24 January 2024

Interview with Catherine Wong, Global Team Leader for Climate and Security Risk at the UNDP

On 28 November, PSI spoke to Catherine Wong, who serves as global team leader for Climate and Security Risk and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). We learned about her personal motivations and the tangible approaches implemented to reduce the negative security impacts of climate change. Wong emphasises the difficulties faced by conflict-affected countries in accessing climate finance, ‘in all the contexts I’ve worked in, climate and environmental actors are the weakest actors in their institutional settings, with the least access to resources.’’   She stresses the need for cooperation between different climate and peacebuilding actors, partners on the ground, and research institutes.

Could you introduce yourself, and describe your role and responsibilities at UNDP?

I currently serve as UNDP’s Global Team Leader for Climate and Security Risk and provide oversight of UNDP’s portfolio on climate security and our work under the Climate Security Mechanism. This is a new team, however, as UNDP we have worked in contexts highly affected by conflict and climate for decades. We have a presence in 170 locations around the world, with climate security advisors now deployed to all regions. They work directly with national partners and regional entities from the Global South on the ground to backstop our policies and programming efforts.

Our team has a broad focus not only on conflict and fragility-affected contexts, but in all regions to advance an integrated approach to conflict prevention. As such, we not only work in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, or Arab States, which are critically important to our climate security efforts. Our activities also extend to Central Asia and the Indo-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southern Africa. Especially with regard to foresighting future climate-related security risks.

In our work, we look for ways to “climate-proof” conflict prevention and peacebuilding efforts. This includes post-conflict stabilisation and disaster risk reduction. At the same time, we also seek to shape climate, nature and energy investments to make sure that they not only do-no-harm but also contribute positively to peace.

What is your personal motivation, and what do you wish to achieve?

I’ve worked on climate and environmental issues for over 15 years now. Being such an important and neglected space, it was something I would continue to work on regardless. In all the contexts I’ve worked in, climate and environmental actors are the weakest actors in their institutional settings and have the least access to resources. Climate and environment are often forsaken to pursue other policy priorities. What motivates me is having seen the amazing work that UNDP and the Climate Security Mechanism have done. There is really an understanding here that conflict-affected and fragile contexts also need climate action and adaptation, and not just a humanitarian response.

In the climate security field, we have so many experts who come from the peace and security sector. In contrast, very few come from the climate and environmental backgrounds. We need to try to engage these climate and environmental actors as well as they have somehow been left behind. For me, there is really a chance to make a difference there. A lot of what we are doing now will shape the climate, peace, and security field for years to come.

At PSI we focus on tangible actions that reduce the security implications of climate change. Which we call climate security practices. Could you provide any examples of these in your own work?

First of all, we face a challenge of capacities, not climate- and peacebuilding expertise, but experts in-house who can do both, and understand the intersection. By seconding climate security experts to regional entities from the Global South we also provide support to partners, where it is most needed.

Many of our climate and peacebuilding efforts are still configured around a country-office modality. This goes for the UN as well as for NGOs, bilateral and international organisations. However, many of the challenges of climate, conflict, and insecurity are related to cross-border, transboundary, subregional or regional risks. By bolstering the capacities of local partners and regional entities that are already on the ground we fill in an important gap in the intersection between climate and security risks.

Our work in Mali with the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) is a more concrete example of climate security practices. Efforts on the ground support 100,000 people in central Mali. Recently, the Sahel Forum on Climate Security led to the Bamako Declaration on Climate, Peace, and Security. This declaration was important in fostering an enabling environment in which we can institutionalise some of the changes which need to take place and ensure the sustainability of our efforts.

You work in conflict-affected and fragile contexts. How does the UN adapt its project implementation to these specific contexts?

Climate change is not something that any of us can tackle alone. UNDP is a key partner because of our presence on the ground. On the one hand, it means we have long-standing local partners, including in challenging environments. On the other hand, we are not dependent on third parties, so we can procure and hire directly, thereby mitigating and reducing our risk exposure.

It is about building a network of partners. We need research and partners like Clingendael.

With a presence in difficult local conditions, we have the capacity to manage varying amounts of financial resources. There are many examples where, following the successful implementation of projects, other partners have stepped in with more significant funding. This underscores the effectiveness of proof of concept through tangible results: a small pilot could scale up into something larger after demonstrating its potential.

You have already briefly touched upon the importance of climate finance. How do you make climate financing work in conflict-affected areas or areas without state-control?

Some fundamental changes are needed in terms of the design of our climate financing mechanisms. Climate finance, like any finance, is only a reflection of its institutional policy priorities. Where there is no prioritisation of conflict-affected and fragile contexts in climate governance architecture, it will not be reflected in climate financing allocations.

In the early days of the climate change negotiations, there was insufficient focus on adaptation or gender. Only in 2007 was adaptation really put on an equal footing with mitigation. In 2012, 64% of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) projects were gender blind, before the introduction of their gender strategy and by 2020 that has shrunk to 1.5%. The progress made there may be useful as a roadmap for advancing climate finance for conflict-affected contexts. For example, the Lima Work Programme on Gender (2014) holds specific targets for national delegations, dedicated workplans and financing mechanisms.

There are countries that already recognise increasing climate-related security risks. Some of which have conducted analyses and described measures to address these issues. Putting the spotlight on those policies and strategies gives us a blueprint for what could be done. There is a clear avenue there to climate finance.

In your experience, how has this field changed over the last couple of years?

These days, there is much more recognition of climate security challenges. Initially, it was a very politically sensitive topic for many of our partners. Now, we have much more demand for our support than we have seen in previous years.

What has also changed the agenda is the Egyptian COP27 Presidency initiative on “Climate Responses for Sustaining Peace” developed by CCCPA with the support of the AUC and UNDP. At COP28, that attention is still there, through the Declaration and package of solutions on Climate, Relief, Recovery and Peace. We have now had two consecutive presidencies which helped climate security break out into the mainstream climate field. These were two of the largest COPs to date, but most people going may have never heard of climate, peace, and security before. The importance of what Egypt and the UAE have tried to achieve through their specific initiatives is important to increasing requests for support. Climate, peace, and security are becoming more mainstream and less of a taboo to avoid.


About this series:

In recent years, PSI has conducted interviews with climate security practitioners. Find below an overview of interviews conducted in 2023.

Christina Wegelein: In recent years, the inclusion of security consequences into climate considerations has broken into the mainstream, as is apparent by its increasing presence at climate summits. In our interview with Christina Wegelein, Head of Germany’s Climate Security Unit, we found that the growth of climate security is the result of consistent advocacy efforts by a wide range of actors. However, its advancement is as important on the ground as in Dubai’s conference centres.

Christophe Hodder: Somalia has in recent years been ravaged by the effects of a multi-year drought driving food insecurity and conflict across the Horn of Africa and pushing millions to migrate to urban settings in search of food and safety. PSI recently sat down with the Climate and Environment Advisor for the UN in Somalia, Christophe Hodder. We asked him about his work and the environmental challenges that Somalia will face in the coming years.

Ahmed Abel-Latif: Planetary Security Initiative has interviewed Ahmed Abdel-Latif the Head of the Cairo International Centre for Conflict Resolution, Peacebuilding, and Peacekeeping (CCCPA), to discuss his experiences with tackling climate insecurity and what he sees in terms of challenges and opportunities facing Africa and the world in this area. Read more to gain insights into how Egypt attempts to move beyond analysis to implementation, by tackling policy, knowledge and capacity gaps.

Photo credit: UNDP