News | Socio-ecological Transformation - Climate Justice “We Need Social Protection”

Climate impacts can push people into a poverty spiral

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The 2020 floods in Sofala province, Mozambique, came a year after Cyclone Idai and once again destroyed harvests and homes. Policies to help cope with disasters like these must be gender-responsive to address the particular challenges faced by women. Daniel Jukes/ActionAid

As climate disasters become increasingly frequent and intense, there is an urgent need for governments to expand the role of social protection as part of their strategy to cope with climate impacts and to address climate-induced loss and damage. Teresa Anderson from ActionAid International has been working for two years on a research project taking up this topic.

ActionAid and Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung have been working together to raise awareness about the importance of social protection to address climate impacts, and to bring this perspective to international climate processes and national policy discussions. Together they recently released the joint report “Avoiding the Climate Poverty Spiral: Social protection to address climate-induced loss and damage”.

Teresa, why is it so important to address social protection as an instrument to tackle the impacts of climate change?

For many years now, communities in climate-vulnerable parts of the world have been dealing with the impacts of climate change. People on the frontlines, mostly in the Global South, are facing the heart-breaking consequences of sudden disasters such as cyclones, floods, and droughts. Many are struggling to cope with the gradual changes brought on by a warming planet such as shifting rainfall patterns and rising sea levels, which are slowly but surely eroding their food security, livelihoods, and futures.

Teresa Anderson is climate policy coordinator at ActionAid International.

People living in poverty cannot cope with the loss of a year’s income to crop failure, the loss of farmland under the sea, or the need to rebuild a home after a flood. If they don’t have deep pockets, they can find themselves sinking deeper into debt, unable to find the resources to plant for the following season, and forced to sell their land or migrate to find precarious work. Climate impacts can push people into a poverty spiral from which it is hard to escape.

Sometimes, when disasters hit, the humanitarian community is able to respond. Often that support will take the form of cash transfers and food aid. Timely support can make a world of difference to helping households to bridge the gap and get back on their feet more quickly. However, if the disaster was unexpected—as they often are—these ad-hoc responses may need to build from scratch, missing the chance for the early action that can make such a difference to a household’s ability to cope.

Few countries have systematic processes designed to respond immediately, to give communities the support they need in the aftermath of disasters, and to help avoid the domino effect of deepening poverty that climate change can trigger.

Women are especially vulnerable to climate impacts

Nearly half of the agricultural workforce in the Global South are women (and in sub-Saharan Africa the number is much greater). But women farmers often face particular barriers caused by gender-blind or gender-biased policies which prevent them from accessing land, finance, markets, agricultural advice, and decision-making processes. All of this makes it harder for women to invest in making their agriculture more resilient to climate impacts, and means that they earn less for their efforts than male farmers. On top of this, when water sources dry up, women and girls must walk further to fetch water. When money for school fees becomes scarce, girls will often be taken out of school before their brothers, which puts them on an unequal path for life. Women will tend to skip meals so their families can eat. Studies show that women are several times more likely to die from climate disasters than men, and that 80 percent of people displaced by climate change are women.

Government-provided social protection is therefore a missing piece of the climate puzzle. There needs to be a much more systematic approach to social protection, to ensure that schemes are in place and able to quickly scale up in response to shocks such as climate change.

But few people in the climate sector are currently talking about the need for social protection—or even really understand what the term “social protection” means.

Can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The global response to the COVID-19 pandemic can offer some very useful lessons. In 2020 almost every country in the world adopted social protection schemes to help households and economies cope with the crisis. Measures including cash transfers, food support, sick pay, furlough pay, and replacement school meals have been vital in helping communities, small businesses, and nations weather the crisis.

So the clear lesson from the pandemic has been that social protection tools are undeniably valuable for protecting the human rights of women, farmers, and communities, by helping them to become resilient and recover more quickly in the aftermath of disasters. And governments now realize that social protection is key for ensuring regional and national economic stability in the face of disasters too.

What are some of the most important social protection tools that are appropriate to deal with the impacts of climate change?

There are many different kinds of interventions that can fall under the term “social protection”. The International Labour Organization (ILO) defines the concept of social protection as a mix of policies and programmes that aim to reduce poverty, vulnerability, and inequality throughout the life cycle. So we can think about different climate change scenarios, and how different social protection tools could be adapted to help address those situations.

For example, farmers facing reduced income as a result of crop and livestock losses, or fishing communities facing reduced catches due to warming waters, could benefit from cash transfers that help them to feed their families, or plant their fields again next season. Job guarantee schemes can provide useful temporary employment so that people can earn an income and bridge the gap. If the situation threatens communities’ food security, then food transfers can be vital. And if disasters force schools to close—depriving children in low-income families of their main meal of the day—replacement school meals can help households cope better.

For those whose homes, possessions, and community infrastructure have been wrecked by disasters such as cyclones and floods, one-off payments to cover the costs of reconstruction can be invaluable. Community members whose opportunities for earning an income have been affected by climate change can get employment under job guarantee schemes, for example in rebuilding community infrastructure and assets, and hopefully ensuring that they are more resilient to future threats.

And for communities for whom the future is only likely to bring regular destructive flooding, disappearing freshwater sources, or rising sea levels, then social protection schemes can help them to plan and make the shift to new areas where their lives will be safer, and their livelihoods more secure. Social protection in the form of housing support, income support, job guarantees, as well as training and reskilling for new livelihood options need to be included in government initiatives to enable planned migration and relocation, so that people can set up lives and livelihoods in new locations.

Social protection schemes must be proactively gender-responsive

Women tend to face particular burdens and barriers. If systems aren’t designed to specifically address gender bias and other inequalities, women and marginalized community members can be left out of support systems, and fall through the cracks. So it’s crucial that right from the start, programmes and policies take into account the reality of women’s daily lives, their responsibilities, and the barriers they face to participation.

In practice, that includes making sure that women are actively involved in the design of a programme, and that factors that disadvantage and exclude women are analyzed and addressed. To take into account the reality that women have childcare responsibilities, job guarantee schemes can include crèches. And cash transfer payments should go directly to women, in recognition of their role in feeding their families, and to reduce their dependency on men.

It’s also increasingly recognized that “universal” systems—that offer coverage to anyone fitting certain criteria—are more effective at reaching the people in greatest need than efforts to specifically target them. This is because the process to gather data on those with low incomes can be costly and inaccurate, while also spreading discrimination and creating additional barriers for marginalized households.

To make sure that vulnerable communities can receive the support they need to cope with climate impacts, therefore, national governments must put in place universal gender-responsive systems of social protection that can quickly scale up in response to shocks such as climate change or pandemics.

What are the challenges to bringing this issue to the table when discussing climate policies nationally and internationally?

There is still a lot of work to be done, to help governments realize that social protection can protect people and economies from climate change, and can also bring profound development and human rights benefits too. Good systems of social protection should be there to support people to cope with all kinds of shocks—whether related to climate change, pandemics, job losses, health issues, or other crises. That means that the conversation about social protection is not only about climate impacts, but is in fact much broader.

Allies in promoting social protection as an instrument to tackle the impacts of climate change

There are many different organizations coming from different perspectives who see the value of this approach. Humanitarian organizations such as Oxfam are also advocating for universal shock-responsive systems of social protection that are gender-responsive. They are calling for governments to learn the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to recognize the importance of social protection to cope with crises, and that there is also scope to improve delivery.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is also calling for universal systems of social protection that can protect the rights of workers from when their livelihoods are threatened. Indeed, social protection can be used to support workers and communities to move out of polluting sectors such as the fossil fuel industry, and to bridge the gap as they retrain, create new economic opportunities, or retire.

Not only is there a growing pressure for this approach, but there is a great opportunity coming up this year to use the international climate space to elevate the conversation. UN climate negotiations, and in particular those under the Warsaw International Mechanism on climate-induced loss and damage (WIM) are scheduled to discuss the role of social protection in managing risk later this year.

Together with the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, ActionAid will be using this space to strengthen governments’ understanding of this approach. We will be lobbying for the Warsaw International Mechanism to put social protection at the centre of discussions on climate response, to put in place useful recommendations that countries can take forward, and to strengthen climate finance flows to support this.

Of course one challenge is that climate-vulnerable countries may not believe they have the funds to scale up social protection. Wealthy industrialized countries that have done the most to cause the climate crisis should therefore provide financial support to address loss and damage to the countries who have done the least to cause the problem, but who are unfairly suffering the worse impacts. Countries hit by climate disasters should also be eligible for debt relief, which could go a long way towards releasing funds to help vulnerable communities. And more progressive taxation at national level can generate income to provide for national systems of social . and fairer systems of redistribution.

The issue of universal social protection links to so many different agendas: on climate change, human rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, humanitarian response, development, debt relief, progressive taxation, redistribution, and much more. It presents a huge opportunity for organizations across different sectors to work together to create a fairer and more climate-safe world.