The Problem

“(Humanitarian action) supports people who are skilled at living on the edge of liveability – but the edge is moving.”

Aid worker, 20 years experience 

The climate emergency is now

2020 was one of the three warmest years on record.

In its recent Sixth Assessment Report, the IPCC issued its strongest warning yet, stating that human activity has ‘unequivocally’ warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land, and evidence of changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts and tropical cyclones have strengthened since the IPCC’s 2014 assessment.

With an increase of at least 1.5C unavoidable, all of humanity will need to adapt quickly to respond to the increase in extreme weather, disasters and humanitarian crises that will occur over the next decade. This next decade will also be crucial in terms of climate mitigation, and represents the last chance humanity has to avoid catastrophic levels of global warming.

Children watching aid arrive in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in Tacloban the Philippines in 2013(Photo credit: Amy Hughes, 2013)

Cyclone Idai: a wakeup call

“What was really eccentric about cyclones Idai and Kenneth was that they were both off-season weather events, and they hit a coastline that doesn’t normally get hit … Idai was an anomaly...there has been nothing on this scale or character… our office focus has changed within one day from conflict to cyclone relief.”

Senior emergency response specialist, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs

Cyclones Idai and Kenneth that swept across southern Africa in 2019 are examples of how the climate emergency exhausts aid resources in an unpredictable manner.

Storms that occur near Mozambique do not usually develop into cyclones, but warm ocean water led to devastating wind speeds of 115 mph/185 kmph. Only weeks later, Cyclone Kenneth created additional havoc and further stretched humanitarian resources. Flooding affected millions of people in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe and internally displaced over 600,000 people. It’s the first time in recorded history that two strong tropical cyclones have hit Mozambique in the same season.

The communities impacted by Idai and Kenneth were already vulnerable to slow-onset climate emergencies, such as droughts, rising sea levels and exposure, in addition to conflict and disease. Now these cyclones have impacted income generation, agriculture, supply chains and the future for women and girls far beyond the duration of these tropical storms.

“Due to climate change, we can expect disasters with higher impact and that will increase vulnerabilities. Now they are happening in places that didn’t used to be that bad, like cyclones in Mozambique and Hurricane Irma in the Caribbean. These are clearly events that we can prepare for better. But to prepare well, we need to have more resources and investments. The eroding effects of disasters will be coming together, as national and international systems will be unable to cope with it with the current capacity and structures.”

Specialist in management of humanitarian operations, UN OCHA

It is clear that climate change will impact many aspects of life, and hit vulnerable people hardest, including women, Indigenous communities, those dependent on agriculture or coastal livelihoods, those living in Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions, small island developing states, and in Least Developed Countries (LDCs).

“While South Sudan has been fragile for a long time, changes in weather patterns exacerbate previous vulnerabilities. Floods, droughts and locust swarms can heavily affect agricultural productivity and it sometimes doesn't take much to tip the scales. It is also at risk for desertification if overgrazing and/or excessive charcoal production increases around urbanized areas.”

Aid worker, South Sudan

A landscape of green farmland where the air is full of thousands of small locusts hovering above the land.
Samburu, Kenya - The county has been heavily affected by billions of locusts that devour crops and grazing lands, threatening the food security and livelihoods of a population already weakened by extreme-climate events and armed conflict. Locusts are difficult to control and spread quickly (up to 90 miles per day) and are thought to be worsening because of increased cyclones in the area. (Photo Credit: Jen Watson, January 2020).

How will future needs be impacted?

Food insecurity

Since 2016, food insecurity has risen worldwide, driven by conflict, rising food prices, currency depreciation and environmental shocks. Climate-related harvest failures in one continent may influence food security outcomes in others.

Recent analysis by the World Food Programme, showed that:

41 million people were at risk of famine in 2021;

584,000 people were already experiencing famine.

A world that is 2C warmer would result in an additional 189 million at risk of food insecurity. This number rises exponentially to 1.8 billion people in a world that is 4C warmer.

Population movements

An increase in the intensity, frequency and unpredictability of abrupt disasters like floods, storms, landslides and wildfires will result in larger movements of people seeking refuge within their country or outside its borders. These kinds of rapid-onset disasters, in combination with ongoing conflicts and resource shortages, are currently the main reason people are forced to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere within their country.

Hydro-meteorological disasters (like cyclones, coastal storm surges, and floods) forced more than 30 million people out of their homes in 2020 alone. Some of this displacement is temporary and comes in the form of life-saving evacuations, but still negatively impacts people’s physical and mental health, access to food, economic well being, education and safety. The consequences worsen the longer people remain displaced.

Emergencies that are slower to appear, such as drought, erosion, increased salt in drinking water and farmland and sea level rise, also force people to seek refuge elsewhere. These slow-onset emergencies impact how people earn a livelihood and force them to abandon their traditional ways of life.

This often results in migration to cities, where they face new risks, including living in poor quality, informal housing, itself vulnerable to a host of new disasters. Their displacement also results in changes to the living conditions and economics of the host city.

A shack made of corrugated metal that is beginning to rust in the intense heat. Lines of clothes that are drying in the sun are visible around the house and the doors are painted bright green and blue.
Djibouti City, Djibouti - Despite being one of the most water-scarce countries in the world with its own vulnerable communities, Djibouti hosts over 32,000 refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from Somalia and Ethiopia, whose basic needs such as shelter, water and protection also need to be provided for. (Photo credit: roneninio / Flickr, 2016).
“Due to heavy rains, the road leading to the south of the province is no more practicable. Only boats can be used to reach some villages in the area. Another example is the increase in the number of deaths due to malaria in some endemic areas, impacting the initial provision of actions to be done.”

Aid worker, DRC


Apart from documented cases of conflict over resources, such as water or pastures, the climate emergency multiplies existing threats that impact human security.

By exacerbating the causes of conflict such as poor economic conditions and inequality, the climate emergency will increase the potential for conflict, in turn impacting internal and cross-border displacement and refugee movements.

The silhouette of a helicopter flying over a charred landscape in Tasmania, with fires smouldering at the bottom of a hill and the air filling with heavy smoke.

Rich countries, poor countries – a world on fire

A black summer in Australia

Humanitarian disasters caused by the climate emergency are not problems that only occur in the Global South. The 2019/2020 bushfire season in Australia was one of the most devastating fire seasons ever recorded. It caused more than US$4 billion in direct damages, over 17 million hectares of land were burnt and 34 people and 3 billion animals died. Six of the country’s eight states and territories were impacted.

The scale of this new bushfire season was unparalleled and quickly overwhelmed the mobilisation of thousands of community workers and firefighters. Multiple countries provided funds, firefighting aircraft and aid workers including Samoa, New Zealand and South Korea; as well as further afield like the United States, Canada, and the UK. Countries that would not have ordinarily planned to deliver humanitarian aid to Australia, further stretching disaster response capacity.

4 billion in direct damages.

17 million hectares of land burnt.

people lost their lives, along with 3 billion animals.

6 states and territories impacted.

Heat dome and wildfires hit the US and Canada

The wildfire season in California experienced an unusually early start amid an ongoing drought and historically low rainfall. In 2021, California experienced it’s largest wildfire ever, and in Canada, a record-setting heatwave in British Columbia formed a ‘heat dome’ of trapped hot air, moving across the country and killing over 500 people. Older adults, migrant workers, homeless people and people living in substandard housing were particularly at risk from the extreme weather, which reached a record-breaking 49.6C.

British Columbia experienced over 300 fires between June and July, widespread evacuations took place and tracts of land were devastated, displacing Indigenous and settler communities. National systems were overwhelmed and a State of Emergency was declared. Firefighting personnel from Australia and Mexico flew into the country to support local efforts.

While countries in the Global North may have more resources internally to respond to and recover from disasters, their scale and frequency of disasters can still be overwhelming, in turn contributing to a significant loss of life and economic damage. The brunt is often borne by marginalised and historically disadvantaged groups.

300 fires occurred in British Columbia between June and July;

a record high temperature of 49.6 recorded;

500 people lost their lives.

Extreme weather as the new normal

As the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report makes clear, extreme weather is the new normal. June to September of 2021 alone has featured a series of overlapping disasters including drought (in Iran, Syria, Tuvalu, Brazil, a megadrought in western US and in Madagascar, which reached dramatic levels, contributing to alarming levels of food insecurity); wildfires (in the US, Canada, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Russia); and floods and storms (in China, Bangladesh, Sudan, Germany, Belgium and the Philippines).

No country is immune to climate change. An increase in aid and international cooperation will be essential to address emergencies in traditional donor countries.

A highway overlooks the Lytton area, which is alight from the wildfires blazing in the background and dark smoke fills the air.
Lytton, Canada - After recording the country's highest ever recorded temperature, wildfires turn 90% of the village of Lytton into ashes within 24 hours. The fires also forced the evacuation of the Lytton First Nation populations nearby. (Photo credit: ProPics Canada Media Ltd / Shutterstock, July 2021).
“Previously climate change was thought about as something that affected poorer countries. But now, it is affecting richer countries– (there is an) exponential increase (in disasters) worldwide – Hurricanes in US, forest fires in US and Australia – the Caribbean and Eastern Asia also gets hit every year.”

Humanitarian worker

Funding challenges

Getting sufficient funds for life-saving humanitarian support has been a challenge for decades.

Bilateral aid, development assistance and global remittances to low-and-middle income countries are larger than the finances of the aid system. Getting sufficient funds for life-saving humanitarian support has been a challenge for decades. For example, analysis of all of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ (UN OCHA) appeals for the last 20 years shows that the global amount of money received fell well short of what was needed and requested.

According to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report of 2021, global humanitarian actors typically only receive about 65% of the funds they request to finance life-saving programmes and funding across the sector is in danger of stagnating. Global funding shortfalls have grown increasingly stark as humanitarian needs increase over time. In 2020, UN OCHA requested US$38 billion for complex emergencies arising from the COVID crisis but less than half of the funding was received.

This problem is even worse for local and national organisations, who often don’t have access to global funding systems, and are reliant on being a sub-partner to larger organisations or sourcing funding themselves.