How Climate Change Became the Central Development Issue

Just a decade ago, humanitarian groups working to address everything from education to poverty competed with climate change for public attention and development dollars. Now, leaders of groups focused on solving a whole slew of development issues say that climate change has become central with its effects permeating to other key problems.

The concept of interrelated development goals, known as integration, has become a hot topic in development circles. And, as delegates from countries around the world gather in Paris this week to hash out an agreement to combat climate change, development groups whose missions don't explicitly include dealing with climate change are positioned just outside the negotiating halls to advocate for a strong accord. Governments around the world must grapple with climate change in order to adequately address a whole slew of other humanitarian goals, group leaders say.

“Integration has really become a sign of our times,” says Achim Steiner, director of the United Nations Environmental Program. “The environment began as a concern, a campaign issue. Today, it is part of the center of economic, political and social decision-making.”

The concept of integration came to the forefront of development discussions in the past decade as humanitarian groups increasingly realized how climate change affected their day-to-day activities. Anti-poverty group Oxfam International, for instance, first began working on climate with programs to help low-income communities adapt to a changing environment, says Heather Coleman, the group's climate change policy manager. But as the long-term link between climate change and poverty has become more clear, the group has doubled down on its efforts. Now, Oxfam advocates for a whole slew of climate policies, including efforts to prevent further greenhouse gas emissions and finance for developing countries' climate efforts. "We are really looking to ensure that we’re moving towards to a clean energy future," she says.

The new place of climate change in development discussions parallels the elevation of other key issues like gender equality. Gender plays a role in every humanitarian cause because inequality is a major obstacle to economic and social development.

Read More: Why India Has a Point at the Paris Climate Talks

Oxfam is far from the only organization with a non-climate focus represented at the Paris conference, formally known as the 21st Conference of Parties (COP 21). The World Health Organization (WHO) has worked on the connection between climate change and health. World Vision International focuses on development and poverty. The Red Cross focuses on disaster relief.

Development groups tend to have the same priorities when it comes to the actual text of a Paris deal, regardless of whether climate change is a group's primary focus. Finance for programs that allows countries to adapt to the effects of climate change tends to rank chief among these concerns. Developed countries committed in 2009 to sending $100 billion per year to developing countries to help finance their efforts to address climate change. And while the developed world hasn't rescinded that commitment, the details remain slim about just how that figure will be reached. Leaders of many non-governmental organizations also say they want to see strong provisions by which developing countries will be compensated in the event of extreme climate-related events that cause expensive loss and damage. “Farmers and agricultural communities are already starting to feel the pressures,” says Coleman. “People’s livelihoods are at stake in a way they can’t adapt to or adapt around.”

And, while the links between climate and other development issues has become increasingly clear over time, there's also a financial incentive for development groups to connect their issues with climate change. If they can frame their work as related to climate change, they may be able to walk away with a chunk of whatever financing actually flows to developing countries.

Read More: Robert Redford: We Have to Act on Climate Change Without Washington

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