Review of the Year 2021
by the Climate Centre
(A non-exhaustive look back through the eyes of the Climate Centre news service of the year’s events that our team and partners were closely engaged with.)
The year began with an important report distilling almost a decade of experience with our Partners for Resilience, Climate Action, Examples from the Red Cross Red Crescent and partners – detailing PfR’s efforts to address climate change through integrated risk management in 11 countries.
The publication emphasized that there’s an important role for National Societies in addressing climate change and advocating for the integration of climate risk into disaster management.
The US space agency NASA joined the newly-launched Anticipation Hub created by the German Red Cross, the IFRC and the Climate Centre. Its Earth Applied Sciences Program will add “unique perspectives from Earth-observing instruments operating within and above Earth’s atmosphere”.
NASA also said it had found the Earth’s surface temperature in 2020 equal to 2016 as the warmest on record, or 1.02°C warmer than a 1951–1980 baseline; this set the tone for a year of extremes round the world as dramatic as any yet seen.
In his first opinion piece of the year, Climate Centre Director Maarten van Aalst argued that otherwise encouraging ambitions on climate were “exclusively framed around the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions,” but the challenge now was to generate similar global momentum on adaptation.
The IFRC announced a doubling of its Disaster Relief Emergency Fund, just as governments and experts gathered virtually for the 2021 Climate Adaptation Summit, hosted by the Netherlands. In addition, the IFRC said it was pushing ahead with expanding DREF’s scope by supporting National Society efforts to anticipate and mitigate disasters.
A new guide to coastal resilience from the US-based Nature Conservancy incorporated input from the IFRC secretariat and the Climate Centre.
Hundreds of representatives from governments, the UN, development and humanitarian agencies, universities, and civil society met online at the invitation of Fiji and France to mark the fifth anniversary of three important global policy frameworks: the Nansen Initiative, Sendai, and the Paris Agreement, focusing especially on displacement.
The event also included several technical panels in including one on Paris moderated by Maarten van Aalst representing the IFRC.
The Climate Centre and the Boston-based Feinstein International Center appointed the head of our science team, Erin Coughlan de Perez, as associate professor and inaugural recipient of the Dignitas Professorship.
Country assessments for Afghanistan, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan on links between climate and health and livelihoods – a joint initiative of the Finnish Red Cross and the IFRC Asia Pacific region – were rolled out at a workshop organized with the Climate Centre.
We jointly hosted an expert workshop on responding to climate impacts in support of the UK Climate and Development Ministerial set for the following month, in partnership with Italy; a consensus emerged that current risk-management mechanisms are “not fit for purpose”.
Strong parallels with Red Cross Red Crescent Movement thinking were noted when the European Commission adopted a new strategy on adaptation to set out “the pathway to prepare for the unavoidable impacts of climate change” in even the most optimistic scenarios for emissions.
In a phrase that echoed through the year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said climate change had sounded a “red alert” for humanity, making 2021 “a make-or-break year to confront the global climate emergency”. It came as the UN published a report showing nations must do far more on emissions if they’re to achieve the Paris goals.
“The major emitters must step up with much more ambitious [reductions] for 2030 in their Nationally Determined Contributions,” he said.
Global warming is distorting forecasts of the El Niño-Southern Oscillation in the Pacific, possibly causing El Niño warming-events to be seen as stronger than they should be and cool La Niñas weaker – and putting humanitarian agencies on the wrong foot, a team of scientists including Climate Centre specialists found.
In a new video profiling its reference centres, the IFRC said Climate Centre assistance with forecasts enabled humanitarian organizations and vulnerable people “to respond sooner, and to prepare for changing risk-patterns to reduce losses of lives and livelihoods…”
At the Climate and Development Ministerial itself, attended by Maarten van Aalst, a new pathway document charting international engagements was part of a critical track toward the COP meeting, with explicit acknowledgement of the need for progress on climate finance in developing countries and on loss and damage; and one on which the Climate Centre and its partners had supported the UK presidency.
‘2021 is a make-or-break year to confront
the global climate emergency’
Our partner Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, the Dutch meteorologist who developed the KNMI Climate Explorer and who died later in the year from cancer, was chosen by the European Meteorological Society for its Technology Achievement Award 2021.
Four new Climate Centre briefs explore how social protection could be expanded, given adequate resources, to become more responsive to shocks.
The IFRC and the Climate Centre launched a new strategy for youth-led climate action, aimed at helping National Societies shape their work on climate.
In its strongest statement on climate to date, the American Red Cross said: “Climate change is a humanitarian crisis. Every day, the American Red Cross sees the heartbreak of families and communities trying to cope with more intense storms, heavier rainfall, higher temperatures, stronger hurricanes and more devastating wildfires.”
There was “clear scientific evidence that climate change is occurring…caused in part by human behaviour. The Red Cross was “committed to doing our part to reduce the current and future humanitarian impacts of climate change globally.”
The Ethiopia Red Cross Society, as primary implementer, with support from the Netherlands Red Cross, its 510 data team, the IFRC, and the Climate Centre, finalized a new early action protocol, with floods as the priority hazard, using a DREF allocation of 350,000 Swiss francs.
The Climate Centre introduced a “low-cost, do-it-yourself guide to urban resilience activities” in the shape its Urban Action Kit at the 7th Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships Weeks.
Our Programme Manager for Anticipatory Action, Irene Amuron, and Maarten van Aalst told the Petersberg Climate Dialogue that “the global response to the climate crisis must channel resources to the most vulnerable communities to enable early action ahead of the rising risks”.
Arguing that the world stands “at the edge of the abyss” on climate, UN Secretary General António Guterres issued a new call at the Petersberg event to do more to balance climate finance for adaptation and mitigation.
Resources listed in the European Commission’s new Disaster Preparedness Guidance Note included the Anticipation Hub, the ICRC’s When Rain Turns to Dust report, and the Climate Centre’s guides to heatwave for cities and urban National Society branches.
British Red Cross and Climate Centre experts shared insights on how the insurance sector can sharpen humanitarian effectiveness in a new report by the UK-based Aon company.
A brief published jointly by the IFRC and Climate Centre detailed the adverse impacts of climate change on human health – the second of four pillars in the 2020 Movement ambitions on climate.
The IFRC said Red Cross teams in the Americas were stepping up efforts to prepare for another hurricane season during the Covid-19 pandemic, only days later warning that a looming heatwave in parts of Europe posed a deadly threat to the most vulnerable in society.
The Movement issued a formal invitation to all agencies to sign the Climate and Environment Charter for Humanitarian Organizations.
We moderated a side-event of the UN ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment 2021 at which IFRC Director of Disasters, Climate and Crisis Pascale Meige said it was committed to scaling up anticipatory action “so that it reaches more people, covers more locations, and is applied to a wide range of hazards”.
A brief co-authored by the Climate Centre argued that social protection can serve as a strategic tool for managing climate risk, responding to calls for “climate action and increased resilience as we recover from Covid-19”.
The IFRC is committed to scaling up
anticipatory action ‘so that it reaches
more people, covers more locations,
and applies to a wide range of hazards’
The British Columbia village of Lytton (photo) saw modern-era record Canadian temperature of 49.6°C, far exceeding the previous record of 45.0°C observed in Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan in 1937; Lytton was then almost completely destroyed by fire.
Among the safety advice re-emphasized by the Canadian Red Cross in the heatwave and wildfire emergency that also affected the US Pacific region: monitoring local weather, news and warnings, keeping vehicles fuelled and facing the street, and following instructions to evacuate.
Within days a rapid analysis by World Weather Attribution (WWA) scientists said the record-breaking heatwave would have been “virtually impossible” without human-caused climate change.
Maarten Van Aalst told Geneva Solutions that many humanitarian donors are now open to providing financial aid before a disaster happens, and while Covid has accelerated the trend, funding needs to be more flexible.
The Climate Centre’s Anticipatory Action Manager, Irene Amuron, told the Africa Dialogue Platform that Covid-19 was a stark reminder of the need to “always anticipate, prepare and respond to multiple risks at any one time”.
The German Red Cross and the National Societies of Belgium and the Netherlands mobilized thousands of volunteers to assist with evacuations and help people made homeless by summer floods of historic proportions; the most lethal flood disaster to hit Europe for two decades, it was seen as a game-changer in terms of perceptions of climate impacts there.
The Chinese authorities also launched what were described as “massive rescue and relief efforts” in response to record rainfall and floods that swept through central Henan province.
A British Red Cross report, Feeling the heat, drew on Climate Centre research and offered practical support to keep safe in heatwave.
In response to its Working Group I report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, IFRC President Francesco Rocca said the “IPCC [which includes three Climate centre scientists] is sounding the alarm, even louder and clearer.
We call on everyone to listen and act: reduce emissions as soon as possible, but also step up efforts to reduce risks, with special attention for the most vulnerable people who are hit hardest by the growing hazards”.
The Climate Centre published a cartoon interpretation of IPCC’s findings for humanitarians.
National Society volunteers across Europe assisted firefighters and people affected or displaced by wildfires, and in some locations they were actually helping to douse flames. On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Algerian Red Crescent organized reception centres for people fleeing their homes because of fires there.
In its coverage of the northern summer heat and fires, the IFRC referenced the 2017 study by WWA – of which the Climate Centre is a part – which found that climate change had increased the chances of a Mediterranean heatwave that year by a factor of at least ten.
The extreme rainfall that led to the devastating floods in Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, meanwhile, was made up to nine times more likely by climate change, according to another WWA analysis that made global headlines and served as a stark reminder that the climate crisis is hitting people everywhere, with deadly impacts even in the richest countries.
The Climate Centre finalized publication of briefs assessing the impacts of a changing climate on health and livelihoods in (alphabetically) Afghanistan, Fiji, the Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Timor-Leste, and on health in Ethiopia, Kenya and Malawi – the first phase of an initiative to reduce climate-related health vulnerabilities and dovetail with the IFRC’s Strategy 2030.
In one of the most climatically significant events of the year, some 50 wildfires were burning in the Russia’s Yakutia republic in Siberia and were being extinguished at the rate of five a day.
Audrey Oettli, the IFRC’s Child Protection Area of Responsibility Coordinator, wrote in a blog that acting early to protect children is a humanitarian imperative, but resources and services are lacking. She added: “Unlocking the potential of anticipatory action to reduce the risks faced by children – violence, abuse, neglect, exploitation – is essential and must be accelerated.”
More than 700 young people all over the world registered for the Movement’s first-ever youth-led climate summit, organized by the IFRC Youth Commission and the Climate Centre. Introducing the event, Michelle Chew – the commission’s Asia Pacific representative – said it was not always easy for the young to get a seat at the top table on climate, but “if you can start influencing your own local communities, your university, your town, to take up action on climate…we’ll all end up in a better position.”
The Climate Centre’s Eddie Jjemba told a round table organized by the UK-based Ovserseas Development Institute that “incredibly diverse links between mobility and climate change need further research.”
The results of stakeholder consultations validating an earlier Feasibility Study on Heatwave in Dhaka were presented jointly by the Bangladesh Red Crescent, the country’s met department, and the German Red Cross in Dhaka, with Climate Centre input.
The Climate Centre’s climate risk adviser, Roop Singh, who leads our work on the heat hazard, told BBC World News: “One of the biggest issues we face is that there’s very little work on the question of when extreme heat becomes dangerous in places where it’s hot year-round.”
Testimony gathered by the ICRC in Mali emphasized how climate risks threaten communities in conflict zones: the International Committee warned the climate crisis there is making an already-dire situation much worse.
‘We call on everyone to listen and act’
We were very excited and happy to welcome Yolanda Kakabadse, a former Ecuadoran environment minister, as the new chair of the Climate Centre’s board, taking over from the Dutch former minister Ed Nijpels, who had served in the role since 2007. Her fellow Climate Centre board member Marieke van Schaik, CEO of the Netherlands Red Cross, said: “We’re thrilled to have Yolanda with us in the hugely important and supportive role of chair of the Climate Centre board.”
In the same month, we said a final goodbye to our much-loved colleague Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, an analyst at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute who was the driving force behind climate attribution; he was diagnosed eight years ago with Kahler’s disease, a type of blood cancer, and died at the age of 59.
The IFRC launched a campaign showcasing the impact of climate change on people’s lives across the globe: #ClimateChangedMe is a new take on a typical self-help book and presents climate change as the “ultimate life-changing experience”.
In a major statement to the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, American Red Cross Vice-President for Disaster Programmes, Jennifer Pipa, described climate change as “a worldwide humanitarian emergency – and a defining threat of the 21st century.”
A new Climate Centre brief reiterated support for the plan of action on climate-related loss and damage developed by the UNFCCC.
The latest in the series of Climate Engineering in Context conferences was hosted online by the Potsdam-based Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies and including sessions facilitated by the Climate Centre’s Innovation Lead, Pablo Suarez, and Roop Singh, its Climate Risk Adviser.
Zambia took the reins on forecast-based financing when the Netherlands-funded Response Preparedness II programme was fully handed over to the government and implementing Zambia Red Cross Society branches; it includes provision for forecast-based financing through an early action protocol for floods developed by the ZRCS, the IFRC, the Netherlands Red Cross and its 510 data specialists, and the Climate Centre.
Maarten van Aalst moderated the Movement Planet: Red Summit’s first headline panel, on the charter for humanitarian organizations, which, from the Vice-President of the Maldivian Red Crescent, Aisha Niyaz, heard a very compelling example of the hundreds of personal stories told during the summit.
COP 26 in Glasgow was, of course, a key climate event of the year. Its results were a case of glass half full and half empty, with significant steps forward but also not enough progress to actually achieve the Paris temperature target.
There was a commitment to double adaptation finance while a growing number of actors signing on to locally led adaptation, but again many argued this was too little too late in the face of growing impacts. The spotlight thus fell on loss and damage – a theme that gained more prominence than ever, and in the wake of several climate-related disasters in the richest countries, some of which were covered by our WWA analyses.
A highlight for us came on the special day for adaptation at a UK presidency event on loss and damage moderated by Maarten van Aalst and including a keynote address by the UK COP President Alok Sharma. The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, told the session “there is no better measure that the world is still failing to understand the climate crisis than its failure to fund the mechanism for loss and damage.”
Loss and damage was also a key theme in the growing focus on disaster displacement, highlighted in a report on the risks from climate change faced by people living in coastal regions – a joint effort with the IFRC, the Bangladesh and Somali Red Crescent, and the Mexican and Norwegian Red Cross
Even before the COP meeting got underway, just over 1,000 people had registered to take part in Development and Climate Days, held virtually for the first time, breaking a record set at COP 23 in Bonn in 2017.
British Red Cross CEO Mike Adamson issued a strong call at the D&C Days closing event to “make prevention exciting”, arguing that it has always been challenging to find funds for prevention but “the consequences are much greater now than they were before because of the climate change.”
Several sessions at COP 26 focused on health, including two jointly organized by the IFRC with the UK, and with Finland, the Finnish Red Cross and the Climate Centre.
A Climate Centre report compiled for the Adaptation Research Alliance, formally launched at COP 26, affirmed calls to strengthen the climate resilience of health systems.
In the run-up to the UN climate talks, widely regarded as pivotal to the future of the planet, the Climate Centre’s Devin O’Donnell and Tilly Alcayna published preliminary results from research showing that only just under 2 per cent of total funding in a decade of climate adaptation finance goes to health-related work.
Other research, published in Nature Climate Change, to which the Climate Centre contributed, revealed that adaptation per se is fragmented and undertaken primarily by households rather than communities and institutions.
Alongside strong traction across COP 26 for the Risk-informed Early Action partnership and its ambition to make a billion people more resilient in the face of a volatile climate, there was good news when three UN agencies announced a Systematic Observations Finance Facility to improve forecasting in vulnerable countries and enable them to better prepare for extreme weather and climate-related disasters.
Also aimed at improving forecast-based action was the joint appointment by the Climate Centre and the University of Reading of Liz Stephens as Associate Professor in Climate Risks and Resilience in the Department of Meteorology.
The Climate Centre took part in two of the six launch events – in Berlin and London – for the UN Global Humanitarian Overview 2022. Maarten van Aalst told a panel at the Berlin launch: “Climate finance could be better targeted…The investment is worth it; we’re ready for it; we know what to do with it.”
The Red Cross Red Crescent was also represented at the London GHO launch by the Climate Centre’s Guigma Kiswendsida, Technical Adviser on forecast-based financing.
Poverty, poor infrastructure and dependence on rain-fed agriculture, combined with natural variability, are the main factors behind the food crisis in southern Madagascar, with climate change playing “no more than a small part”, according to a WWA study.
Arguing that forecasts of what the weather will do – impact-based forecasting – as well as what it will be are vital to address humanitarian impacts, the World Meteorological Organization released new operational guidance, adding a second part to its 2015 reference text and building on work by the UK Met Office, the IFRC and the Climate Centre among others.
The guidance also explicitly embraces anticipatory action and was presented at the 9th Global Dialogue Platform by Professor Celeste Saulo, WMO Vice-President and Director of the Argentine National Meteorological Service.
Clockwise from top left: the British Columbia village of Lytton recorded a modern-era record Canadian temperature of 49.6°C, far exceeding the previous record of 45.0°C; the IFRC urged greater international support for millions of people in Afghanistan suffering from a worsening drought (photo), Covid and armed conflict; floods of historic proportions caused devastation in Germany (photo) and other countries in north-west Europe; the Climate Centre’s cartoon wall was a hit at COP 26. (Photos: Met Office, IFRC-National Societies, UN)