Lessons from the Humanitarian Sector in Dealing with Climate Change

Today we celebrate #EarthDay in the shadow of a lack of progress in dealing with climate change. Food insecurity due to severe floods and droughts has more than tripled the number of people living with hunger. Places like Pakistan have seen “hundred-year floods” return in a decade and the Horn of Africa has not seen a drop of water for six consecutive years running. The secondary effect of this is the doubling of people migrating away from the most severely affected areas towards areas less affected.

We have for years known what we need to do – reduce carbon emissions, yet they continue to grow globally. We look towards innovation to save us from this self-made catastrophe, refusing to take the difficult decisions needed to make lasting change – “pull the emergency break” as some climate activists have called it. One of the key problems we face is that the countries that emit the most are not the countries feeling the initial effects of a rising global temperature. It is usually not until you stare a crisis in the face yourself that you are willing to do something about it. Until then you live in the “hope” that it will not be as bad as predicted.

The problem with this thinking is the fact that when you finally realize that you are facing a crisis of unprecedented proportions, you are too late to do something about it. This is like living in a hurricane-prone area and deciding to turn off all media and phones in the hope that the hurricane approaching will go somewhere else. Then when you see the tidal surge approaching your house and the wind picking up, you realize it is too late to move your belongings and family to a safe location.

As a middle-aged man with a grey beard (and no hair), it is quite unlikely I will live to see the worst effects of the climate change my generation and my parent’s generation are responsible for. Living in Iceland, we are fortunate enough that we are still not seeing the big effects of climate change. But within the lifetime of my children and grandchildren, we can expect to see the glaciers disappear and the ocean turn so acid that the fish we currently catch no longer comes into our economic area. They will also experience people migrating from the worst affected areas on both sides of the equator at a scale that makes the current problems with asylum seekers sound like minor issues.

As I mentioned earlier, then we know what we need to do – reduce carbon emissions – yet we spend way too much time arguing about how we are going to achieve it. Having spent the last 18 months in politics, after spending the past two decades responding to disasters around the world, I get very frustrated when I see, both those in government and those in opposition spend more time on fighting each other than fighting the common enemy – climate change.

Today, a report came out showing that Iceland is not achieving its goals when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. It is worth noting that Iceland has one of the highest amounts of carbon emissions per capita in the world, a record we are not so proud of. The government’s response to this report was “We need to do more” and the opposition of course used this as an opportunity to paint the government as incompetent. The truth is however that neither side actually has a strategy or plan in place that can successfully achieve our goals as quickly as we need before the damage we infect on Earth becomes irreversible.

There are three great lessons politicians can draw from the field of humanitarian response and crisis leadership. The first one is about breaking down organizational walls and the second one is about the localization of effort, and the third one is about the importance of data. Let’s examine what this means for addressing climate change.

When a large-scale disaster strikes, the organizations responding start competing for resources (mainly funding and media coverage) and that has serious side effects, like reduced sharing of data and information, duplication of effort, and gaps in the response. The late researcher Dennis S. Miletti however pointed out that these organizational walls could be broken down by the individuals serving within those organizations. Because the individuals are often closer to the crisis itself (for example on the ground in the aftermath of a hurricane), they have a common personal drive to address the common challenges faced. It is through those individual relationships between people that true progress is made in responding to the crisis and it is the trust built between those people that leads to information sharing and collaborative response efforts.

What this means for our fight against climate change, is the need for us to break down the political and organizational walls that are stopping us from making any progress. We must find the individuals within each political party and organization and bring them to together to find common solutions instead of repeating the rhetoric against each other until it is too late to do anything.

In the humanitarian world, we continue to drive for localization of the response efforts. Part of the reason is that we should listen to the people affected and understand their needs, rather than using past crises as a reference for how we respond. Another reason is that we “international experts” are not familiar enough with the local culture and environment. Local people can often solve things much cheaper and more effectively than international humanitarian organizations can.

What does this mean for our fight against climate change? One key lesson we should draw from this is to truly involve the people who are most affected by the changes we must achieve. When a large portion of carbon emissions comes from agriculture, then we must mobilize the farmers to come up with ideas and solutions that will reduce emissions often much more effectively than ideas born in “expert groups”, “political committees” or “ministries” ever will. The key challenge here is breaking down the boxes that the government has often built around these local groups. Current agricultural subsidies, which originally stem from the last century are not built around climate change, and trying to tweak them will always result in worse solutions than thinking outside of the box.

We must mobilize collaborative efforts like this across sectors and reward those who come up with solutions that truly deliver results. This includes establishing public-private partnerships that leverage the strengths and benefits of collaborative impact. As politicians, we must be willing to rethink what worked just a few years ago and not be in the way of innovative solutions.

The third lesson from the humanitarian sector is about the importance of data. We must have good data about the current situation and as we respond, we need to truly understand the impact and results of our efforts. When addressing climate change, it is not enough to know where we want to head. We need to truly leverage the power of information and analytics to understand what options work and which ones don’t. We must also leverage this data to help build trust around the proposed solutions. Using the example of farmers from before, the farmers must be able to see black-on-white that the new subsidies and climate initiatives do not reduce their livelihoods, it guarantees them better opportunities moving forward.

We have seen us rally together to fight against a common enemy before, most recently during the COVID-19 pandemic, where many countries made difficult decisions in order to reduce the danger of our healthcare systems collapsing. We know we can work together if the need is strong enough. Our key challenge in the coming months and years is realizing the coming climate catastrophe is not just some scientific models, but the biggest human impact on this planet since humans evolved. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to pull our head out of the sand and start working together in the local, national, and international levels in reversing this change, before it is too late.