Climate Centre news review of the year 2020

Climate Centre news review of the year 2020
17 December 2020

A look back at our engagement with the climate-related humanitarian events of 2020 through the eyes of the Climate Centre news service.


Our year began with a British Met Office forecast that 2020 would again extend the current series of the Earth’s modern-era hottest years that started in 2015, the year of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Government forecasts in Mongolia that more than half the country was at risk of another dzud triggered the release of more than US$ 200,000 to the local Red Cross – the first time such forecast-based action supported by the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund had been used anywhere in the world.

Reflecting the International Committee’s rapidly expanding interest in climate, ICRC President Peter Maurer, at the end of a visit to the Horn of Africa, said millions of people there were are trapped in near-constant crisis as the combination of droughts, floods, and violence forced them from their homes or eroded already very fragile livelihoods.

“People in Ethiopia, Somalia, and other parts of eastern Africa are increasingly caught between deadly extremes,” Maurer said.

“Conditions are either too wet or too hot and dry. People already on the run from violence may be uprooted again by droughts and floods.”

World Weather Attribution scentists began their first study of the year: of the potential climatic factors behind the Australian bushfire disaster that triggered a major humanitarian response by the Red Cross and others.

In the continuing global process that will culminate in the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, international scientists including Climate Centre Director Professor Maarten van Aalst and two colleagues held a week-long consultation in Faro, Portugal on the Working Group II contribution, covering climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.


In the first of a series of blogs, the Climate Centre’s Sayanti Sengupta – after an expert meeting in London on options for social protection in various future-climate scenarios – presented the case that “we are facing a completely different climate as well as significant risks”.

Roop Singh, our Climate Risk Adviser, wrote about the games we have developed to help tackle tough questions posed by climate – especially one of the most successful that’s now been refined to include geoengineering, Altering the Climate, .

Eddie Jjemba, who works on urban programming and resilience initiatives in Africa, wrote about the debate triggered at the 10th World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi by the growing issue of people displaced by climate change.

The United States Agency for International Development released four companion guides to the Climate Centre’s Heatwave Guide for Cities, providing city officials with technical background alongside the key urban environmental issues of air and water quality, and waste management.

The prestigious MIT Technology Review presented its ten “breakthrough technologies” for the year, with the climate attribution work which the Climate Centre partners among them.


Completing their study begun in January, attribution scientists concluded that climate change did indeed increase the chance of the recent “extreme fire weather” in Australia by at least 30 per cent.

In March we reported on an important new statement on climate from the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement as a whole, spelling out its collective ambitions on climate and saying it had “made its choice and is mobilizing to meet the urgency and scale of the crisis”.

Ambitions to address the climate crisis, regarded as broader than previous frameworks, says climate change is already having “major humanitarian consequences,” particularly for the poorest and most vulnerable.

A month-long multimedia exhibition – PfR’s Faces of Resilience: Where will we be in 2030? – graphically illustrated both climate impacts in the developing world and potential solutions offered by Partners for Resilience.

In our first story of the Covid-19 pandemic, an op-ed by Maarten van Aalst, the Climate Centre Director argued that there were now not one but two compelling reasons to travel less: carbon emissions generated by aviation and coronavirus.

“Coronavirus and climate may together dominate enough of the timeline of mass attention to bring about…long-term behaviour change,” he said, in what was surely a prescient comment on the way events were to unfold.

Jointly launching the IFRC-Climate Centre Virtually Amazing Manifesto, Professor Van Aalst added that with all but emergency foreign travel now banned, “we cannot just put our humanitarian mission on hold – including, of course, our own response to coronavirus and still-critical efforts to step up action in response to the climate emergency.”

The Movement later launched an emergency appeal for US$ 823 million to help the world’s most vulnerable communities halt the spread of Covid-19 and recover from its effects, the first major international Red Cross Red Crescent appeal of the pandemic.

‘Coronavirus and climate may together dominate
enough of the timeline of mass attention
to bring about long-term behaviour change’


The UN launched its Words into Action publication with the IFRC as advisory members and including contributions from the Climate Centre. It offered specific advice on “a feasible and people-centred approach [to DRR] in accordance with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.”

Three new feature-length documentaries on PfR work in the Philippines, commissioned by the Netherlands Red Cross, was launched on YouTube.

The Virtually Amazing concept – the Climate Centre’s initiative to provide alternatives to physical travel – was expanded to serve the world’s needs not just to reduce greenhouse gas emissions but also continue to interact in times of Covid-19. A mini-site offers tools and assistance for online events and meetings.

In a major step forward for forecast-based financing in Africa, we reported that more than 50 new reporting-points – including 24 in Kenya, the first in that country – were now online, assisted by the UK-supported project Forecasts for Anticipatory Humanitarian Action of which the Climate Centre is a specialist partner.

The Climate Centre participated in two international meetings, among the first held wholly or partly virtually. Olivia Warrick, Co-Chair of the Pacific Meteorological Council’s Pacific Islands Climate Services panel and our Senior Climate Adviser for the region described as “an important trial run” the virtual Pacific Island Climate Outlook Forum, the sixth in the series.

And Maarten van Aalst said he hoped the 11th international Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin, which heard a renewed call from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres for visionary leadership to tackle Covid and climate disruption, would “link bold action on mitigation, adaptation and resilience”.


IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain formally invited all National Societies to join the fully virtual Climate:Red Summit in September – one of the key online events of the Movement’s 2020 climate calendar.

An IFRC ‘cartoonathon’ drew more than 150 people from at least 60 countries to “explore transformation and change within our network”. The virtual event, hosted by the IFRC Solferino Academy, was designed and facilitated by the Climate Centre with support from EIT Climate-KIC – the EU’s leading agency for innovation in the drive for carbon neutrality.

In May the confluence of hazards the world was now facing became clearer than ever. Maarten van Aalst argued in an op-ed that the flash flood at Uganda’s Kilembe Mines Hospital symbolized “the world of multiple risks we all now live in”; there were no casualties in the incident thanks to prompt warning and evacuation.

As seasonal flooding worsened in South Asia, the IFRC released more than three quarters of a million US dollars to help National Societies in Bangladesh, India and Myanmar scale up preparedness to support affected communities.

In the second-ever use of its DREF-based early-action funding mechanism, this money included nearly US$ 150,000 to support 20,000 at-risk people in Bangladesh and precautionary measures against COVID-19.

In East Africa, meanwhile, the IFRC warned the “triple menace” of mutually exacerbating disasters was unfolding on a scale rarely seen in decades. Heavy rain which had killed hundreds of people and displaced hundreds of thousands slowed down operations to control the worst locust crisis in decades and increased the risk from Covid-19.

The Global Health Heat Information Network that includes the IFRC and the Climate Centre, warned communities in the Northern Hemisphere to prepare for another record hot summer, adding that the pandemic was amplifying the health risks for many people.


The Climate Centre’s Sabrina Desroches, at Uppsala University, Sweden, wrote in her master’s thesis – which doubled as a Climate Centre contribution to Nepal’s forecast-based financing programme – that combining social protection and FbF in the context of floods would “contribute to social protection that is both sensitive to shocks and aids climate resilience overall”.

Roop Singh stepped up to represent the IFRC on an NDC Partnership task force to engage young people in countries preparing nationally determined contributions. She later authored and launched a new series of podcasts, Can’t Take the Heat, exploring how people will adapt to a warming world.

In a major humanitarian publishing event of 2020 the IFRC and the Climate Centre released their City Heatwave Guide for Red Cross Red Crescent Branches, designed as a companion to the one primarily for municipalities issued last July at the UN in New York.

For the second time in six weeks, meanwhile, the IFRC released forecast-based funds – US$ 240,000 – to support early action in Bangladesh, where floods threatened at least 4 million people in large areas across the country already grappling with Covid-19.

The Ecuador Red Cross, the first National Society in the world to deploy FbF for the hazard of volcanic ash clouds, was able to test improvised equipment for measuring ash fall after an eruption of the Sangay volcano in the country’s Amazon region.

Of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change,
the majority are at war


We reported on new research exploring whether Red Cross Red Crescent forecast-based financing and action could be useful in minimizing the impact of drought. Forecast-based Financing and Early Action for Drought – Guidance Notes for the Red Cross Red Crescent, funded by the British and French Red Cross, aimed to synthesize knowledge about anticipatory action for drought and propose possible programmes.

IFRC writers including Maarten van Aalst put forward a three-part framework for ensuring that recovery from the global Covid-19 pandemic leads to a “greener, more resilient society that leaves no one behind.”

The ICRC’s report, When Rain Turns to Dust, said countries affected by conflict are also disproportionately impacted by climate change, a double threat causing displacement, disrupting food production, aggravating disease and weakening health care. Of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change, the majority are at war, it said.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has welcomed the forecast-based action that had enabled several UN agencies to undertake anticipatory interventions for the monsoon floods in Bangladesh. “Innovations like this are the bright spots in a bleak humanitarian outlook,” he said.

In the peak month of the northern summer and with temperatures soaring across Europe, the IFRC again called on the public to check on elderly neighbours and loved ones who might struggle to cope.


The Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and 30 global partners including the Climate Centre announced an Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance to bring together “city leaders, experts in public health, finance, humanitarian assistance, disaster management, climate science and risk, insurance and public infrastructure” to address the growing heatwave hazard.

As if on cue, US scientists reported that July 2020 was the hottest month ever recorded in the Northern Hemisphere, breaking the previous record July record set in 2019.

Jagan Chapagain approved an increase in the cap for DREF forecast-based action from 250,000 to 350,000 Swiss francs to enable National Societies to reach more beneficiaries through early action protocols, of which nine had by then been approved worldwide.


Maarten van Aalst argued in an opinion piece that one of the pivotal events of the virtual year – the multilingual Climate:Red summit – was truly in the historic category. Over 8,000 people from almost all the countries of the world registered to take part in the event, whose VIP line-up included Britain’s Prince Charles, Sheikh Hasina, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Mary Robinson, Former President of Ireland, Casten Nemra, Marshall Islands Foreign Minister, and many others.

The 30-hour summit that was “happening everywhere” spanned all the world’s time zones, and in a Red Cross Red Crescent context was by far the largest group of people who ever gathered to discuss one subject.

IFRC President Francesco Rocca told the summit’s media partners Al Jazeera English that, like climate change, the pandemic was affecting everyone and there was “no choice but to address the humanitarian impacts of Covid-19 and the climate crisis at the same time.”

Reinforcing this argument, an analysis by the IFRC and the Climate Centre revealed that more than 50 million people worldwide have been affected by floods, droughts or storms and Covid-19.

In a new guide jointly authored by the IFRC and Climate Centre with the UK Met Office – The Future of Forecasts: Impact-Based Forecasting for Early Action – the International Federation said a “developing paradigm-shift in forecasting from what the weather will be to what it will do could enable early humanitarian action”.

Dutch climate scientist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, a leading member of the World Weather Attribution group, reported that smoke from the wildfires in the western United States had reached the Netherlands.

After more activity at the Sangay volcano the Ecuadorian Red Cross activated its early action protocol with emergency funds from the IFRC to allow it to quickly assist 1,000 families in rural communities most affected by ash.

In the first collaboration of its kind of 2020, the Vice Media group published a special feature and photo story, publicized by the Climate Centre, on the multiple crises estimated by the IFRC to be affecting some 25 million people in South Asia.

‘A developing paradigm-shift in forecasting
from what the weather will be to what it will do
could enable early humanitarian action’


Extreme-weather events have increased dramatically by more than 80 per cent and are now dominating the disaster landscape in the 21st century, with floods and storms the most frequent events, according to a UN report released to coincide with International Day for Disaster Risk Reduction.

By October the IFRC reported that forecast-based financing was being implemented for cyclones, floods or droughts, or a combination, by seven of the ten National Societies coordinated by its Pretoria regional office for Southern Africa – (alphabetically) eSwatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Maarten van Aalst moderated the Stockholm virtual high-level meeting on the humanitarian impacts of climate change – Anticipate and Act – jointly hosted by the Swedish government, the UN and the Swedish Red Cross, at which Sweden detailed new climate-related initiatives to increase the resilience of the most vulnerable in Africa, including one centred on early warning early action.


In the journal Advances in Statistical Climatology, Meteorology and Oceanography, World Weather Attribution scientists detailed the process by which they have been able to generate “numerical results actionable by stakeholders”.

The Climate Centre said it would work with national disaster-management agencies on scoping potential FbF systems as part of a newly announced Green Climate Fund-supported UN programme worth nearly US$ 50 million for climate and ocean information and early warning in the Cook Islands, the Marshall Islands, Niue, Palau, and Tuvalu.

A new flagship report – Local Action, Global Ambition – detailing a decade of PfR work in 11 countries was symbolically presented to the Netherlands government during an online global conference marking the end of the last phase of PfR.

Maarten van Aalst told the online magazine of the Netherlands Entrepreneurial Development Bank: “Often science can be too abstract and large-scale, when what we need is research that can be understood and useful to people on the front line. So a lot of our work involves trying to bridge those divides.”

An example was the work one of his PhD students on improving early-warning climate systems in conflict settings.

The IFRC’s World Disasters Report 2020: Come Heat or High Water said global efforts to tackle climate change are failing to protect the people most at risk: the countries most affected by climate-related disasters receive only a fraction of the funding available for adaptation.


The Climate Centre invited people all over the world to send in letters, drawings, poems and art works for a time capsule to be housed at the Netherlands Red Cross in The Hague and opened in 2050.

Maarten van Aalst described the latest Lancet Countdown report – highlighting the growing heatwave risk worldwide – as an authoritative addition to the case for intensified climate action, chiming with humanitarian concern about rising risks.

“We are extremely worried about the rising human toll of the climate crisis,” he wrote. “Heat is the most deadly disaster, and the risk is rising fast. But equally we can save lives through better early warning and simple individual actions.”

The eagerly awaited Anticipation Hub, created by the German Red Cross, the IFRC and the Climate Centre with funding from the German Federal Foreign Office, was launched as part of the 8th Global Dialogue Platform facilitated online in Berlin and Kampala.

It is designed as a one-stop-shop for knowledge, learning and guidance on anticipatory action, and already has more than 60 partners across the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, governments, universities, research institutes, NGOs, UN agencies, and other networks.

In its last major publication of the year, the IFRC described as an “absolute priority” the scaling up of climate action in the near future.

Clockwise from top left: The Salvadoran Red Cross provided humanitarian aid to more than 600 families affected by Storm Amanda that caused flooding and landslides across Central America in late May at the height of the global pandemic (Salvadoran Red Cross); a photo montage illustrating the IFRC’s Strategy 2030 that identified climate change as the first of five global challenges (IFRC); a young Ethiopian farmer in Dire Dawa in 2008 uses a weighted stick to sow tree-saplings – the first in a series of Climate Centre news reports on PfR work going back nearly a decade, and used to mark the end of the programme this year (Raimond Duijsens/NLRC); Bangladesh Red Crescent and Cyclone Preparedness Programme personnel prepare prepare to meet the twin challenges of the cyclone season and Covid-19 (Achala Navaratne/American Red Cross)