17&18 OCTOBER 2019

The climate crisis – a humanitarian emergency

***Doctors of the World Germany, the German Red Cross, MSF Germany  and the Berlin Chamber of Physicians together with Greenpeace appeal to industrialised nations to confront their special responsibility for the climate crisis and to take action***

The climate crisis is not only an ecological disaster, but also a humanitarian one. Its effects are already being felt worldwide and are affecting everyone. Climate change is already triggering humanitarian crises or exacerbating their consequences - a development that will intensify even further. The latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warn urgently against irreversible, dramatic consequences for humankind and nature if we do not limit the rise in global temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius by rapidly and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are confronted with a climate crisis that has devastating consequences for global health and the humanitarian situation worldwide. In particular, vulnerable people affected by poverty are suffering today from the consequences of climate change and will be most severely affected by future climate-related damage.

As humanitarian organisations and doctors, we experience how environmental factors can deepen humanitarian crises on a daily basis. The climate crisis is a humanitarian emergency.

At the beginning of this year, following dramatic floods caused by Cyclone Idai [1], a massive emergency operation was launched in Mozambique. A few weeks later, when people were still struggling with the consequences of the first disaster, a second hurricane hit the country. It was the first time in history[2] that two cyclones hit Mozambique in a single season. The extent of the damage caused by these consecutive disasters was a wake-up call[3] to prepare for more severe tropical cyclones, coastal flooding and heavy rainfall related to climate change, according to a statement by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) of the United Nations. Floods also pose an increased risk of diseases such as cholera. The cyclone also left behind large areas of stagnant water, making them ideal breeding grounds for disease spreading mosquitoes[4]. Furthermore, the water flooded fields just before harvest time, destroying an estimated 1.8 million hectares of crops and threatening food security in an area where people are already at risk from malnutrition.[5]

With warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and heavy rainfall, an increase in climate-sensitive diseases[6] is to be expected. Alongside diseases such as cholera, these include vector-borne diseases that are spread by a growing number of mosquitoes and ticks, such as malaria, dengue fever and Lyme disease. Severe dengue fever affects most Latin American and Asian countries and, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), is a major cause of hospitalization and death of children and adults in these regions. Globally, the prevalence of dengue fever has increased twenty-fold over the last half-century, to around 390 million infections in 2010. This is partly due to rising temperatures and the associated spread of the mosquito species that carry and spread the disease[7]. Honduras is particularly affected by climate change and, after a long rainy season, is struggling with the most severe outbreak of dengue fever in 50 years.[8]

For every headline in Europe, there is a multitude of disasters and associated humanitarian crises worldwide.

We witness malnutrition due to drought and water scarcity in places like Lake Chad in the Sahel. Lake Chad was once one of the largest lakes in Africa and an important source of water for people in the neighbouring countries of Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger. Overuse and drought have resulted in people not having enough water to drink, cook or wash, let alone irrigate their crops to ensure future yields. Children in particular are exposed to a high risk of malnutrition, which in turn affects their development and can weaken their immune system. This makes them more susceptible to other deadly diseases such as malaria. It is estimated that 422 million people in 30 countries are malnourished due to climate-related food production problems.[9]

Climate change and environmental degradation will contribute to record levels of migration and displacement. Estimates vary widely, but the most frequently cited forecast is that current trends predict around 200 million climate migrants by 2050.[10] People who are forced to leave their homes because of climate change continue to face a variety of threats. They lose support systems and are often extremely vulnerable to violence and disease.

It is particularly tragic that the negative effects of the climate crisis are most heavily borne by the countries that produce the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, many of which are affected by poverty. The effects of the climate crisis thus affect many countries and people who find it especially difficult to adapt to rapidly changing and challenging circumstances. Many communities are already responding to the consequences of the climate crisis, yet are all too often abandoned.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that environmental activists from around the world, who have been campaigning against climate change for decades, as well as humanitarian actors, are increasingly exposed to restrictions and criminalisation. They are labelled terrorists[11] and are hindered in their work by state or private actors. Like humanitarian actors, many environmentalists put their own lives at risk on a daily basis. We therefore consider it all the more important that we join forces with other actors in order to contribute to a stronger movement.

To take decisive action against climate change and environmental degradation is not just an act of solidarity, but our shared responsibility.

We ourselves must set a good example and take account of the environmental impact of our own relief efforts. We have a duty to ensure that humanitarian operations do not cause more damage than they do good. The climate crisis is undoubtedly man-made and the task of humankind is to combat it.

The most disadvantaged and those most affected must be at the centre of this, in accordance with humanitarian principles. As civil society organisations, it is our joint responsibility to take a firm stand against the climate crisis and the destruction of the environment. The industrialised countries, including Germany, bear a special responsibility as the main contributors to the climate crisis. They must reduce their own emissions much more than currently planned whilst simultaneously supporting poorer countries in protecting themselves against the consequences of climate change and developing a climate-friendly economy. They are obliged to assume their responsibility for the humanitarian consequences of their emissions and the distress of those affected. The industrialised countries must take action against the climate crisis before it multiplies humanitarian disasters - for the benefit of humankind and the planet.