or disappearing, everyone is affected by the climate crisis. However, it disproportionately impacts communities in the Global South, leading to rising tensions and conflicts. For instance, increasing unemployment and living costs, such as land and cattle, exacerbate tensions where these resources are already scarce. Whilst most of these conflicts remain within communities, they sometimes spread and harm humanitarian staff working in the communities. A few other crucial considerations include:

Climate and Gender – It’s also important to talk about how the climate crisis has disproportionate effects across genders, with women and girls, transgender and non-binary people being particularly vulnerable to climate risks. Studies show that gender-based violence becomes even more prevalent after natural emergencies. Furthermore, transgender and non-binary individuals are particularly vulnerable to climate risks due to compounding discrimination. For example, they may not have access to gender-specific services. They can face even further challenges in receiving aid during relief and recovery efforts after a climate-related disaster, according to the Stockholm Environment Institute.

Climate migration – Of the 60.9 million new internal displacements registered in 2022, 53 per cent were triggered by disasters (IDMC, 2023). As of 31 December 2022, at least 8.7 million people in 88 countries and territories were internally displaced due to disasters that happened not only in 2022 but also in previous years. This is a 45 per cent increase in the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to disasters compared to 2021.

Water and food insecurity – In 2022, we saw droughts in the Horn of Africa, China, Southern Europe, and the West Coast of Africa; floods in Pakistan, Thailand, Nigeria, Venezuela, and Australia, caused in part by rapidly melting glaciers, but also extreme downpours and rising water levels. All these factors directly impact access to safe drinking water and have devasting consequences for soils, crops, and other vegetation, leaving large portions of the population without access to food and water. Again, this raises tensions in already hostile environments and exacerbates inter-community conflicts, with a knock-on effect on the security of aid workers working within communities.

Many climate risks directly impact the physical security of aid workers. Still, looking at the list above, it becomes clear that climate change also intersects with many other elements of a person’s risk profile. As mentioned above, the climate crisis disproportionately affects women and girls but also crosses over into conversations about mental health and race. Much like during the COVID-19 pandemic, people of colour are also disproportionately affected, as inequalities rooted in historical structures mean they are more likely to live in areas vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  Those most affected by climate change need to lead the conversation on where and how to make changes. Including more people of colour, women, and transgender and non-binary individuals at the centre of climate conversations is vital to creating inclusive climate policies that facilitate necessary adaptations.

Similarly, staff from regions vulnerable to climate change have a much more robust understanding of the environment they live and work in. Therefore, they must be part of these conversations. Countries like The Gambia, Costa Rica, Morocco, and Mali are already fighting the hardest against the effects of the climate and seeing results. In 2021, The Gambia was the only country on track to meet its climate change commitments; and today, Costa Rica is one of the top 10 of the world’s greenest countries.

Training and equipping local communities to enable them to provide or manage a crisis should be a top priority. As local and national staff hold more contextual knowledge and are first to respond, they need to be supported to face a crisis, climate-related or otherwise, when it hits. Training national staff in this way also cuts down on an organisation’s international travel to programmes, ultimately helping to reduce its carbon footprint.

NGOs are at the forefront of this crisis, as their staff and the affected populations they aim to assist are in places especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Extreme weather must be routinely included in risk assessments and prepared for months in advance. With experts declaring the return of El Niño earlier this month, security staff need to anticipate the rising levels of needs and the disruption, strains, and risk this will cause to everyday working, with heavy rains, droughts and wildfires expected across multiple regions.

The New Humanitarian recently released an article stating six dos and don’ts for tackling the climate emergency. For SRM, the impetus for change lies with security managers and their teams. Climate risks must be considered and sometimes lie at the centre of security risk management conversations and strategies. As this article states, “maintaining decision advantage within a climate-disrupted future requires thinking about how climate change is indirectly shaping threats.” If security managers fail to take this advice on board and don’t start making fundamental changes within their security plans to include climate risks in some capacity, the impact on staff and programme security could be devastating.


Image Credit: UN/Fardosa Hussein


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