Climate Change Action and the Critical Role of NGOs

Infographic from MHA@GW

Humanitarian crises over the last decade illustrate the concept of inequitable impacts of climate change. The 2011 Horn of Africa famine — caused by a two yearlong drought, a result of the La Niña weather pattern, killed 260,000 people. Typhoon Winston, the worst storm to ever hit Fiji, flattened villages just recently. And a three yearlong drought in Syria exacerbated unstable political conditions that resulted in Europe’s current migrant crisis. Other known results of climate change include El Niño weather patterns, increasing storm activity, and flood and drought conditions. Less-developed countries lack the capacity to absorb these climate shocks.

Policymakers have been slow to provide help. In 1992, the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change first documented the need for assistance to least developed countries — or LDCs, a U.N. classification for countries that exhibit the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development. Ten years later the Marakesh Declaration and Accords established National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPAs), which were plans for communicating the needs of LDCs. By 2013, all 50 LDC countries had submitted. Between the initial recognition of unequal impacts of climate change to the implementation of a plan, the concentration of carbon dioxide increased 12 percent — from 356 ppm in 1992 to 399 ppm in 2013. Meanwhile, governments and international organizations scrambled to slow the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through mitigation programs and policy. But even if all carbon dioxide emissions ceased today, Earth’s land, atmosphere, and oceans would take centuries to reach an equilibrium point.

NGO Involvement

To help combat the effects of climate change, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) work with communities in less-developed countries on issues that impact human development. NGOs connect governments and international institutions with communities that need assistance through programs like UN-REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and carbon markets. Fuel-efficient cook stove projects in southern Africa reduce deforestation, increase carbon sequestration, and lessen smoke inhalation. Sustainable forest management in Latin America raises funds through the sale of forestry carbon credits. However, while NGOs help developing countries mitigate carbon emissions, vulnerable populations still need help adapting to the impacts of climate change.

Adaptation projects include rainwater harvesting mechanisms, growing drought or salt resistant crops, and ecosystem restoration. The best programs embrace the historically rooted adaptive capacity of indigenous communities through local participation.

In Dehigahalanda, Sri Lanka, decades of drought and a rising sea level caused the ground water table to fall and salt water from the Indian Ocean to intrude in its place. This is a serious problem because coastal rice farmers rely on freshwater to grow their crops. Rather than relying on the development of GMO crops, rice farmers turned to traditional rice seeds. With the support of the National Federation of Traditional Seeds and Agri-Resources, and the NGO Practical Action, farmers conducted field trials of 10 different varieties of traditional seeds. Of those 10, farmers identified four varieties that were suitable for coastal rice paddies.

Ecosystem-based adaptation projects help communities adapt through the restoration of ecosystems, therefore bringing co-benefits of adaptation, mitigation, and ecosystem services. Wetlands International is promoting the Green Coast model for climate adaptation in West Africa where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that large coastal populations will be impacted by a rising sea level. The Green Coast model, developed in partnership with International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), restores coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, forest wetlands, coral reefs, and sand dunes. With stronger natural infrastructure, communities not only benefit from protection, but also resources that thrive in a healthy ecosystem — like fisheries, forests, and fresh water.

Finally, technology and key partnerships are helping NGOs to meet the needs of communities. WWF Climate Crowd trains field-based collaborators like Peace Corps volunteers and School for Field Studies students to conduct semi structured interviews on observed changes in weather and the human responses to those changes. Responses, observations and stories from remote communities, which may otherwise never be heard by an international audience, are shared online through an interactive map. Creative partnerships with the strategic help of technology can help direct adaptation efforts to the marginalized and vulnerable communities who need it most.

While the world awaits stronger and more equitable climate policies, less-developed countries will continue to bear an unequal burden. NGOs play a key role in working with communities to lessen the impact of climate change; they facilitate participation, traditional knowledge sharing, and ecosystem-based adaptations. However, consolidated focus on communities, coordinated pressure on policymakers, and creative problem-solving with international institutions is also required by the greater NGO community to push the world in the direction of a stable equilibrium. 

For more information comparing the nations that contribute the most CO2 with the nations that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, see this infographic from MHA@GW, the online Master of Health Administration program offered through The Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University.