Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on US Humanitarian and Disaster Response

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Climate-related disasters will exacerbate conflict and stresses in vulnerable countries, with implications for global and US security, says a new report by Oxfam America and the Center for Naval Analysis. In order to make developing nations more resilient, US aid should focus more on using risk reduction strategies, seeking to prevent climate-related humanitarian disasters before they occur.

Post by Katherine O’Konski and Rick Piltz

Climate Science Watch was at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, on June 21 to hear a discussion of the new report, An Ounce of Prevention: Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on US Humanitarian and Disaster Response, prepared by Oxfam America and the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA).

There is a growing connection between climate change and security concerns. The report found that climate-related disasters will create economic stress and social pressures, exacerbate tensions, and produce violence in already marginal economies.  This combination of factors will necessitate humanitarian response more often and for more complex situations, and “will have implications for global and US security.” As violent conflict and climate-related disasters overlap, and the demand for US civilian and military aid increases, the capacity for adequate response will depend on maintaining leadership, coherence, and efficiency.

The panel of speakers included:

  • E.D. McGrady (Research Analyst, CNA)
  • Marc Cohen (Senior Researcher, Oxfam America)
  • Major General Richard Engel, USAF (Ret.) (Director, Climate Change and State Stability Program of the National Intelligence Council)
  • Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, USN (Ret.) (President, CNA Institute for Public Research; Vice Chairman, CNA Military Advisory Board)
  • Paul O’Brien (Vice President for Policy and Campaigns, Oxfam America)
  • Edward Carr, Climate Change Coordinator in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID

In the face of climate change, the process of delivering aid cannot remain static. As the demand for humanitarian and disaster relief increases, it will cost increasing amounts of aid both in cash and in kind to respond adequately. “Climate change is predicted to alter patterns of rainfall, increase sea level rise, and lead to significant changes in current weather patterns.  These changes will negatively affect agricultural output, displace populations from coastlines, change access to water resources, and…increase associated disease outbreaks,” the report says. Providing effective responses while controlling costs will require aid structures that are flexible, evolving, adapting, and as Mr. Cohen stressed, efficient.

This efficiency is all the more important considering that climate change is predicted to increase the necessity for what Mr. McGrady termed “complex humanitarian operations.”  These are emergencies occurring in “the midst of a high security threat or conflict environment.”  CNA's report, Potential Effects on Demands for US Military Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response, found that the countries rated highest on the State Fragility Index developed by USAID and the University of Maryland were also those countries the International Development Association has found to be most at risk from adverse impacts of climate change. Combined with ever-increasing population growth and urbanization, it is clear that the increasing demand for aid will typically come from states that also possess the most fragile political climates.  Response will be all the more expensive and could often lead to calls for a military security component to stabilize disaster situations and support rebuilding.

How can the US and global systems of delivering humanitarian aid become more efficient? An Ounce of Prevention talks about the need for leadership, coordination, and effectiveness.  Mr. Cohen termed this a “whole of government” approach.  The report recommends the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), part of USAID, which coordinates US Government responses to disasters in foreign countries, be designated as the single lead federal agency for disaster preparedness and response, with a clear mandate to reduce balkanization and politicization of disaster response decision-making. 

In addition, the report recommends that a policy framework on military involvement in humanitarian response be created for situations when a security threat exists, and resources be made available for OFDA’s military liaison program, in order to “better coordinate civilian and military involvement in humanitarian response,” the report says.

General Engel also expressed the view that greater coordination between the intelligence community and civil society will be needed in order to provide nongovernmental aid organizations with the necessary information for them to effectively deliver aid without jeopardizing security. Planning exercises and budgetary reforms will also be necessary to ensure that these improved programs are successful.

US aid should be focused on preventing climate-related humanitarian disasters before they occur.  Mr. Engel stressed the importance of overcoming barriers, including uncertainties and lack of adequate funding, in order to make developing nations more resilient to such disasters.  It is thus necessary for climate resilience and disaster risk reduction be integrated into disaster response activities. 

Mr. Carr, who focused on the goals of the USAID Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, added that flexible response is imperative when dealing with the uncertainties associated with climate change.  USAID’s internal rationale, he explained, is to reduce the need for future humanitarian intervention.  It is therefore essential that adequate funds exist “for prevention and for building resilience, which will ultimately help cut the costs of disaster aid,” the report says.

Maintaining a long-term view of development is ultimately a huge factor in providing effective aid.  Creating resilience necessitates aid that is about more than short-term programs and food aid, including placing more emphasis on agricultural assistance and other livelihood support.  Legislative reform is necessary to link these long-term services to risk reduction, Mr. Cohen stressed.  Mr. Carr added that delivering development means connecting aid response to long-term adaptation programs.  The report recommends that mechanisms be delivered “to allow USAID to rapidly scale up and provide transition and early recovery programs that emphasize disaster risk reduction after completion of the initial disaster response.”

The “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” strategy emphasizes disaster risk reduction and resilience in US aid allocation.  This report comes as a welcome perspective on the importance of planning for climate change related disasters.  It is an invitation for Americans to address climate change as a problem connected to the well-being of future generations, as both a security and a humanitarian issue.

Hopefully, connecting climate science with global and US security considerations will strengthen the basis for effective policymaking – both for reducing the magnitude and rate of climate change to avoid unmanageable consequences, and for developing adaptive preparedness strategies to help manage the unavoidable.

Earlier posts:

The national security frame: a path forward for climate change communication?

U.S. National Research Council: Climate Change Impacts "Call for Action by U.S. Naval Leadership"

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One Response to Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on US Humanitarian and Disaster Response

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