Earlier this week the 25th UN Climate Conference, known as COP25, opened in Madrid, Spain with an urgent message: the global climate crisis could soon reach the “point of no return”. The ICRC is one of many humanitarian organizations traditionally outside the climate policy ecosystem who have no choice but to tackle this reality head on and untangle what it means for our mandate to help and protect people affected by armed conflict and other violence.

Pastoralists in northern Mali are no strangers to harsh weather. When a crippling drought hit the country in the early 1970s, evaporating the Niger River and killing thousands of people, they travelled long distances with their herds to find grazing land and water. Today, again faced with challenging weather conditions, their search for greener land looks different, aggravated by the ongoing conflict gripping the north of the country.

“At the time,” recalled a 61-year-old community leader of the past drought, “we only had to look for food. We could move freely. Now, insecurity prevents us from moving to search for food. If our animals suffer, we suffer.” As people gather in a few relatively safe areas, scarce resources are rapidly exhausted and weak institutions are not able to offset the shortages.

As we carried out research this year to understand how climate risk affects people living in situations of conflict, we heard many stories like those in northern Mali. People we met spoke frequently about the unequivocal changes they were witnessing in their environment. In Iraq, where rains are scarce and sandstorms are increasingly common, one colleague mused, “Before, rain was falling. Now, dust is falling.”

Climate change and the humanitarian mission

The ICRC has a clear mandate and exclusively humanitarian mission to “protect the lives and dignity of victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence and to provide them with assistance”. As a result, we have primarily considered the environment through the lens of international humanitarian law and emergency response, leaving the disaster and environment spheres to other components of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement already tackling the subjects.

It is increasingly clear, however, that the people we work with are not only suffering the consequences of war, but are disproportionately impacted by climate change and environmental degradation. This forces us to adapt our humanitarian action to help people adapt to a changing climate.

The question we are most often asked about climate change is a causal one: whether and how it leads to conflict. The one that really matters to us now, however, is how it affects the populations with whom we are already working, people living in dire situations of conflict or violence. In other words, we are not focusing on causality, but on cumulative impacts.

Overlapping vulnerabilities

We work in places that are extremely exposed to climate risk. Of the twenty countries ranked the most vulnerable and the least ready to adapt to climate change by the ND-Gain Index, thirteen are in conflict. This is not only due to their geographical location, but also to the reality that countries and people grappling with the effects of conflict have limited capacity to deal with climate shocks. Conflicts weaken the assets required to adapt, such as institutions, markets and livelihoods and, as seen in Mali, may curtail people’s ability to move in search of vital resources and support.

Take the health care system as an example. Conflict impedes the work of qualified medical personnel who can be trapped by violence, displaced or killed and jeopardizes supply chains of medicines and equipment. Health structures are sometimes targeted in violation of international humanitarian law. The entire system is cut off at the knees, precisely when conflict is also driving an increase in injuries, malnourishment, and preventable disease.

Enter the effects of climate change, which have only been intensifying the situation by driving food insecurity further to brink, destroying health centers with extreme weather events, and creating fertile breeding ground for certain diseases – for instance, malaria and dengue are spreading to areas previously unaffected. In short, combined climate risk and conflict lead to both an upsurge and a shift of health needs, precisely when the health sector is weakened and less capable of adapting to a changing environment.

In contrast, we see that climate action is stronger in more stable countries, as these have functioning structures to develop responses and channel financial resources. In terms of adaptation to climate risk and climate action, there is already a noticeable gap between stable countries and those that are in conflict, fragile or affected by violence. Unless strong efforts are made to address this disparity, this gap will only continue to grow.

Understanding risks to address them – when we can

Against this backdrop, the ICRC is setting out to understand how climate risk and conflict interact and put pressure on communities. This will help us fine tune our responses seeking to bolster the resilience of people facing climate risks, for instance through providing farmers with quality seed adapted to the weather, or by supporting service providers and communities to devise better ways to manage water. This is no simple task. Working in conflict zones is already challenging, even before the increasingly unpredictable weather patterns and repeated extreme weather events are added to the mix.

One thing is clear. Humanitarian responses cannot replace ambitious efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions. Reducing carbon emissions is the only way to avert the most disastrous consequences on people and their environment. Humanitarian organizations will simply not be able to meet the exponentially growing needs resulting from unmitigated climate change, especially where adaptation pathways are elusive. In places like Mali or Iraq, limited adaptation options seem to lead to rapid and unplanned urbanization, forcing us to redirect some of our attention to these areas.

With these parameters in mind, in 2019 we organized a series of roundtables on climate, conflict and resilience with the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and the Overseas Development Institute, to create a space for learning and discussing. In parallel, we carried out research to understand how combined climate risks, environmental degradation and conflict impact people and reflect on how to support them, resulting in practical case studies from northern Mali and southern Iraq; there is another planned for Central African Republic.

We are already seeing recurring trends and a challenging line of questioning, such as: Are there situations where the only possible adaptation for people is to relocate or migrate? If so, what is our role in such circumstances? How can we better understand the role of climate risk and environmental degradation in driving movements towards cities? What are the viable livelihood options in places where people mostly rely on rainfed agriculture and where conflict impedes building or rehabilitating water systems or electricity grids that, among other things, could facilitate livelihood diversification? How can we pull climate action and climate finance toward conflict- or violence-affected communities? How can we ensure that critical structures and systems are in place to facilitate people’s adaptation? How can humanitarian actors join forces to convey the dramatic consequences of the crisis? As humanitarian organizations, to which extent are we able to reduce our own climate and environmental footprint, and to which extent will these efforts transform the way we work and provide humanitarian assistance?

As we continue deepening our understanding and adjusting our ways of working, we need to hear the views and voices of those of you who are experiencing these impacts firsthand, those of you who are trying to develop better responses, those of you who are studying climate and conflict risks or how conflicts can degrade the environment, and those of you who are holding the climate finance purse. We invite you to continue the discussion started here by sharing your comments, or by writing a blog of your own.

The Humanitarian Law & Policy blog’s submission guidelines can be found here to share a contribution on the themes and questions listed above.