Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on U.S. Humanitarian and Disaster Response | Wilson Center

Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on U.S. Humanitarian and Disaster Response

Climate-related disasters could significantly impact military and civilian humanitarian response systems, so “an ounce of prevention now is worth a pound of cure in the future,” said CNA analyst E.D. McGrady at the Wilson Center launch of An Ounce of Preparation: Preparing for the Impact of a Changing Climate on U.S. Humanitarian and Disaster Response. The report, jointly published by CNA and Oxfam America, examines how climate change could affect the risk of natural disasters and U.S. government’s response to humanitarian emergencies. 

Connecting the Dots Between Climate Change, Disaster Relief, and Security

The frequency of – and costs associated with – natural disasters are rising in part due to climate change, said McGrady, particularly for complex emergencies with underlying social, economic, or political problems, an overwhelming percentage of which occur in the developing world. In addition to the prospect of more intense storms and changing weather patterns, “economic and social stresses from agricultural disruption and [human] migration” will place an additional burden on already marginalized communities, he said. 

Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America said the humanitarian assistance community needs to galvanize the American public and help them “connect the dots” between climate change, disaster relief, and security.

As a “threat multiplier,” climate change will likely exacerbate existing threats to natural and human systems, such as water scarcity, food insecurity, and global health deterioration, said Vice Admiral Lee Gunn, USN (ret.), president of CNA’s Institute for Public Research. Major General Richard Engel, USAF (ret.), of the National Intelligence Council identified shifting disease patterns and infrastructural damage as other potential security threats that could be exacerbated by climate change.

“We must fight disease, fight hunger, and help people overcome the environments which they face,” said Gunn. “Desperation and hopelessness are…the breeding ground for fanaticism.”

U.S. Response: Civilian and Military Efforts

The United States plays a very significant role in global humanitarian assistance, “typically providing 40 to 50 percent of resources in a given year,” said Marc Cohen, senior researcher on humanitarian policy and climate change at Oxfam America.

The civilian sector provides the majority of U.S. humanitarian assistance, said Cohen, including the USAID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. These organizations provide leadership, funding, and food aid to developing countries in times of crisis, but also beforehand: “The internal rationale [of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance] is to reduce risk and increase the resilience of people to reduce the need for humanitarian assistance in the future,” said Edward Carr, climate change coordinator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance.

The U.S. military complements and strengthens civilian humanitarian assistance efforts by accessing areas that civilian teams cannot reach. The military can utilize its heavy lift capability, in-theater logistics, and command and control functions when transportation and communications infrastructures are impaired, said McGrady, and if the situation calls for it, they can also provide security. In addition, the military could share lessons learned from its considerable experience planning for complex, unanticipated contingencies with civilian agencies preparing for natural disasters.

“Forgotten Emergencies”

Already under enormous stress, humanitarian assistance and disaster response systems have persistent weaknesses, such as shortfalls in the amount and structure of funding, poor coordination, and lack of political gravitas, said Cohen.

Food-related aid is over-emphasized, said Cohen: “If we break down the shortfalls, we see that appeals for food aid get a better response than the type of response that would build assets and resilience…such as agricultural bolstering and public health measures.” Food aid often does not draw on local resources in developing countries, he said, which does little to improve long-term resilience.

“Assistance is not always based on need…but on short-term political considerations,” said Cohen, asserting that too much aid is supplied to areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq, while “forgotten emergencies,” such as the Niger food crisis, receive far too little. Furthermore, aid distribution needs to be carried out more carefully at the local scale as well: During complex emergencies in fragile states, any perception of unequal assistance has the potential to create “blowback” if the United States is identified with only one side of a conflict.

Engel added that many of the problems associated with humanitarian assistance will be further compounded by increasing urbanization, which concentrates people in areas that do not have adequate or resilient infrastructure for agriculture, water, or energy.

Preparing for Unknown Unknowns

A “whole of government approach” that utilizes the strengths of both the military and civilian humanitarian sectors is necessary to ensure that the United States is prepared for the future effects of climate change on complex emergencies in developing countries, said Engel.

In order to “cut long-term costs and avoid some of the worst outcomes,” the report recommends that the United States:

  • Increase the efficiency of aid delivery by changing the budgetary process;
  • Reduce the demand by increasing the resilience of marginal (or close-to-marginal) societies now;
  • Be given the legal authority to purchase food aid from local producers in developing countries to bolster delivery efficiency, support economic development, and build agricultural resilience;
  • Establish OFDA as the single lead federal agency for disaster preparedness and response, in practice as well as theory;
  • Hold an OFDA-led biannual humanitarian planning exercise that is focused in addressing key drivers of climate-related emergencies; and,
  • Develop a policy framework on military involvement in humanitarian response.

Cohen singled out “structural budget issues” that pit appropriations for protracted emergencies in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur against unanticipated emergencies, like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Disaster-risk reduction investments are not a “budgetary trick” to repackage disaster appropriations but a practical way to make more efficient use of current resources, he said: “Studies show that the return on disaster-risk reduction is about seven to one – a pretty good cost-benefit ratio.” 

Edward Carr said that OFDA is already integrating disaster-risk reduction into its other strengths, such as early warning systems, conflict management and mitigation, democracy and governance, and food aid. However, to build truly effective resilience, these efforts must be tied to larger issues, such as economic development and general climate adaptation, he said.

“What worries me most are not actually the things I do know, but the things we cannot predict right now,” said Carr. “These are the biggest challenges we face.”

Drafted by Kellie Furr and edited by Schuyler Null and Meaghan Parker


  • Lee Gunn

    Vice Admiral, U.S. Navy (Retired); CNA’s Institute for Public Research; Vice Chairman, CNA Military Advisory Board
  • Richard Engel

    U.S. Air Force (retired); Director, Environment and Natural Resources Program, National Intelligence Council
  • Edward Carr

    Professor, International Development, Community, and Environment, Clark University; Former AAAS Fellow, U.S. Agency for International Development
  • E.D. McGrady

  • Marc Cohen

    Oxfam America
  • Paul O'Brien

    Vice President for Policy and Campaigns, Oxfam America