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Scientists and Aid Experts Plan for a Warmer Future

Climate scientists and humanitarian relief workers need to collaborate far more closely to prepare for a future of increased extreme weather events. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Harvard University public health expert Jennifer Leaning analyszes the results of a meeting between these two very different factions.

Harvard University recently sponsored a conference that brought together two groups — climate scientists and humanitarian relief workers — that will undoubtedly be collaborating more closely in the future as natural disasters intensify in a warming world. The woman who was instrumental in opening a dialogue between these two factions was Jennifer Leaning, the director of the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at the Harvard School of Public Health and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

A specialist in disaster response and forced migration, Leaning hoped the summit would shed light on the timing and location of the droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events that are likely to worsen as the climate changes. But as Leaning explained in an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Diane Toomey, the specific predictions that disaster experts sought were not possible. “The humanitarians found that the questions they were asking were not the ones that the climate scientists were prepared to answer,” said Leaning.

Still, the May conference underscored that the coming decades will bring unprecedented challenges for the disaster response community, which must “ramp up our skill set and our collaborations,” said Leaning. “The most sobering aspect of this climate conference,” she added, “was that this problem has got to be met with a societal-wide response. It won’t just be what Doctors Without Borders or the International Rescue Committee can cope with.”

Yale Environment 360: What was the genesis of the conference and how unusual is it for these two communities to speak to each other?

Jennifer Leaning: The genesis was in conversations that the current director of Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and I had with the director of the Harvard Center for the Environment. The three of us were initially talking about a study on how populations adapted to climate change, with migration being an obvious one. We decided that we would first try to get together representatives from the humanitarian community and see if we could discern the trends in climate change that would have relevance to humanitarian response. We were not at all sure how much overlap there would be [with climate scientists]in terms of thinking, discourse, common understanding. And we found it was actually sometimes somewhat difficult to bring the two sides together into a fruitful conversation. But at the end of a few days it was really very successful.

e360: What were some of the obstacles?

Leaning: The humanitarian community needs to know certain kinds of qualitative assessments with a real amount of scientific certainty so that we can plan for areas that will be more likely to be hit by drought, areas that are going to have serious sea level rise, and areas that are going to be most at risk for very heavy storms. And the climate scientists, based on their deep knowledge of the uncertainties, were somewhat reluctant to get into the qualitative assessments that would be useful for policy. The humanitarians found that the questions they were asking were not the ones that the climate scientists were prepared to answer. What the humanitarian community was hoping to get, probably naïvely, were better estimates that suggest, for example. “This region of the Mekong Delta is going to become untenable because of increased flooding and sea level rise.” We couldn’t get that level of certainty.

e360: That must have been a bit disheartening. And also there must have been a realization that it’s going to be very difficult to fundraise around this issue if it is so fraught with uncertainty.

Leaning: Yes, it was frustrating. On the other hand, I think the humanitarians learned a great deal about climate change. Some climate scientists felt concerned that they could not give the kind of answers they knew were important to “real world” human beings about security, drought, forced migration, and coastal threat. Their time scale was very different for two reasons. One is they needed more science, better modeling, more information to be able to deliver the kind of certainties we needed. And the timescale on which these changes take place is much greater than the planning horizon of the humanitarians, who are looking at this year, next year, two or three years out.

e360: At the conference Daniel Schrag, the director of the Harvard Center for the Environment, told the disaster relief community, “We’re going to rely on you to deal with the mess that’s coming.” Did a collective chill go down the spines of the audience when they heard that?

Leaning: I must say it was very sobering. The climate scientists had been trying to draw attention to this at international and national governance levels for a considerable amount of time. I think they were glad to have some serious academic and humanitarian leaders in the audience. And there were some good international officials, but primarily from big UN-based agencies, like the World Food Program, in the audience. There was a silent recognition that the absent participants in this discussion are the national governments that are going to have to develop and impose energy policies that will help [mitigate] this problem.

e360: Has there been a sea change in the past few years in the way major relief organizations are figuring climate change disasters into their planning?

Leaning: There has been a sea change, I would say, in the concern and in the attention humanitarian organizations and major international organizations are giving to climate change. And that is because climate change is going to be reflected in the increase in forced migration of people who have to leave an area that is afflicted by drought or flood because they can no longer earn a livelihood in those areas. This issue of forced migration is a major concern of humanitarians. The coastal areas around the world are among the most heavily populated. And those areas that are now affected intermittently by drought are highly likely to be increasingly affected by drought, food insecurity, and inability to maintain agricultural livelihoods.

But we couldn’t pinpoint a threshold a time when certain people will have to move or find other drastic options. So while this conference substantiated that our concern is very well based in science reality, it failed to support the humanitarian community’s need to have more precise numbers, locations, and time horizons.

e360: So where does that leave the humanitarian community? You have said that disaster relief organizations now need to turn their attention to preparedness, to risk reduction. So at this point what does that look like on the ground?

Leaning: I think the answer to that is unfolding. In the longer run, there is going to be recognition that the most serious places to look at now are urban areas because forced migration from terrain that becomes increasingly untenable is inevitably going to lead people to cities.

There has already been a marked increase on the part of the humanitarian community in interest in urban disasters and urban disasters augmented by a potentially great influx of people over the next 20 to 30 years, which is already starting. So it becomes in many ways an issue of the humanitarian responders having to work much more closely with the development community. How do you make cities viable? How do you improve the water, sanitation, and transport infrastructures? How do you manage the clash of ethnicities as different and diverse people move into these cities? How do you make these cities economic engines that will not just support the current overload of people but the anticipated ones?

e360: It does sound like there needs to be a culture shift within the relief community, which by definition is a reactive one.

Leaning: I think it’s already occurring at the leadership levels of the major humanitarian organizations and international agencies. There is the recognition that the old model of able people managing a refugee camp or helping people who are in flight get to safety and then hunkering down with them and providing shelter, water, sanitation, food, and medical relief… these strategies now have to be embedded as one wing of the humanitarian community. The other wing, which I think is beginning to develop, is how do we help people stay on the land? Where are people going to find it impossible to stay on the land? What are the options for their movement into more viable parts of the world?

This is likely to be part of the planning horizon of humanitarian development communities, noting that some of these areas will probably be able to sustain the populations they have for the next five to 10 years but after that they may not be. And this requires modeling, interaction with local governments and national governments, and increasing dialogue with climate scientists. So at the leadership level of the humanitarian community there is a marked sense that we have to ramp up our skill set and our collaborations with other major entities in world development and planning. We’ve got to be working with water scientists and economists and development experts. And the entire response to these population-based threats and crises cannot be a traditional emergency enterprise that the humanitarian community has [conducted] for the last 40 to 50 years.

e360: Building resilience seems to be a key concept as the humanitarian community thinks about responding to climate change disasters. Define resilience in this context.

Leaning: Resilience means the ability to survive a shock and come back with a capacity to plan, rethink, and build back in an adaptive manner.

e360: It sounds like a very tall order at this point.

Leaning: Well, it is a tall order. Let me pick up two other very interesting ideas that came up in this conference. One is that sometimes we have to look at people who will not move, and may not need to move, if they change their livelihoods, change their skill sets. There are many ways to strengthen and make more resilient populations who, right now, are deeply homogeneous in their skill sets and in their relationship to the land or the water. So those fishermen who know nothing else, what are the options to allow them to stay near the water or above the water and not have to move? So that’s why we need to be working with the development communities to see how people can be helped to adapt and become resilient so they can actually stay home if they want to.

And we need to look at communities that are healthy and thriving, say in urban areas or places that are not going to be so affected by climate change, but who may not be very open to having new people come in. How might we, in a careful and thoughtful mode, have the people who want to leave the high-threat areas become prepared to leave, and then leave on their own? So it’s more of a trickle of people moving rather than a sudden onslaught of 200,000 people outside the city gates.

e360: There was a survey done last year of major relief organizations in which more than half of the agencies said that focusing on disaster risk reduction is a good idea. But only a very small percentage of aid organization spending right now is going toward that. Is it just a matter of funds stretched too thinly? Or is it a matter of convincing the powers that be that disaster risk reduction is the way to go at this point?

Leaning: I would begin by saying the humanitarian community is seriously underfunded and understaffed to deal with the traditional crises that we have been involved in. Consequently, for the humanitarian communities to be able to say, “Yes, we are seriously working on disaster risk reduction,” is to ask them to divert funds from what their classic role is, and they can’t.

We have to look at mitigating strategies so that, as these disasters — whether they’re climate related or not — begin to increase and affect a larger number of people, we can figure out how these populations can be economically supported. The humanitarian community needs to look at property damage, who has insurance, and where is the money going to come from to help people rebuild and recover their livelihoods. The economics of coping with these populations can’t be based on pleas and UN funding from the international community and from ordinary people who are charitable on an ad hoc basis. There needs to be some recognition that a massive disaster fund and insurance fund system should be considered at the regional level or at the international level so that it is not based on appeals every time there’s a major disaster.

e360: When you consider population growth, when you consider failed states, when you consider urbanization, and you lay on top of that the effects of climate change, it does sound like we are headed into a time of perhaps unprecedented levels of disaster.

Leaning: I’d certainly say unprecedented levels of turbulence, both in terms of weather and in terms of population distress. The implications go well beyond the humanitarian community, although you’ll see the humanitarian community there, struggling whenever these events hit ground. The most sobering aspect of this climate conference was that this problem has got to be met with a societal-wide response. It won’t just be what Doctors Without Borders or the International Rescue Committee can cope with.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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