A Climate for Change: Towards a Humanitarian Climate and Environment Charter

October 2020
By Catherine-Lune Grayson
Policy Adviser, International Committee of the Red Cross;

Tessa Kelly
Climate Change Coordinator, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance due to the climate crisis today has reached an unprecedented level. As more than 51.6 million individuals have been recorded to be directly affected by floods, droughts or storms, it is all the more crucial for the humanitarian sector to react and come up with pressing solutions. In this regard, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has demonstrated the important role it has on the ground in reducing risks and addressing the impacts of climate change. With important events ranging from last year’s 33rd International Conference, to the more recent Climate: Red Summit on 9-10 September, the Red Cross Red Crescent network has demonstrated its preparedness to anticipate climate shocks and hazards before they hit. As “unprecedented” events are becoming the new normal, it is now more crucial than ever to take appropriate climate adaptation action.

The Story

The impacts of climate change have continued to be felt throughout 2020, as COVID-19 was spreading, dramatically affecting people’s health and lives. From cyclones in the Pacific and typhoons in Asia, to hurricanes in the Americas, heatwaves and wildfires in Europe and California, and flooding in Africa – the climate crisis has far from stopped in the midst of a pandemic, leaving us with no choice but to address the humanitarian impacts of both crises simultaneously. Recent IFRC and Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre research shows that at least 51.6 million people globally have been recorded as directly affected by an overlap of floods, droughts or storms and the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, it is estimated that over 430 million people across the world have been exposed to extreme heat during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Climate change is driving and exacerbating risks and affecting all dimensions of people’s lives, from their safety, to their health, to their access to water or food, to their livelihoods. The most vulnerable communities are on the frontlines. Climate change has therefore moved from being a purely “environmental” issue to one that is driving and requiring urgent humanitarian action. Last year, IFRC analysis revealed that the number of people needing life-saving international humanitarian assistance could double by 2050, if climate change goes unchecked and we fail to invest in bold adaptation and mitigation efforts. Even today, our news headlines are filled with updates of “unprecedented” floods, wildfires and heatwaves. If our new normal is to deal with “unprecedented” events, how are we as a humanitarian network stepping up?

During the IFRC’s Climate: Red Summit on 9-10 September, we heard a resounding call to action from the Red Cross Red Crescent network. Convening more than 10,000 participants, over 30 jam-packed hours with some 200 sessions, the Climate: Red Summit demonstrated the enormous and multi-faceted impacts of climate change and the important role that National Red Cross Red Crescent Societies are playing on the ground in reducing risks and addressing impacts. One of the key goals of the Summit was to “put wind in the sails” of our ambition to better tackle the consequences of the climate crisis, in particular through operationalizing the commitments made at the 33rd International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent and in IFRC’s Strategy 2030, which places the ‘climate and environmental crises’ at the top of a list of five global challenges that must be addressed in the coming decade, as well as in ICRC’s 2019-2022 Institutional Strategy that includes adaptation to the combined consequences of conflict and climate shocks as one of its key objectives.

Last year, at the 33rd International Conference, the IFRC, ICRC, National Societies and states put the spotlight on the humanitarian impacts of the climate crisis and, for the first time in history, connected the climate and humanitarian agendas through a virtual event that brought together the UNFCC COP25 in Madrid and the International Conference in Geneva.

The IFRC, ICRC and a collection of National Societies also put their commitments to paper, drafting the Movement Ambitions to Address the Climate Crisis, and entering into a new pledge on Strengthening the resilience of communities to climate change & environmental degradation through climate-smart humanitarian action. This pledge articulates the ambitions of Movement partners to improve our work by systematically integrating changing climate risks into the way we plan our programmes and operations so that we are no longer caught off guard by “unprecedented” events, but well prepared to anticipate climate shocks and hazards before they hit. Equally, we committed to take a hard look at greening our own practice and to reduce our impact on the environment and the climate.

Our own work and behaviour, however, can only go so far. In addition to calling for more ambitious mitigation measures, we have the opportunity, and perhaps the duty, to seek to improve the practice of the broader humanitarian system. We feel it is time to complement the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations in Disaster Relief with clear, simple and aspirational commitments on climate and the environment that can guide the humanitarian community.

There are several practical tools to enable humanitarian organizations to better use scientific forecasts at different timescales and to reduce the environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions of humanitarian operations. But there is no simple document that brings together key commitments for the humanitarian community on climate and the environment. We therefore committed in our pledge to developing a charter on climate and environment with and for the broader humanitarian system.

Following initial discussions with a steering committee made up of humanitarian organizations and networks, and climate and environment experts, we took the discussion to the Climate: Red Summit. There, we opened up the conversation to all National Societies, convening sessions that were interpreted in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. In the coming months, we will seek contributions from across the Movement and the broader humanitarian sector to help shape this new “benchmark” for our humanitarian community.

As IFRC’s 2019 Cost of Doing Nothing report showed, if appropriate climate adaptation action is taken now, the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance due to the climate crisis could stabilize and even drop. But the time to act is now. And in order to be able to step up to that challenge, we need to collectively improve our practice and ensure the humanitarian system is more equipped and prepared to face the climate crisis.

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