Part one: Global Trends

Humanitarian Action Must Adapt to Climate Change Realities

Beira, Mozambique

A young girl from Nharrime, Mozambique, takes shelter in Samora Machel School in Beira. She is escaping the winds and heavy rain of Tropical Cyclone Eloise, which made landfall on 23 January 2021 with wind speeds of 160 km per hour. As the storm disrupted many key communications systems, UNICEF emergency teams designed a quick and efficient relief response for the most immediate needs, namely shelter, food, water, medical attention, and the protection of children from abuse and exploitation. The school is offered food and shelter to 659 people sleeping in classrooms. UNICEF/Ricardo Franco

The climate crisis is no longer a distant threat in the future. Its effects are happening now, impairing human rights, creating new humanitarian needs and exacerbating and protracting those that already exist. 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record, with a global mean temperature of 1.2 °C above pre-industrial times. The past six years were the hottest on record, and 2010-2019 was the hottest decade on record, characterized by climate- and extreme-weather-related disasters, such as heatwaves, droughts, tropical storms and acute floods.

Alarming evidence from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows that major tipping points and irreversible changes to the climate may have already been reached or passed. This is an existential climate reality that all stakeholders, including humanitarian actors, will need to adapt to.

Climate-related disaster events are becoming more frequent and variable, creating heightened levels of risk and vulnerability, negatively impacting human rights and disrupting livelihoods and threatening lives around the globe. A total of 389 climate-related disasters were recorded in 2020, resulting in the deaths of 15,080 people, affecting 98.4 million others and inflicting $171.3 billion in economic damage.

2020 exceeded the average number of recorded climate-related events and associated economic losses compared to average annual data taken over the previous two decades. Records show 26 per cent more storms, 23 per cent more floods and 18 per cent more deaths from floods compared to the average. Many of these extreme events happened consecutively, leaving little time for recovery from one shock to the next.

Occurence of Natural Disasters (1945-2020)

The climate emergency is a threat multiplier, contributing not only to more frequent and intense climate-related disasters but also conflict, driving displacement and making life harder for those already forced to flee. The collapse of natural ecosystems is also fuelling food insecurity and economic, human rights and societal challenges.

People caught in humanitarian crises are already among those most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Should the 1.5°C and 2°C targets be missed, humanitarian consequences are projected to increase exponentially and will gradually become global. 

Among the top 15 countries classified as most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to climate change, 12 had a HRP in 2020. Humanitarian needs in these countries are becoming more and more protracted. Haiti, Mali, Niger and Yemen have had an inter-agency humanitarian appeal for at least 10 consecutive years; Afghanistan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Chad for at least 15 consecutive years; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia and Sudan for at least 20 consecutive years.

Of these countries, 12 had concurrent public health emergencies with COVID-19, and all 15 were in a state of conflict or high-institutional or social fragility In 8 countries, at least 15 per cent of the population was experiencing levels of acute food insecurity or worse (IPC Phase 3 or above), and 14 had moderate to high risk of debt distress or were already in debt distress.

Most Vulnerable Countries to Climate Change

The humanitarian system needs to link up with monitoring systems to understand and anticipate what lies ahead in the immediate future on a global level. In this way humanitarians can prepare for and advocate for the transformative action needed to adapt to and mitigate the worst consequences of climate change.  It is essential that these measures are identified now to ensure the system effectively and efficiently fulfills its mandate in a changing climate.

Humanitarian costs are highest in countries that are most vulnerable and least ready to adapt to the suite of climate shocks and stresses. Yet, these countries are also the least responsible for global warming, contributing only 0.2 per cent of global emissions in 2019, and comprising only 4.2 per cent of the global population.

Financing for climate adaptation is still woefully insufficient and does not prioritize the countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. Although policies and planning for climate change adaptation are increasing, financing and implementation lag behind. The top 15 most vulnerable countries received less than 6 per cent of global adaptation finance in 2019.

To narrow these gaps, shifts are needed towards integrated and longer-term climate risk and impact management by humanitarian stakeholders. Addressing acute humanitarian needs requires the introduction of more anticipatory and preparedness measures, multi-year outcomes, the increased use of flexible cash assistance, in addition to programmes and clearer strategies that prioritize equity, inclusion and access to information for affected communities. This implies deploying multi-risk management strategies to build capacities to prevent, anticipate, absorb, adapt and transform in the face of climate change. Improved participation, connectivity and complementarity across sectors will help efforts to better communicate the risks and impacts of the climate crisis with local communities, humanitarian and development actors, Governments and donors. Such actions will strengthen community resilience to future shocks and place human rights and humanitarian action as an essential part of global climate-adaptation efforts.

Further reading


  1. World Meteorological Organization, State of the Global Climate 2020.
  2. World Meteorological Organization, 2020 State of Climate Services.
  3. IPCC, Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
  4. CRED, UNDRR, UCLouvain and USAID, 2020: The Non-COVID Year in Disasters, Global Trends and Perspectives.
  5. CRED, UNDRR, UCLouvain, and USAID, 2020: The Non-COVID Year in Disasters, Global Trends and Perspectives.
  6. UNHCR, Key Messages and Calls To Action COP26
  7. According to the Notre-Dame Global Adaptation Initiative (ND-GAIN). ND-GAIN measures a country’s vulnerability to climate change in combination with its readiness to improve resilience.
  8. According to data from the OCHA Financial Tracking System Humanitarian Response Plans 2020.
  9. According to data from the OCHA Financial Tracking System Humanitarian Response Plans 2000-2020.
  10. World Health Organization, Health Emergency Dashboard.
  11. According to data from the World Bank’s FY21 List of Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations.
  12. 2021 Global Report on Food Crises.
  13. European Union, Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR).
  14. UN-DESA, 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects.
  15. UNEP, The Adaptation Gap Report 2021: The Gathering Storm. Adapting to climate change in a post-pandemic world. Nairobi, 2021
  16. According to data from the OECD-DAC’s Creditor Reporting System.
  17. United Nations Common Guidance on Helping Build Resilient Societies, 2021.