How will the climate change the UN?

Faced with an increasing number of humanitarian crises caused by climate change, the UN will need to adapt in order to ensure it can adequately respond to such crises

Climate change is often seen an inconvenience we hear about that doesn’t tangibly touch our lives, given that the effect of climate change often isn’t immediately obvious on a day-to-day basis. However, climate change is far more than an inconvenience – it will have a direct substantial impact on the lives of billions of people – rich and poor – via humanitarian crises induced by extreme weather [1].

Humanitarian crises are on the rise

Humanitarian crises already place a considerable burden on society; indeed the table in Exhibit 1 demonstrates the extent to which climate-induced humanitarian crises impacted upon human society from 2000-2011 [2].

Climate-induced humanitarian crises from 2000-2011

Exhibit 1: Climate-induced humanitarian crises from 2000-2011

Worryingly, such catastrophic events are predicted to increase in frequency and severity over the next century as the climate continues to warm [1]. For instance, a research paper published in 2012 found, via statistical analysis of observed data, climate modelling and physical reasoning, that heatwaves and precipitation extremes, will greatly increase in a warming climate and indeed have already done so [3]. Similarly, the 2007 and 2012 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports noted that the frequency of humanitarian crises including severe drought and flooding was almost certainty set to increase [4,5]. These crises cannot go unnoticed – and action is needed in order to prepare for them.

The rise in such crises will pose significant challenges for the UN

The United Nations (UN) plays a central role in the co-ordination of the response to such disastrous events. This will undoubtedly lead to the need for adaptation to the operating models of the UN given that the number of such responses, and the geographic breadth over which such responses will have to occur will likely continue to rise too.

The response to crises is primarily funded by the industrialized nations of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Funds flow to UN agencies and various NGOs, who then coordinate the response to the crisis [6]. In the face of an increasing number of crises, the UN needs to have sufficient financial resources to respond to the challenges. As noted in the 2012 report, only 18% of international funding is available in funds that can be immediately drawn down upon in a crisis; the remainder being raised on the basis of appeals and proposals submitted, after the crisis occurs [6]. This funding mechanism is therefore reactive not proactive; and the UN needs to consider whether a greater redundancy of emergency funds is now needed in light of the increasing incidence of such crises. It is worth noting that gaining additional funding is likely to be challenging as global economies struggle and negative rhetoric concerning foreign financial aid dominates the airwaves in developed nations; however appropriately estimating and provisioning for the funding needs to respond to crises is essential in ensuring a robust international response.

Another consideration pertains to the UN’s equipment stockpiles, known as “UN Humanitarian Response Depots”. At present, there are 6 such depots as shown in Exhibit 2 [7]. The UN needs to consider whether the location of its hubs is suitable and in line with the sites of likely international crises. For instance, there appears to be just one hub in Africa, which may need to be reconsidered in light of the frequency of humanitarian crises on this continent. The UN notes the ability to deliver supplies within 24-48 hours – is this quick enough for vital medical supplies? In addition, in the face of increased humanitarian crises, the UN needs to consider whether the size of the hubs should rise as the risk of crises rises. Related to this, the UN needs to consider the supply chain of equipment. Presumably there is a basal level of goods stored in these hubs – however, how long would it take for these hubs to be depleted, and could they respond to multiple crises occurring at once? In these instances, an agile supply chain is necessary, and setting up quick response protocols with suppliers around the world would be a suitable move to mitigate this risk.

The location of UN Humanitarian Response Depots

Exhibit 2: The location of UN Humanitarian Response Depots

Whilst much damage has already been done to the climate by man, the UN need also intensify its battle on man-made climate change in order to potentially limit the occurrence of humanitarian crises of the future.  The 13th of the UN’s sustainable development goal is to “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts” [8] – and indeed, continuing to push this agenda is critical.


In this blog post, I considered just one way in which climate change – via humanitarian crises, will place considerable stress on the UN. As I discussed, the UN needs to ensure that it has robust structural and operational models in place to ensure that it can reach those who need it most when they need it most.

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[1] Climate change 2014: impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability—summary for policymakers. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Working Group II, Fifth Assessment Report. 2014.

[2] EMDAT, C. EM-DAT: The international disaster database. 2011

[3] A decade of weather extremes, D Coumou, S Rahmstorf, Nature Climate Change 2 (7), 491-49. 2012.

[4] Climate change 2007: Synthesis report. Formally-agreed report of the IPCC. 2007.

[5] In Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation. A Special Report of Working Groups I and II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 2012

[6] Climate Change as a Driver of Humanitarian Crises and Response, Feinstein International Center.  2012

[7] UN Humanitarian Response Depots, 2016

[8] UN Sustainable Development Goals,


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Student comments on How will the climate change the UN?

  1. I am appalled about the fact that Africa only hosts one single hub.
    Provided, the continent is by far the largest continent most in need of such disaster relief programs should they be needed ; I am seriously concerned about the way the UN is going to address any potential drawback as it is.

  2. Very interesting article! Despite the staggering number of crises the UN needs to respond to as a result of climate change, what I find even more worrying is the climate change-conflict nexus and the likelihood of climate change related effect increasing the incidence of inter and intra-state violate, placing even further strains on the UN humanitarian response system as well as the UN peacekeeping system. We are already seeing conflict over water rights, grazing rights and other control of resource situations creating conflict at local levels. As climate change exacerbates these effects, I suspect that the incidence of civil conflict and intrastate war will require additional UN resources to address. Similar to the supply issues around humanitarian aid are those of UN peacekeepers, which must be deployed quickly. Also similar, peace keeping operations are underfunded. Will the UN system continue to be able to minimize conflict in these settings?

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