World Humanitarian Day takes place every year on 19th August to recognise aid workers who risk their lives every day in adverse situations to help people most in need. It commemorates the 2003 bombing of the United Nations Headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, which killed 22 people. It provides an opportunity to recognise the efforts of humanitarian workers all around the globe who work tirelessly every single day, and the commemoration also pays tribute to those who have fallen while helping people in need.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has understandably taken centre stage over the past year and a half, another existential threat – climate change – has been looming in the background, one that is increasingly current, urgent, but possibly underestimated or ignored.
This year’s World Humanitarian Day theme – #TheHumanRace – highlights the immediate consequences of the climate emergency for the world’s most vulnerable people. With the campaign, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) is determined to highlight the immediate human cost of the climate crisis by pressuring world leaders to take meaningful climate action for the world’s most vulnerable people.
Hosted on the leading exercise app Strava, #TheHumanRace will challenge users around the world to run, ride, swim, walk or do any activity of their choice for a cumulative 100 minutes between 16 and 31 August in solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people. Each sign-up will help carry UN OCHA’s message to world leaders at the UN climate summit, COP26, in November: Solidarity begins with developed countries delivering on their decade-old pledge of US$100 billion annually for climate mitigation and adaptation in developing countries.
We are currently living in the Anthropocene – the age of humans – where human activity is having a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. In response to this, scientists have coined the term ‘Anthropocene risk’ to reflect the complex interrelation of planetary changes and social imbalances that are currently afflicting our planet.
According to UNDP’s Human Development Report 2020, COVID-19 has demonstrated how shocks emanating from disturbances in life systems and climate change are affecting people and changing societies. Indeed, scientists have long forewarned of the potential proliferation of zoonotic pathogens – those that jump from animals to humans – in society, which arise due to the pressures people put on planet Earth. Arguably, COVID-19 might be a prelude to a new age of protracted health crises and Anthropocene risks.
This brings the idea of planetary health – the health of human civilization and the state of the natural systems on which it depends – to the fore. In recent times, there have been calls to transform our approach towards public healthcare, which has traditionally focused on the health of human populations and has not taken into consideration the well-being of natural ecosystems and the environment.
Consciously or not, human decisions and actions have given rise to the interconnected planetary and social imbalances we face. To navigate the Anthropocene, society as a whole needs to enhance equity, foster innovation and instill a sense of stewardship of nature. We must critically examine how human values and institutions interact with one another, to solve the collective action problem of climate change. To this end, two kinds of climate action can be taken. Firstly, individual action can be undertaken to alleviate climate change. This involves behavioural changes by individual consumers – for example, cutting down on single-use plastic cutlery. Secondly, systemic changes, which involve coordinated measures taken as a society, can also help address climate change. These include national commitments to achieve net-zero emissions as soon as possible and developing technology and policy solutions for sustainable development.
The future is not necessarily bleak. If we start early, tap into the power of science and innovation, and ensure that solutions work for the most vulnerable, the risks associated with climate change can still be mitigated and reversed. As United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres puts it: “The climate emergency is a race we are losing, but it is a race we can win”.