An Interview with Harjeet Singh

Interview by Jonny Tiernan, Editing by Laura McDermott

© Photo by IISD/ENB | Kiara Worth

This interview by Jonny Tiernan, edited by Laura McDermott will be featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.


 

Hi Harjeet, you’ve been with ActionAid for almost 18 years. How did you get started there and how has your career progressed over that time?

Honestly, it doesn’t feel like so long ago I joined ActionAid India as a programme officer.

I worked supporting our partners in implementing development projects, on issues including disability, community empowerment and livelihood generation from a human rights perspective.

About a year into the role, I volunteered to be the emergency focal person for my regional office in north India. I had training on disaster management and started responding to emergencies such as floods, drought and fires.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, I moved to the devastated Andaman and Nicobar Islands to lead the disaster response programme for about two and a half years.

That was a turning point, I learnt so much there. It’s when I started working on disaster preparedness, which took me into the climate change space.

In 2007, I joined ActionAid’s global secretariat and took up various roles from coordinating emergency responses in Asia and the Americas, to leading multi-country research, and policy and advocacy initiatives on resilience and climate justice across the globe.

 

 

You’re now the Global Lead for Climate Change at ActionAid, what does your current role entail? 

I support the ActionAid country offices that are working on climate change, there are over 20. I also supervise international projects related to climate migration and social protection.

A big part of my role is leading ActionAid’s delegation to United Nations climate change talks and working closely with several civil society organisations, movements and networks to push climate justice priorities.

I am a member of the UN’s expert group on climate risk management under the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) for Loss and Damage. I also have an advisory role with several international organisations and networks, including Climate Action Network International, Amnesty International and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).

 

"At the societal level, women must be empowered with information and skills so that they can have a collective voice against any kind of discrimination and abuse."

 

The impacts of climate change are being most acutely felt in the Global South, despite the vast majority of emissions coming from developed countries. In what ways should developed countries be addressing this imbalance?

Developing countries are disproportionately affected by climate change but have done the least to cause the crisis. Developed countries must take responsibility and take the lead in reducing their emissions and supporting developing nations through finance and technology to help them transition to greener economies.

These developing countries also need support in climate-proofing their development and help for climate survivors, who are already being impacted by rising sea levels and increasingly severe and frequent events like droughts and flooding. This requires billions of dollars and rich countries are legally and morally obligated to provide it.

 

 

Can you give us some examples of how people in the Global South have been impacted by the climate crisis, how these problems are being addressed, and what needs to be done in the future?

As we speak, more than 45 million people across Southern Africa are facing a hunger crisis after two devastating cyclones, flooding and the worst drought the region has seen in 35 years. In east Africa an unprecedented locust infestation is a looming threat to food security.

Developing countries are not prepared to deal with such damaging disasters, which are increasing both in terms of frequency and scale. Most of these countries are in the process of preparing adaptation plans, which include promoting climate resilient agriculture, retrofitting homes and public infrastructure, strengthening public health and education systems, restoring biodiversity and reskilling communities for greener jobs. This will need sustained and long-term funding to have a real effect in people’s lives.

 

Within the communities that are being heavily impacted by climate change, women and girls suffer the most. What are some of the measures that can be implemented to help and to alleviate this inequality?

Gender inequality means that women and girls are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. This needs to be addressed through a range of interventions at policy and society level.

Government policies need to recognise the gender gap and enforce policies that ensure more resources such as land, houses and other assets, are in the hands of women.

At the societal level, women must be empowered with information and skills so that they can have a collective voice against any kind of discrimination and abuse.

ActionAid’s response to climate disasters and humanitarian crises is to work with local women and women-led organisations, because they are often able to gain access to the most hard-to-reach and marginalised communities. They have a strong understanding of the local context and are best placed to address the disproportionate impact of emergencies on women and girls.

"Our fight is not just about climate, it is about creating a new, fair and just system that works for people and the planet."

 

A ‘Loss and Damage fund’ has been proposed to help those impacted by the climate crisis. How far would this fund go, and how important is finance in dealing with the impacts of climate change?

Currently, the UN climate architecture does not have a system to support people who are already struggling to survive the impacts of the climate crisis.

After a long battle, the WIM was established in 2013, but rich countries’ continued bullying and did not allow this body to properly function, particularly its role in raising finance for poorer countries.

A Loss and Damage Fund is essential for supporting developing countries facing the climate emergency now and in the future. The climate crisis is already eroding development gains and if finance is not provided, the world’s poorest people and countries will sink further into debt and poverty.

 

 

What are some of the ways in which such a loss and damage fund would be used and what are the core issues that it will tackle?

A Loss and Damage Fund must be established under the WIM and it can play a dual role of facilitating and disbursing money to countries who are hit by climate disasters.

There is already an established humanitarian system, but that is unable to meet the needs of countries as climate impacts become increasingly frequent and severe.

These two systems should work closely together to ensure that adequate money is raised through innovative public financing solutions, such as a financial transaction tax and a carbon tax or levy on fossil fuels.

At the same time, there needs to be direct support for countries facing slow onset emergencies, such as rising sea levels, desertification and glacial melt. There are situations now and in future where whole communities need to be relocated to a safer location, which would require billions of dollars as well as technical support. There is currently no funding stream for such measures and a Loss and Damage Fund would bridge that gap.

 

Where do you feel the most progress is being made in helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change, can you share some success stories?

In the last few years, we have seen countries become serious about preparing adaptation plans to protect people from climate change.

Most countries are already implementing several projects on early warning systems, climate resilient agriculture and infrastructure, which need to be scaled up. The Green Climate Fund is also providing technical and financial support to developing countries to prepare these projects and plans.

For example, Zimbabwe, Niger, Pakistan and Vietnam are implementing projects on agriculture, while the Philippines is improving its early warning system and Kenya on drought proofing.

 

There has been a real surge in youth involvement in climate action in recent years, do you feel that these voices are now getting heard and making a difference?

Young people’s demands for climate action have gained huge traction and have brought millions of people of all ages onto the streets, forcing politicians to sit up and take notice.

However, our systems are so riddled with corporate interests that governments are failing to take decisive action to move away from fossil fuels. They are ignoring popular demands and the science.

They pay lip-service to young people and continue with business as usual or make cosmetic policy changes when we need dramatic emission cuts. That means that we have a long road ahead and everyone must keep pressing for action.

 

How hopeful do you feel about the future when considering our ability to combat climate change? Are there any developments or future plans that you are excited and passionate about?

The commitment of young people all over the world, gives me hope. There is a growing movement pushing for green new deals, in the US and Europe, which is inspiring other countries too.

While the Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the whole world, it has also proven that if there is a political will, dramatic actions can be taken, trillions of dollars can be mobilised and people will accept inconvenience, strong government intervention and social protections, if it means protecting millions of vulnerable lives.

A similar scale of action is required to respond to climate emergency, and we can avert the crisis if governments listen to the science and the people.

In the last couple of years, we have seen how movements, civil society networks, indigenous communities and young people have come together to demand climate justice.

We are working with many of them to expand mobilisation efforts, promote people -centred solutions and demand the system change needed to avert catastrophic global heating. Our fight is not just about climate, it is about creating a new, fair and just system that works for people and the planet.