Climate change: it’s personal


As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, diplomats will increasingly face the fallout.


Figure 1. Twenty-five countries and territories with the most new trips in 2020.
Internal displacement monitoring center

I am no stranger to fire. I was posted overseas passing buildings on fire in riots or through roadblocks with piles of burning tires and protesters throwing stones. What I had never experienced until fall 2020 was an uncontrollable wildfire, sweeping through a drought-ravaged valley, sweeping away homes and old-growth forests, and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands. of people.

At 3 a.m., annoying chirps from my cell phone woke me up. The alert: “Phase 2: Be prepared. Expect evacuation orders. Not wanting to wake up my parents as I was visiting in Oregon, I quietly began to pack what I considered most crucial: Grandma’s writings and instruments, family photos, family papers, and papers. adoption of my father, my passport, electronics, some clothes and creative projects. I filled jugs with a gallon of water and put in some Clif Bars, Trail Mix, and Gatorade.

At 5 a.m., the sound of rattling metal and heavy tires sent me down the usually quiet rural road. There, RVs and trucks full of cattle, tools, tractors and anything that could fit into the dark night. Those people who were reacting to “Phase 1: Go Now” lived only 20 minutes away. I woke up my parents. “It’s time to pack my bags,” I say. “Take what you can’t imagine losing.”

By 8 a.m., the kitchen table had turned into an evacuation scene. I grabbed some pillows and blankets. Barely a week after the surgery, my mom could barely get out of bed. While she was packing a small bag, I collapsed her walker, bolsters, shower chair, makeshift toilet, meds, and ice maker. My dad packed his CBD products for arthritis and SSRIs for depression and anxiety. “How long are we going to be gone?” He wanted to estimate how much dog and cat food to bring. “Is it correct?” he asked, pointing to the clock. It said 8:30 am, but outside it was as dark as night.

At 9 am the sky was red. I rushed outside to look for a fire. The smoke made me cough and I ran inside. ” It’s time to go. Dad, take the animals; I’ll go get mom. White ashes fell as I filled the car, burying my parents among our things. We headed out of town away from the fire, up the hill and out of the smoky valley.

30.7 million people were newly displaced as a result of natural disasters in 2020.

Climate change is personal, but it is also community. The year 2020 rivaled 2016 as the hottest recorded year in the world. The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters recorded 389 climate-related events, resulting in more than 15,000 deaths and 98.4 million people affected, according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction ( ). Climate change has been proven to make certain risks, such as forest fires, more frequent and intense in some areas. While not all weather-related disasters are the result of broader trends, the past two decades have seen a dramatic increase in disasters, including events related to climate change.

In rural Oregon we had an alert system. The public could see maps of air quality, flame coverage, and burn damage. My family had a car and money to keep us safe. Thousands of volunteers collected clothes and toiletries, medicine and pet supplies for families who had lost almost everything. The government and the private sector have opened hotel rooms and fairgrounds, providing safe havens for those displaced by the wildfires.

This is not the case for the 30.7 million people newly displaced by natural disasters in 2020 (see figure 1). Natural disasters in the form of fires, droughts, floods, earthquakes, mudslides and other weather events affect the availability of clean water, food, livelihoods and shelter , forcing people to leave their homes (see Figure 2).

Concretely, this means that there will be an increased need for humanitarian assistance, development assistance and climate change diplomacy to help governments promote climate change recovery, mitigation and adaptation, establishment of warning systems and development of emergency protocols. It means doing what we can to promote disaster risk reduction (remember: October 13 is International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction).

In Guatemala, where I live now, the risks of natural disasters are high. The country is surrounded by magnificent volcanoes, and tropical storms regularly arrive from both coasts, pouring into communities that constantly deal with extremes of drought and flooding. It is a place where people prepare to weather storms and listen to the deep thunderous growls of nearby mountains in resilient or adaptive behaviors. However, those who lose their homes, land, crops and livelihoods are environmentally displaced, seeking refuge and a future for themselves and their loved ones.

Figure 2. New displacements in 2020: distribution of conflicts and disasters.
Internal displacement monitoring center

Checklist: when things get hot at work


How’s my nervous system?

  • Jumpy, irritable, sad vs calm, grounded, happy

How do I spend my day?

  • Mainly at work or at work rather than taking time to do healthy and satisfying activities

How do I sleep?

  • Can’t fall asleep, can’t get out of bed, have nightmares, roll over and over against sleeping like a log


Who can be an accountability partner?

  • Someone who can contact me about the stop time, after hours work
  • Someone who can encourage me to take a break, have fun, seek support


How can I benefit from and promote the use of agency policies and programs?

  • Call the Staff Care Center hotline 24/7
  • Use available sick leave or annual leave
  • Negotiate work schedule and plan with supervisors to promote work-life balance

More and more people around the world are suffering from “solastalgia”, defined as the distress caused by environmental change. I would include myself. Distress can come in many ways: depression and anxiety about having personally experienced or deplored certain changes, strong emotions of observing and working with and for populations directly affected by climate change, or disappointment with policies or programs. that seem to take too long to make a real difference.

As climate change increases the frequency and severity of natural disasters, more diplomats and development workers will find themselves unexpectedly in a nation and living among communities struggling with recovery and, later, how ” solve the problem. Helping people survive and helping governments and communities respond and build can have traumatic consequences not only for those directly affected, but also for those who support diplomacy and humanitarian aid and development work. I have experienced nightmares, apathy, helplessness and hopelessness, depression and anxiety, even panic.

Well known to trauma and disaster professionals, three factors increase the risk of experiencing traumatic consequences: duration, severity and significance.

  1. Duration: work long hours for long periods without stopping to eat, exercise, play, pray, socialize or recharge;
  2. Gravity: being constantly exposed to death / dying, poverty, suffering, abuse and any horrible scene; and
  3. Sense: to connect personally to the situation, to be consumed by thoughts (“If I stop, someone will die or be injured”).

I have found this to be true whenever I face a disaster at work. Now that I know this, I must take into account my work habits and my work environment (see box).

The reality is that climate change – which includes assisting disaster recovery, rebuilding communities, and solving political problems to help the millions of environmentally displaced people in this world – is a long and complex issue. term that requires solutions beyond the work of one person.

My trauma from the Oregon wildfires was short lived. The situation couldn’t get more personal and meaningful. But my childhood home is still standing and my parents are safe. For millions, this is not the case; and for diplomats and development agents, more and more will be personally or professionally confronted with climate change and environmental displaced persons. Not only will it take a special kind of climate change diplomacy and post-disaster development expertise, but also exceptional self-awareness and management skills to keep our staff healthy and safe, especially when the going gets tough. hot.

Kovia Gratzon-Erskine joined the Foreign Service in 2007 and currently manages Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) and Organizational Development at USAID / Guatemala. His previous assignments as a public health specialist include Antananarivo and Port-au-Prince; she also provided support from Washington, DC, Monrovia, Freetown and Conakry during an Ebola outbreak and served in Moldova as a US Peace Corps volunteer. In 2016, she became a resilience trainer through the Department of State’s Foreign Affairs Center of Excellence for Resilience.

His Speaking Out column, “Compassion Fatigue in the Foreign Service”, was published in March 2019 FSJ.

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