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To reduce the loss and damage caused by climate change, invest in human security

The cries of humanity

One of the stand-out moments at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow last November was a speech by Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley. Addressing her fellow world leaders, she laid out in no uncertain terms what failure to limit global warming to the targets set in the Paris Agreement – and failure to finance adaptation to climate change – means to Barbados and other vulnerable nations. Such a failure, she said, is measured “in lives and livelihoods in our communities. This is immoral and it is unjust.”

Are we so blinded and hardened that we can no longer appreciate the cries of humanity?

Mia Mottley, Barbados Prime Minister

This year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres similarly did not mince his words when he called for urgent action for climate justice stating that “the impacts of climate change are here now, and the loss and damage they cause can no longer be ignored”.

After much fraught negotiation in the initial hours of this COP, climate justice, and specifically finance for loss and damage landed firmly on the agenda. A closer look at the wording reveals that the gain is perhaps not as big a win for those countries most affected by climate impacts as hoped, by including financing which already goes to a broader raft of activities, but it is a gain nevertheless.

Last year, more than 30 million people were displaced by climate-related disasters. Ninety per cent of refugees come from countries that are among the most vulnerable and least able to adapt to the effects of climate change. The economic cost of loss and damage in developing countries is projected to reach up to $580 billion a year by 2030 alone.

Although the impacts of climate change are most pronounced on the lives and livelihoods of those in fragile contexts, current climate finance solutions often don’t reach these places. The World Food Programme warns that 22 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia face severe hunger as the driest conditions in decades spread across the Horn of Africa. The agency has called for more than $400 million to meet the needs of the most affected and help communities build resilience to climate extremes.

Prevention is better than cure

Like investing in a vaccine rather than suffering the terrible human and economic cost of a pandemic left to rage unchecked, prevention can mitigate these risks. By studying in detail the impacts of climate change on the world’s most vulnerable – those in fragile, conflict-torn countries that are also facing disproportionate impacts of climate change – solutions can be found that reduce the damage. Justice is not about restitution after the fact. It is about creating the conditions in which all communities can thrive.

The environmental impacts of climate change vary greatly around the world. But while scientists have gained an ever better understanding of how it will affect factors like weather patterns or crop yields, the socio-economic impacts are understudied, and vary even more according to the context. A granular understanding is needed to design policies and interventions that support the security of lives and livelihoods most at risk, without giving rise to unintended consequences.

One example of what such a granular understanding can look like comes from a new study on Mali. One of the least developed countries in Africa, Mali is facing a multi-faceted crisis. The military has taken over the government and is engaged in a violent struggle with jihadi and other armed opposition groups. Both regional neighbours and Western governments have imposed sanctions over delayed elections and a return to civilian rule.

Climate change adds to the pressures felt by Malians, most of whom rely on subsistence farming, herding and fishing for their livelihoods. More erratic and unpredictable rainfall is combining with more frequent drought conditions and more frequent dangerously hot days. Such impacts are projected to continue and intensify in the future. Faced with such difficulty and uncertainty, farmers try to boost their crop yields using chemical fertilisers. Heavier, more infrequent rain storms then wash these chemicals into the rivers, killing the fish that other communities rely on, leading to conflicts between communities and weakening the social bonds and resilience that have historically allowed Malians to adapt to earlier, less severe, changes in the weather.

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As Malians struggle to adapt, the disenfranchisement experienced by women, young people and other marginalised groups holds them back further, exacerbating inequalities. Citizens lose ever more trust in the state and traditional authorities over their failure to help. In some cases, these authorities actively make effective adaptation harder due to corruption and rent-seeking. Armed opposition groups feed on these discontents, leading to violence, instability and yet more conflict. 

Once established, conflict dynamics create a trap that makes climate adaptation, resilience against extreme weather events, and progress to overcome long-standing inequalities so much more difficult. Violence typically begets more violence. Experts in Mali and Niger perceive foreign military interventions as a leading driver of terrorism, above even religious claims.  That is why it is imperative to address root causes early on, rather than sending in the military to deal with climate-linked violent conflicts once they emerge.

In Mali, this can mean supporting agro-ecological practices that restore soil fertility and reduce farmers’ dependence on chemical fertilisers. It can mean working to promote economic opportunities for women, young people and other marginalised groups. It can mean enhancing communities’ capacities to manage natural resources together, in ways that build trust and cohesion, rather than being subject to the corrupt behaviour of central and traditional authorities.

A matter of justice

To implement the very context-specific solutions needed, action has to be local, and involve the communities most affected. But this approach must also become a global way of working, across the UN, national development agencies, NGOs and peacebuilding organisations. The scale of the challenge we face demands a common, coordinated approach in which understanding and promoting human security in the most vulnerable settings becomes a key pillar of climate justice.

The developed world has come a long way in recognising that responding to the climate crisis is not just a case of future-proofing our own infrastructure and economies, but a matter of justice for those who have contributed less and suffer more.

As those at COP27 negotiate critical financing agreements which advance climate justice to deal with the impacts of climate change already at play, it is worth bearing in mind the ‘how’ as well as the ‘how much’ to invest. To reduce the loss and damage caused by climate change, donors would do well to invest in human security.