Redefining Climate Finance for a Troubled World

Urgently increasing financing to support climate change mitigation and adaptation was the central message at last year’s UN climate change conference (COP) in Dubai. From U.S. vice president Kamala Harris to the conference’s president, Dr. Sultan Al Jaber, world leaders and participants repeatedly made this point. The last two COPs emphasized the inadequacy of financing. Numerous recent reports have also criticized the lack of climate financing for conflict-affected and fragile countries, many of which are in the Middle East.

While increased climate financing is important, the reality is that financing is now competing with many other priorities. In this troubled world, something as vital as climate adaptation for a warming planet risks being relegated to a secondary issue even further. To adapt to this funding crisis, climate financing needs to be incorporated into all private investments, loans, and humanitarian and development aid. To make limited funding more effective, such programs should also confront the governance issues that are often at the core of vulnerability to climate change.

With over 50 civil conflicts raging around the world, and most lasting longer than ever before, aid workers are struggling to respond to growing emergency needs, let alone develop resilience to climate change. On top of that, many traditional donors are further slashing funding. The United States, one of the largest international humanitarian aid donors, is expected to halve its budget for many programs across all humanitarian sectors in 2024. With life-saving programs on the line, aid actors are left without the means to address the deeper cuts of climate change, even though conflict-affected areas are the most vulnerable to its effects.

This dilemma is especially acute in the Middle East, a water-stressed region that continues to rely on humanitarian and stabilization aid to alleviate perennial crises. The World Food Program shut down its primary programs last year in Syria, cutting off millions in need from food aid. Humanitarian workers in Syria lament that they have to choose between funding children’s education and tents for displaced people, according to author interviews. Aid agencies are facing the same difficult choices in Yemen, where Save the Children recently reported a 62 percent reduction in humanitarian aid over the next five years. If emergency food rations are cut, it is difficult to foresee sustainable water and sanitation programming.

More funding is needed but, in the meantime, organizations and governments will have to do more with less. Aid organizations could, for example, develop the equivalent of a National Adaptation Plan (NAP) with local communities, when the central government is unable or unwilling during times of crisis. NAPs assist countries in developing comprehensive medium- to long-term climate adaptation. While the assistance provided by a NAP is important, most Middle Eastern countries still do not have one, and those marked as fragile or conflict-affected often do not have a national government capable of taking it on. If local communities and aid agencies better coordinated around shared plans during difficult times, however, they could ensure that aid programs are supporting resilience. At the very least, this collaboration could ensure that a protracted emergency response does not further harm the environment people depend on over the long-term. Given the increasingly protracted nature of conflicts, the humanitarian sector will need to reevaluate its processes to be more sustainable—a big but, unfortunately, necessary change in their modus operandi.

Fully mainstreaming climate change mitigation and adaptation into existing interventions is not only necessary for financial reasons: failing to consider climate impacts for any project may nullify the effects of climate financing. Even mitigation projects without comprehensive planning could cause or contribute to negative environmental impacts. For example, efforts to increase the supply of water for farmers and lower the use of diesel water pumps have spurred humanitarian professionals to provide solar panels in countries facing long-standing humanitarian crises, such as Yemen and Sudan. However, the negligible cost of pumping after the provision of solar power has led to a dramatic depletion of groundwater. In many cases, those who could afford both diesel and solar pumping simply used both systems to dig deeper for groundwater and pump longer, potentially voiding any positive climate adaptation or mitigation outcomes.

Instead, donors, together with local communities, could coordinate and collaborate to collect and act on data on groundwater levels and quality. By training citizen scientists to monitor water levels and quality, humanitarian and development agencies would be addressing other imperatives such as livelihoods and sanitation.

Subsequent programs to deal with water insecurity could also be planned to target multiple problems even during humanitarian emergencies. Rather than replacing tents and reacting to spikes in waterborne diseases after predictable winter floods every year, humanitarian and development agencies could support public works programs to construct simple drainage systems in displaced persons’ camps to reduce the threat of flooding. Diverting the floods to basic stormwater harvesting systems could also provide much-needed water for crops and livestock in the summer.

Of course, implementing an inclusive and climate-sensitive framework to guide all projects will require more than humanitarian support in crisis settings. And funding scarcity is not the only impediment. In conflict-affected states, especially, it is hard to carry out such programs in a principled way. In areas where warring parties have impeded the simple delivery of food baskets to those most in need, putting in place a comprehensive framework for equitable and sustainable climate adaptation practices can be close to impossible. Without guardrails, climate financing could disappear or entrench existing conflict-driven disparities. Syrian prime minister Hussein Arnous’s call for more climate financing at last year’s COP perfectly illustrates this dilemma, as the Syrian government is responsible for many of the country’s environmental challenges and has extensively diverted aid funding during the war.

Despite these challenges, there is a way forward with greater political commitment. In order to maximize the effectiveness of dwindling aid funds, donor states will need to put diplomatic weight behind comprehensive climate adaptation plans in complex environments. Especially in conflict-affected communities, such programming will require gaining access to and the trust of traumatized and marginalized communities, and often changing the behavior and policies of warring parties. To do so, influential governments, potential investors, and the aid community will need to work together to do more than fund climate adaptation and mitigation: they will need to exercise the diplomatic muscle to make such endeavors successful.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.