One word that can help ease the impact of the climate crisis

It is time to think about providing direct cash assistance to help people in poverty

Rory Stewart,David Miliband
Monday 30 January 2023 13:28 GMT
Pakistan flooding death toll passes 1,000 in ‘climate catastrophe’

It has been six months since flooding drove 33 million people in Pakistan from their homes and submerged a third of the country. Today, 8.6 million people – far greater than the population of Scotland – are still facing hunger.

The poorest people are facing the catastrophic impacts of the human-created climate crisis, even when they are least responsible for the emissions. The 20 countries identified by the International Rescue Committee at the greatest risk of humanitarian disaster in 2023 contribute less than 2 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. A report by 55 vulnerable countries at Cop27 estimated their combined climate-linked losses over the past 20 years at $525 billion. On the anniversary of Pakistan’s devastating floods, we should ask: how can we more effectively help those bearing the brunt of climate crisis disasters worldwide?

There’s one word that can help: money. It is time to think about providing direct cash assistance to help people in poverty adapt to the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Whether in a rapid disaster like a hurricane, or a protracted crisis like a drought, families need cash to meet their immediate needs – such as food or water – and to rebuild for the long term. There are three key ways in which direct cash is key to surviving and rebuilding in the face of climate catastrophe.

The first is immediate recovery. Cash transfers reach families quickly and allow them to determine their own changing needs in a disaster- as opposed to receiving pre-determined aid or donated goods they are forced to sell or leave behind. Giving survivors cash directly and unconditionally allows them to both meet their short-term needs and rebuild their homes and businesses in the long-term. In the face of recurring climate shocks, like the historic drought gripping East Africa, families need cash to address food shortfalls, urgent medical needs, or source water while building resilience to future shocks. Another example is Pakistan – since the floods started in July 2022, the IRC has been providing lifesaving services since early July to flood-affected communities and has now scaled up its emergency response to almost 1 million people.

Second, cash payments outside of emergencies improve resilience to shock. Poverty and cyclical shocks prevent individuals from building resilience; targeted payments encourage development during more stable periods. Take Namasoopo, a grandmother in the mountainous eastern Uganda. Three years ago, rains caused a landslide in the middle of the night, killing half of her family. Today, she is raising her surviving grandchildren but has been unable to afford to move to a safer area. Now she’s receiving cash aid from GiveDirectly and says, “I plan to use the funds to get a safer place away from the disasters, construct a better house, and purchase two goats.” An academic study found a year after these payments, families had improved monthly earnings by 71 per cent and made lasting farming investments. Cash gives people – and women in particular – the power to make choices for themselves and cycle the money through local markets and local communities.

Third, and most significantly, cash transfers assist families before predictable disasters strike. Early warning systems that predict drought, hurricanes and floods can be paired with early action systems that trigger cash transfers as soon as a crisis is detected – often helping prevent the worst impacts on individuals altogether. When comparing families in Bangladesh who received cash aid days before a 2020 flood to those who did not, researchers found they were 12 per cent more likely to evacuate and 36 per cent less likely to go hungry. Months later, they were in better shape financially and mentally.

Despite the evidence, far too little cash relief is reaching families already living the reality of extreme weather. The historic “loss and damage” fund agreed at Cop27 is an important gesture in advancing climate justice for poorer nations, but it will not be meaningful if it follows in the desultory footsteps of the unfulfilled $100 billion pledge for climate financing made in 2009. Less than a quarter of that pledge is reaching developing countries for adaptation, with as little as less than 1 per cent delivered as cash. A more appropriate target called for by the United Nations is 50 per cent of all climate finance to adaptation. This would help scale the use of cash in supporting people to adapt to climate change.

For millions of the world’s poorest and crisis-affected individuals, extreme weather is today’s, not tomorrow’s, problem. The future depends on urgent, clear and practical steps for prioritising adaptation, not merely acts of charity. Direct cash aid, whether before, during or after an emergency, is a tool for the most vulnerable to effectively adapt, survive and rebuild in the face of a climate crisis they did the least to create. Now is the time to surge on cash support in the climate crisis, lest we deprive those bearing the brunt of climate change of the tools to survive it.

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