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When Nature Strikes Back – Humanitarian Aid in Times of Climate Change

Summary of the panel keynote given by Prof. Adil Najam

That climate is no longer a future issue is one of the many important statements in Prof. Najam´s keynote speech on 16 June at the Humanitarian Congress Vienna.

Many of you asked us for an opportunity to read up on his presentation again. As Prof. Najam spoke without manuscript we are trying in the following to summarize some of his profound insights and we invite you to watch his speech again by clicking the video link at the end of this summary. 

Professor Najam introduced himself as an outsider to the topic of humanitarian assistance as he comes from the environmental side of things. However, he was comfortable speaking at the congress as, in any event, he thought that siloing of disciplines is dangerous. Thus, climate and all the associated issues are too important to be left to climate people alone. But also, we should not think of the environment, humans and nature to be in conflict

His presentation put forward three key questions:

  • What does global mean?
  • What is the climate telling us?
  • What is the age of adaptation saying to the humanitarian sector?

To answer those questions Prof. Najam recommended to imagine that Earth was one country observed from somewhere else in the universe.  How would a country report about planet Earth look like if adopting such an outsider perspective? Most certainly the report would come to the following conclusions:

  • Country Earth
    • ” is a poor country.
    • is a divided country.
    • is a poorly governed country.
    • is an insecure country.
    • is a degraded country.
    • is an angry country”.

To sum up: We live on a “third world planet”.

To illustrate this conclusion Prof. Najam chose the year 2020. Beside the experience of COVID it was the year of record-breaking monthly temperature highs, 6 of them already broken again. 2020 was the year that taught us that “climate is no longer a future issue”.

Meanwhile, we are living in the “age of adaptation “. Adaptation is the failure of mitigation, not the opposite. We have to be aware that the less we mitigate, the more we have to adapt.

With regard to COP 21 in Paris, where the agreement on the 1.5-degree target was signed up to by most countries, Prof. Najam underlined that he does not see a single sign that this target will be achieved. But what will be the consequence of failing this goal?  It means that the livelihoods of more than two billion people are affected by climate change. It means that it is not just wars that make people move.  If we are lucky we manage to reach the 2.0-degree target. The difference is, however, not just 0.5 degrees. The difference is 2.6 times (260 per cent) more extreme heat events, it means double the loss of species, 30 per cent loss of coral reefs, two times worse fisheries. It means consequences in nature, in water, in food, with refugees, in energy, mobility, infrastructure and therefore has a huge impact on the humanitarian sector.

Prof. Najam left us with some thoughts on reconsidering how we think about climate change:

  • from believing climate is mostly energy to climate is (nearly) everything
  • from maximizing security to minimizing insecurity
  • from thinking internationally to thinking globally
  • from altruism to justice
  • from adaptation as a problem to adaptation as an opportunity

Professor Najam concluded his speech with the urgent proposal to add responsibility as a fifth principle to the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality, humanity and independence.


The above are just a few aspects of a speech filled with a lot of food for thought for each and everyone of us. If you are curious now or want to revisit your personal eye-opening moments of this presentation, please watch Prof. Najam´s speech as a whole on You Tube.



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Andreas Zinggl is Programme Manager for Pakistan with Caritas Sankt Pölten.

Monika Stumpf-Hulsrøj is the Project Manger for the 6th Humanitarian Congress Vienna.