Humanitarian and climate policies are intrinsically linked. What humanitarians do, no matter how well-intentioned, has an impact on the environment and the communities in which they serve.
With a decades-long feedback loop around emissions that are released today and how they’re experienced on the ground, how can humanitarians ensure they’re helping to alleviate suffering, and not adding to it for future generations?
In this episode of I Think You’re On Mute, your host Beth Eggleston explores COP28 and why it’s important for the humanitarian sector to be engaged, what we’re looking to see, and the steps we can take to green the humanitarian system, with climate experts and researchers Jess Van Son, Jesse McCommon, and Dr Vili Iese.
Podcast host and guests
Beth is the Director of the Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) and co-founded the organisation in 2012. She has worked in the humanitarian sector specialising in civil-military coordination and humanitarian reform for the last two decades and has field experience in Afghanistan, Liberia, Tonga, Costa Rica, Laos PDR, Timor-Leste, and Vietnam.
Jessica (Jess) Van Son
Jess is a climate expert and researcher with almost a decade’s worth of experience working on migration and displacement issues across the Asia Pacific region with the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, with experience in policy, advocacy, research, strategy and peer-to-peer learning. She is currently undertaking a Master’s of Climate Change at the Australian National University.
Jesse is a Leader at HAG and provides research and technical support across all three streams of the Humanitarian Horizons research program. She maintains a special focus on HAG’s climate and environment portfolio, and has specialist knowledge in climate and disaster resilience, climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, localisation process, and humanitarian reform.
Te’o Lau Dr Viliamu (Vili) Iese
Vili is the Associate Director of the Victoria Drought Resilience Adoption & Innovation Hub and has a long career across climate-change adaptation and disaster risk management, with skills and expertise in sustainable agriculture, food-system resilience, climate change and its effect on agriculture, agro-biodiversity and developing resilience of communities and industries.
Holding a PhD in Climate Change, Vili has more than 52 peer-reviewed publications to his name and has engaged in teaching, research, training and student supervision across 15 Pacific Island Countries.
Podcast research and links
- Humanitarian Horizons | Creating communication that works: humanitarians and the climate crisis
- Humanitarian Horizons | Greening the System research stream
- Humanitarian Horizons | Framework for Greening Humanitarian Action in the Pacific
- Humanitarian Horizons | Behind the Scenes: Developing the Framework for Greening Humanitarian Action in the Pacific
- Loss and Damage Collaboration on X (Twitter)
- Dr. Siobhan McDonnell on X (Twitter)
Beth Eggleston: Before we begin, I’d like to Acknowledge the Traditional Custodians and their ancestors of the unceded lands and waters on which we live, work and depend. We recognise all First Nations Peoples around the world and celebrate their enduring connections to Country, and pay our respects to Elders, past, present, and emerging.
You may have heard the buzz around COP 28 taking place in the United Arab Emirates, but what even is COP and why is it important for the international humanitarian sector to be engaged? These are the questions we’ll be discussing in this episode of I Think You’re On Mute, a podcast exploring who’s talking and who’s listening in a humanitarian emergency and how we can improve humanitarian response for the better. I’m your host, Beth Eggleston.
So to start at the beginning, COP is the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. You can see why they just call it COP. The Conference of Parties have been meeting every year since 1995 to look at progress on climate action. COP is the world’s highest decision-making process on climate issues. It sets the agenda, reviews, progress, and is often characterised by marathon lengthy negotiations that go down to the wire. It is COP that negotiated the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement. COP meetings are a massive thing. They’ve been held from Germany to Morocco, from Japan to Kenya. And for COP 28 in 2023, 70,000 people are expected to converge on the United Arab Emirates. So what will be happening at COP 28? Well a big ticket item will be the first global stocktake of the Paris Agreement. This process is designed to assess the global response to the climate crisis every five years. It evaluates the world’s progress on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, building resilience to climate impacts, and securing finance and support to address the climate crisis. At COP24 in Poland in 2018, countries agreed that the global stocktake would address climate progress in three key areas mitigation, adaptation and means of implementation, including finance, technology transfer and capacity building. Additionally, the global stocktake is meant to address loss and damage, helping assess the actions and support needed to respond to climate impacts that go beyond what communities and ecosystems can actually adapt to.
I’m excited to be joined by Jess Van Son, a climate expert and researcher. I’m keen to learn from her reflections on COP and what could result from this gathering in Dubai. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jess, I’m really excited to learn from your reflections on the COP process, in particular in the lead up to COP28. I’m keen for our audience to get to know you a bit better, so if you are able to introduce yourself and a bit about your research, that would be great. Thanks.
Jess Van Son: Hi, everyone. My name’s Jess Van Son. I’m a humanitarian who’s working, been working in the sector for almost ten years. My role is at the Australian Red Cross as an advisor on migration and displacement. I’m also doing a master’s of climate change at the moment, focusing on climate mobility across the Pacific and the role of humanitarian actors in that space. And today I’ll just be responding to questions from my own perspective and on behalf of the Red Cross.
Beth Eggleston: Thanks so much, Jess. Jess, I’d love you to share with us your views on why it’s important for the humanitarian sector to be involved in COP, and what this has looked like in the past, and where you think engagement is headed.
Jess Van Son: Thanks, Beth. So I think it’s very important for humanitarian agencies to be involved in the COP process, both in the lead up to and during the conference. Part of that is because of the unique role that humanitarian actors have as being embedded in local communities and understanding the issues that are happening on the ground, but also part of globalised networks with access to decision-makers at local, national and global levels. So it means that they’ve got an important brokering or bridging role where they can amplify issues that are happening on the ground, but also use that information to drive actual change on climate impacts and action and make sure that the local solutions that are happening are being made aware of at that global level. Just in terms of where the future role can go for humanitarian actors, I think there’s a real opportunity for delegations that attend COP meetings to better represent the communities that they’re serving, and that’s really important for cultural and contextual communication of key issues and values and solutions to be made by humanitarians with lived experience at that global level to make sure that those outcomes are really being driven home.
Beth Eggleston: I love what you were saying about humanitarian agencies playing a bridging role. I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s a really excellent way to put it. And Jess, much of your research has looked at the intersection of climate change, migration and displacement, you know, really complex issues. What is COP 28 hoping to achieve in this space, do you think?
Jess Van Son: So, I mean, there’s a lot of events on climate change and mobility at the COP meeting this year. I think there’s 12 different events and covering a whole range of things, from human rights to the protection of cross-border displaced people and even integrating mobility into climate adaptation plans and disaster laws and policies. So these are all really important, but I think the real key things are around the mitigation space, so making sure that we are not putting any more harm into the climate system because we know that there’s a 20 year feedback loop around emissions that are released today and how they’re experienced on the ground. So keeping to 1.5 is critical and also around making sure that we’ve got the adaptation finance commitments met and doubled that have already been agreed to by governments and obviously the loss and damage space as well. So all those countries and communities that are on the front lines of climate risk at this point in time, making sure that they’ve got the finance available to them, which is a core issue of climate justice.
Beth Eggleston: Yes and on that issue of loss and damage, that’s something that there’s been a lot of discussion about at the moment. Tell us a little bit more about what this policy agenda on loss and damage is, what some of the recent developments are, and also, if you could explain a little bit about why noneconomic loss and damage really matters.
Jess Van Son: So loss and damage is such a critical and important area that does sit alongside mitigation and adaptation, because when we talk about things that cannot be adapted to or limits to adaptation, that’s when we move into the loss and damage space. So as I mentioned, it’s that core issue of climate justice. And loss and damage can be economic or non-economic and if I talk about my research on the Pacific, if we talk about climate displacement, economic costs might be damaged homes or damaged infrastructure or lost incomes. But what’s often more important to Pacific peoples is those intangible non-economic costs, so the loss of human life, the loss of ecosystems services, the loss of traditional livelihoods, the loss of ancestral, land, the loss of identity and places of belonging. And these are really complex things, and they’re already happening across the region, and they’re happening at increasing speed and this is why Pacific leaders are so urgently asking for the experience and the magnitude of loss that’s happening across the region to be better understood by decision-makers and by donors and that’s where the importance of non-economic loss and damage assessments come into play, so that making sure we can actually document and understand what’s already been lost, but also look at what’s occurring in that lost environment now that might be irreversible so we can actually start planning and preparing for that to minimise it as much as possible and obviously to compensate for that irreversible loss that that can’t be recovered. And just in terms of the mechanics of the loss and damage space at COP27 last year in Egypt, there was an agreement for that fund. It was a monumental agreement that was made for that fund to be set up and a transitional committee was put in place to look at what would be the mechanics of that fund and what it would look like in terms of governance and location and sources of funding and so forth. And that committee has met four times already this year, they’re about to meet for a fifth time because there’s a whole range of issues that have come up and I won’t go into too much detail, but some of the issues in working out the mechanics of that fund is, for example, where it’s going to be hosted. So Global North countries want it to be hosted by the World Bank and Global South countries on the front line dealing with these finance challenges, they don’t want that for a whole range of reasons, and that’s causing some tensions between that negotiating space. There’s also the issue of who can access the fund, so what countries are considered most vulnerable and that’s a really tricky challenge to work through as well, because there are so many countries that are vulnerable. So working out who can access the fund is another point of tension. And then finally, the issue around the non-economic loss and damage. I think there’s still a whole range of negotiations that need to take place and what’s going to get across the line. We’re not quite sure at this point in time. But I just will say, if any of your listeners are interested in learning more, I really suggest for them to follow the Loss and Damage Collaboration on X or Twitter, which we are posting updates daily, and also the brilliant Dr. Siobhan McDonnell, who is a leading Pacific loss and damage negotiator and she’s also my supervisor at Uni, and she will be posting daily updates too. So there’s some great resources for people who want to find out how things are going.
Beth Eggleston: Thank you so much, Jess. Will posts of links to those resources in the show notes so our listeners can have access to those and follow along. And I really look forward to touching base with you after COP28 to find out how some of these aspects have been progressed and let’s hope we see some decision making going in the right direction. So thank you so much, Jess, it’s been such a pleasure to chat with you.
Jess Van Son: Thank you, Beth, thanks for having me.
Beth Eggleston: So now you’re across what COP is, the next question is why is it important for the international humanitarian system to be engaged at COP28? I mean, aren’t we the ones saving lives and our long term development cousins are the ones working on structural reform and sorting out the big issues? Well, it turns out it’s not that simple.
SOUNDBITE: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres
Climate change is here. It is terrifying and it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended, the heat of global boiling has arrived. The air is unbreathable, the heat is unbearable, and the level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is unacceptable. Leaders must lead. No more hesitancy, no more excuses, no more waiting for others to move first. There is simply no more time for that.
Beth Eggleston: That was the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, earlier this year, trying again to raise the alarm on just how serious climate change has already become. It was some time ago that the humanitarian sector realised that it was no longer acceptable to only be involved in responding to the impacts of climate change – the typhoons, sea level rise, heatwaves, droughts – and we must also contribute to driving climate action, and looking at the way in which the sector operates. So how can humanitarian agencies add value in this space? One is mobilising and raising awareness with the communities we partner with, the governments we work with, and the general public. That’s not an easy task. Climate messaging is notorious, difficult, so we undertook some research in partnership with the Behavioural Architects to understand why and what the message needs to look like in order to change behaviour. It turns out the humanitarian sector perceives a number of barriers to communicating about the climate emergency. Firstly, neutrality and the politicisation of climate change. Secondly, emergency messaging is too frightening or overwhelming, leading people to disengage. And lastly, issue fatigue and information overload. Sound familiar? None of these are probably a shock to you. So what works? Some of the findings that we came up with include positive framing, focusing on human stories, helping your audience connect the global to the local, leveraging humanitarian principles and weaving evidence into your narrative. These are principles we can use throughout our work as we seek to embed a climate perspective across all humanitarian programs.
In the lead up to COP28, we’ve also been doing more thinking in our research at Humanitarian Advisory Group, in particular our Greening the System research stream. I’m thrilled to be able to chat with our team member, Jesse who’s been working in this space for several years now. So welcome, Jesse. Thank you so much for joining us very late at night in the US. We really appreciate you taking the time and I’m very keen to hear from you because you’ve worked for several years on the Greening the System research, but before we get into that, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Jesse McCommon: Thanks, Beth. It’s so wonderful to be able to join you. So my name’s Jesse McCommon, and I’m a leader with P&G and I’m working predominantly on the environment and climate stream, but also take talk around for a few other pieces of work that we do as well, looking into localisation, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, sort of the whole lot.
Beth Eggleston: Thank you, Jesse. And that’s really why I was so keen to get your thoughts this evening. You really played a key role in actually designing what our Greening the System research stream looks like, so I was keen for you to tell us a bit about the process and what you actually hope to achieve through this research stream.
Jesse McCommon: Well, Beth as you know very well, we went through a massive design process for this stream and for the research program in its entirety, and we got a lot of different feedback and perspectives from humanitarians all around the world, what their priorities are, what they wanted to see. And what we heard was that humanitarians are really starting to prioritise climate and obviously this has been growing for a long time now, but I think more recently say in the past several years, we’ve gotten to a point where it’s no longer a debate, it’s no longer discussion – people are ready to take action. They’re, especially humanitarians are seeing these, you know, catastrophic impacts and consequences all around the world and it became a really, really big priority and it was a space that HAG was really keen to get into. We were really interested and wanted to sort of figure out how we could join that conversation and how we could really support the sector to move in this more green, clean climate, considerate direction, because as we all know, it’s the kind of thing that often gets put in the too hard basket, I think, as we like to call it, where it’s just something that seems it’s such an immense problem, it’s so difficult to tackle, it was you know, categorised as out of the humanitarian scope for a long time. So it was a big problem sort of and a big mountain to take it over, I think, with this stream. So what we really wanted to do was figure out a way to at least move the conversation in the right direction and start looking at how we could push the sector towards this greener, cleaner action, thinking, strategies, how we can make that more accessible, how you can make that easier for people to do. How would you get people excited about this and really able to take those next steps? So when we were designing the stream, that is really what we had in the back of our mind, we weren’t trying to create really technical tools, we wanted to sort of unite the sector behind a common vision. We wanted to create some really practical, accessible guidance and tools and steps people could take to start walking in the right direction. And so that’s, I think what we really wanted to get out of it is just sort of to create that evidence base and to start to put some of the practical guidance and accessible information out there for operational agencies and actors to be able to implement and take forward.
Beth Eggleston: Thanks, Jessie. That’s what I love about it, that the practical element, I think that that’s really key and Jessie, you’ve been across many of the different products. What has been the most interesting thing that you’ve learned in the Greening the System stream so far?
Jesse McCommon: Oh, so that’s a tough question. I would have to say, I think one of the most interesting things that we’ve learned throughout this research is we have decided to focus our tools a lot on the Pacific region, just as that’s a big focus for HAG and we really heard through our research that it was important for these tools and the guidance to be a bit more contextualised, a bit more specific, really actionable, so it’s not just sort of broad, high level conceptual ideas, but it’s really operational, actionable activities. And so we spend a lot of time consulting and working with Pacific Islanders. We had a lot of workshops, a lot of interviews across the range of the spectrum and talking to local actors, national, regional, international and trying to really get a good idea of what they wanted to see in this framework. And what I thought was so interesting is all of the incredible work that is already going on in the region. So this is such a huge priority for the Pacific because obviously they’re incredibly vulnerable to the impacts of the change in climate and increasing disasters and sea level rise. So there’s so much great work already going on, especially at the local level, at the grassroots level. What I found really interesting is all of the work that is building on traditional knowledge and traditional practice and things that have been in place for years and years and years that finally I think humanitarians are doing a better job of recognising and realising how valuable that knowledge is and how much we really can learn just from listening to people and having these consultations and pulling in different perspectives across sort of this broad spectrum, and yeah, how we can build on all of that great work that’s happening already on the ground and I think that is such an important part of this research and something that I’m really keen to explore further.
Beth Eggleston: Yes, I think that that element of listening is absolutely key and I suppose I’m interested to learn lastly Jesse from you, you’ve mentioned that we’ve been developing these practical tools. What kind of what can operational agencies take from those tools? What do you hope that those agencies are going to learn through using those?
Jesse McCommon:Yeah, that’s also a really great question and a huge if something is really important to us, obviously in developing this stream. So it’s been ongoing now for two years, a little over two years, and we’re entering into the third year now. And what we’re really hoping to do now is to be able to test these tools and work alongside operational agencies to refine, adapt further, contextualise, figure out what works, what doesn’t work, how we can improve them. So one of the big pieces that has come out of this research is we’ve created a operational framework for greening humanitarian operations, actions, organisational policy and processes, which is really exciting and we’re really keen to sort of test that out with different agencies and see what parts of that work for them, how it can be improved, how it can be changed and how we can pilot it. So how we can put some of this work and all this research that we’ve done and all the work that we’ve done and put it to the test and put it to use, and we’re really looking forward to identifying some partners and finding agencies that want to come on board and work with us to further sort of develop this framework and tools and see what it looks like in action.
Beth Eggleston: Fantastic and I’m looking forward to learning how that process goes. Thank you so much, Jesse, it’s been a real pleasure having you on the show.
Jesse McCommon: Thanks so much, Beth. Bye.
Beth Eggleston: As we know, operational guidance and tools are needed to ensure that policies can be put into practice – so as always, we at HAG wanted to apply the learnings from our research and put them to action. This has resulted in our newly developed Framework to support humanitarian agencies in Greening Humanitarian Action in the Pacific. So what’s included in the framework and how can it be used? Well, it includes the process, how can you adapt the framework to your context. It includes the priorities, the key areas you’ll need to focus on and the actions needed to move the dial. And it includes the tools, the screen and the baseline tools to support you putting all of this into practice to find out more about how the framework was created and how it will be tested, let’s talk to Vili. Vili Iese has been central to the development of the framework connecting with Pacific based climate experts, government officials, researchers and humanitarian agencies. Thank you so much for joining us, Vili, it’s excellent to see you, I was wondering if you could introduce yourself to our listeners, please.
Vili Iese: Thank you very much, Beth, talofa lava, it’s very good to see you too. I’m originally from Samoa, I’m a citizen of Tuvalu, lived in Fiji. Now I’m the Associate Director for the Victoria Droughts, Resilience, Adoption and Innovation Hub and also a senior research fellow with the School of Agriculture, Food and Ecosystem Sciences here at the University of Melbourne. It’s a pleasure to join you today. Thanks.
Beth Eggleston: I wanted to ask you, Vili, you were such a vital part in creating this framework for Greening the System, and I would love you to tell us a little bit about what the process looked like in in pulling this together.
Vili Iese: Oh, thanks very much, Beth. I think before I go on the details of the process, I think it’s always good to understand that when I jump into this, I jump into this with a lot of joy when I got invited by the Humanitarian Advisory Group, because I understand it’s a it’s a really important issue in the Pacific. We have a lot of waste coming out during the humanitarian response, so and I have seen it on the ground, I have heard about it from first-hand accounts, from people and during discussions. So, yeah, jumping into and working with the Humanitarian Advisory Group and partners was really good. So in terms of a process, yeah, I think there are three key steps of the process. And the first one, there was a very good preparation that was done by the team, the Humanitarian Advisory Group and researchers, including the countries teams and the Pacific Island Association of Non-Government Organisations, PIANGO, and some of the partners on the ground. And I think this desktop research as well was also very good one as it helps to inform the framework and provide the contextual information and helps to identify the gaps in terms of what other policies that are in the Pacific, where are the gaps of those policies and also on the tools, what are existing tools that are there. That process in itself was really good because it helps to inform the next step. The second part of the process, it was very consultative in a sense that we had two workshops that was conducted with a different with, with all the practitioners, it was an open call of those who were interested. But the essence of that first workshop is ask the questions, seeking the guidance of the elders, of those very experienced practitioners from different levels on the ground. Whether do we need a framework or not? The answer was very clear. There is a very strong need. There is a need of a framework. The question, the second question, was what is greening humanitarian? So it helps to define the scope and the scale of the framework. And then it was like, how could we include Indigenous knowledge or traditional knowledge to the framework? When do we need it? Well, what’s out of caps. If we have this green humanitarian framework, what does it looks like or what does it feel like and how can we work on it to operationalise it. Through this participatory approach and the process, it helped to trigger partnerships, commitments from the partners and early stages of ownership of the framework so those are really critical parts of the process.
Beth Eggleston: So Vili I think that’s been so helpful, the fact that you’ve painted that picture of the fact that this area there is so much already going on. So we didn’t go into this process to create such a framework and a tool expecting there to be nothing. But it’s very busy, lots of initiatives and I love how you’ve painted that picture and the involvement, especially through your network of academics and people working in government and NGOs who are able to come and sit around that table. So I’d love to understand perhaps how a Pacific based humanitarian organisation would use this framework in a practical sense.
Vili Iese: Yeah. Thank you, Beth. I think that’s the core of it anyway. So how our Pacific Island humanitarian organisations and partners implements the framework. I think in the first part, there is an intention to use it as reflected from what I spoke about earlier. And I think the second part about it is that from that intention there is a sense of ownership because they really want to address it and I think there is a regional push now that says we really want to implement it. But I think if we’re talking about processes and steps, there are enables that we start to see. Some of the leaders of the humanitarian partners and organisations, including the National Disaster Management offices, are really interested in using it. But how they could use it? Well, the first and the most important point is that the framework in itself provide the processes that they have to understand there’s a need for it and then they have to create a baseline of the needs and then they start monitoring and implementing some of these actions after they plan it and then do the monitoring and evaluation. So they are already well laid out processes in the framework itself. But you do need the capacity to do this. So there’s a very strong need for the partners to start identifying the capacity gaps, knowing who should do this and then where the training should come from and working in partnership of how to operationalise this. And then there’s also a need for resourcing. Often in the Pacific, there’s always an assumption that we really want to do a lot of things – magically. It’s not cheap to do this, but if we really want to do things properly, then put the money in it, put the resources in it, invest in it to match the intention. So the framework provides a road map, a pathway to get there, but the humanitarian partners and the development partners need to put the resources in it, need to put the people in it, they need to walk the framework. So they need to operationalise it, get the capacity, because we already know there is a need.
Beth Eggleston: Yeah, and I think it’s all about what you said intention. We have to set that intention at the outset in all the different in the preparedness, the response, the recovery phases. I think you’re absolutely right, we need to set a course to ensure that this happens and hopefully that will happen. And I guess what I’d love to ask you next is around what are your hopes as to the impact of this framework.
Vili Iese: The framework greening it, addresses not just environmental, local environmental approach, but it’s looking at the international space as well. How can we make the humanitarian net zero and in our approaches because it’s quite a very high fossil fuel dependent in the moment. So there are indications that like a sustainable sea transport with some early intention of a shift in the mindset and a lot of them really like it as if we really want to do that, but we don’t know how to do that.And I was telling them like, I think there is an innovative angle to it, not just to rely on the international innovation pathways to shift, but there is a really good opportunity in the Pacific Island Countries for those people to start realising how to package things locally. And the framework is not set in stone, so it’s is a living framework. So if we start at businesses and we start to see an improvement of the greening in terms of reducing the plastics or changing of practices with tokenisation. I think the International Federation of the Red Cross is really interested to go into this space as well nd if they change those practices to more greening, that is a really huge win for us. So I think there’s so much to be positive about and I am very proud that the Pacific is leading this and very hopeful about that.
Beth Eggleston: Exactly. And I think it speaks to what you said about Pacific innovation and I think if this framework can help to capture and elevate some of those innovative approaches to greening the system, the Pacific will continue to lead and be able to share that with other regions in the world. So that’s just so insightful. Thank you, Vili, it’s been great to understand more around how the framework was developed, how it can be used in practice, and how we’re hoping to see it have impact. We so enjoyed collaborating with you and we’re looking forward to working with you again in the future.
Vili Iese: Yeah, thank you very much, Beth – I really enjoy talking about this. Thank you very much. Toe feiloa’i
Beth Eggleston: So keep your eye out for what happens at COP and updates around the Pacific and Australia’s bid to host COP31 in 2026. In the next episode will delve into the Pacific. I’m Beth Eggleston and this is I think you’re on mute.
This podcast is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The views expressed are the presenters’ alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian Government.