Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre marks 20th birthday
By Maarten van Aalst, Climate Centre Director, The Hague
The Climate Centre is twenty years old today. Or to be precise, it is 20 years to the day since the first conference on climate and disaster risk reduction, held in the Royal Theatre in The Hague, saw the birth of our centre, with the IFRC and Netherlands Red Cross as the proud parents and my predecessor and the first director of the centre, Madeleen Helmer, as midwife.
As Madeleen acknowledged, we were not quite the first. Some people in the Red Cross Red Crescent became aware of the risks of climate change as early as the 1980s. One was Anders Wijkman, then secretary general of the Swedish Red Cross, who focused on climate, the environment and humanitarian affairs as a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009 and is now chair of Climate-KIC, one of our current partners.
The IFRC’s World Disasters Report first flagged the climate danger in 1999, and the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent that year asked the question about the “potential humanitarian consequences of climate change”.
But in those millennial years, climate change was still seen chiefly as an environmental issue, not a humanitarian one; a scientific question about potential long-term dangers to the world’s ecosystems – the iconic image of a polar bear on a melting iceshelf – not a matter of life and death for humans here and now.
Again and again, as a small band of specialists in the Climate Centre (in good Red Cross tradition, I initially joined as a volunteer from the World Bank and subsequently from academia), we found ourselves explaining why such an outfit had been established; indeed sometimes having to justify its existence – even here in the Netherlands, whose National Society is our host.
As Madeleen put it rhetorically: “What does the Red Cross have to do with renewable energy? The storage of carbon dioxide? The Kyoto protocol? Not a lot.”
How times have changed.
Only last week, the Red Cross Red Crescent Council of Delegates resolved to address a range of humanitarian challenges, including (with my emphasis) “the growing existential threats posed by the climate crisis, the escalating migration crisis, the devastating impacts of war in cities, and the need to … work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
Without overstating its significance, the order in which those priorities were presented by the IFRC to the world’s media is striking. But it reflects what has been repeatedly confirmed. Climate is the first priority in the IFRC’s Strategy 2030. Last year, the IFRC and the ICRC jointly established the Climate and Environment Charter which has now been signed by almost 300 humanitarian organisations.
I vividly recall that the early months of our life as a new IFRC reference centre were bracketed by two epic disasters in Europe – both intuitively understood and scientifically demonstrated as bearing the unmistakable fingerprints of climate change.
In August 2002, shortly after we emerged into the world, a week of quite exceptional rainfall caused historically extensive floods in central Europe, affecting at least 12 countries and generating some extraordinary news footage of, for example, Prague all but submerged.
Then came an event which probably more than any other single episode changed minds and put climate firmly on the humanitarian radar-screen: by one authoritative reckoning, the 2003 European heatwave, officially a “mega-disaster”, was the sixth deadliest of the two decades to 2019, killing more than 70,000 people and affecting France especially badly.
The next year it became clear, in the first-ever statistical attribution study, that the frequency of such an event had already doubled due to climate change at that time (since then, it has multiplied many times over).
But if climate change could contribute to disasters on this scale in one of the richest and supposedly best-prepared regions of the world, what could it do in the poorest and most vulnerable that we are mandated to assist?
While the Climate Centre was set up to divide its efforts 50/50 between the Netherlands and the rest of the world, we quickly pivoted to primarily focus on the world’s most vulnerable countries, and framed the first of our major programmes in the early 2000s, Preparedness for climate change, which ran in two phases from 2006 to 2011.
This established a four-stage process by which National Societies – briefed on the specific climate risks they faced – could develop strategies to prepare themselves and reduce human vulnerability. Twenty-nine – the majority of the 40 which took part – reported completing at least three of the four steps, and nearly 20 ran the full course and developed programmes that were designed ab initio to be climate-smart.
Interestingly, recent years have seen a bit of a shift back towards all countries in the world, not just the poorest and most vulnerable, as even rich countries, such as Germany (floods), Canada (heat), Australia (wildfires), the US (wildfires, storms, floods) and many European countries hit by heatwaves, have seen some of the most deadly disasters, all with a climate fingerprint.
Everywhere, vulnerable groups were hit hardest. By now, it’s clear no country is immune, and preparedness for a changing climate is clearly everyone’s business.
If asked to pick a year in which we truly began to push at an open door in terms of international policy impact, it would be 2007, when ours was one of several voices behind the scenes for the International Conference that year that generated – as part of Resolution 1 – this compelling statement: “We are deeply concerned that people everywhere, especially the poorest of the poor, face an increased burden due to the rise in disasters and the scarcity of resources induced by multiple factors, such as environmental degradation and climate change, which contribute to poverty, migration, health risks and an aggravated risk of violence and conflict.” Many speakers referred to the clear examples documented in the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Guide published earlier that year.
It was also 2007 that first saw climate at the top of a list of concerns at a global Movement event, at that time followed by migration, violence, disease. It was the year in which – another key breakthrough – the IFRC and its Climate Centre, leading a partnership with others in the Inter-Agency Standing Committee, helped to argue for adaptation to be given a prominent place on the climate agenda alongside mitigation at COP13 in Bali 2007, and at the 2010 Cancun Agreements for disaster risk to be a key topic of concern in the adaptation efforts under the UN.
Through our participation with other partners in some major projects that followed, especially the Partners for Resilience (2011–20) and the Building Resilience to Climate Extremes and Disasters programme (2015–19) we helped to ensure that the vitally important concept of resilience – as the names of these programmes suggest, and one that usefully straddles the humanitarian and development spheres – achieved the centrality that it enjoys today.
Besides yielding direct benefits, these programmes laid important foundations for what have now become the principles of locally led adaptation, formally launched at the Climate Adaptation Summit in 2021.
In our second decade we contributed to many other important innovations, and here I would cite one in particular – now known as anticipatory action which developed from a theory that was entirely ours: forecast-based financing, with the critical support of the German government and Red Cross and many key partners.
FbF evolved from a ground-breaking humanitarian action carried out by the Uganda Red Cross Society in November 2015 in response to a forecast of flood risk to something that the UN and last week’s Council of Delegates in Geneva want to scale up to cover (in the words of the latter) “more people, more countries, and more hazards”. This took place alongside foundational scientific work on forecast-based action to convince humanitarian donors to allow us to spend humanitarian finance ahead of disasters.
The Anticipation Hub, established jointly with German Red Cross and the IFRC, now plays a pivotal role supporting these efforts worldwide. The REAP partnership, launched at the 2019 Climate Summit at the UN in New York, is the strongest political commitment by many partners to take these efforts to scale.
This bridge between science, policy and practice has been a cornerstone of our work. Another key example is the now regular World Weather Attribution studies, responding with scientific authority to the questions we often get after major disasters: “Is this climate change? Should we be prepared for more of these disasters”?
We joined forces with KNMI’s Geert Jan van Oldenborgh as well as Fredi Otto (then at Oxford now at Imperial) and many other partners to answer that question, and also to factor in other critical trends – e.g. changing exposure and vulnerability alongside climate hazards. Never had we thought to be able to answer so many of these questions so clearly – a tribute to science but also, sadly, a sign of how quickly the climate is changing.
Through our scientific work and also our participation in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have been able to put the Red Cross Red Crescent’s concerns at the heart of climate science and generate solid answers to our questions, even if initially with honest assessment of the uncertainty.
The humanitarian voice is now clearly heard in the framing of the all-important IPCC global climate assessments. I would argue that through our efforts and that of many of our partners, the IPCC has more closely embraced the framework of risk and vulnerability and better communicates options for adaptation.
Our earliest analyses in 2003, responding to the question about climate change from the 1999 International Conference, were based on the IPCC’s 2001 third assessment of the global climate. We subsequently collaborated with many wonderful climate scientists, including the much-loved Geert Jan van Oldenborgh at KNMI, who sadly passed away last year.
Our first collaboration was an analysis of extremes in Africa based on the modelling results for the IPCC’s 2007 fourth assessment report. Alongside that, we performed a first analysis of how Red Cross Red Crescent community risk assessments could inform adaptation.
Given the rising global importance of such questions, I had the honour of contributing as Coordinating Lead Author to the influential 2012 IPCC SREX report, which also laid the foundations for the framing of risk in the IPCC fifth assessment report – a key ingredient to the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Just recently, the sixth assessment report to which three Climate Centre colleagues contributed concludes firmly that climate change is already contributing to humanitarian crises.
But again: never science just for the sake of science. Our Y-Adapt programme is being rolled out by Red Cross and Red Crescent youth in a growing number of countries – Guatemala, Haiti, Italy, Kiribati, Lebanon, the Philippines, Samoa, Uganda to name but a few, and form a cornerstone of the climate commitments of the IFRC Youth Commission.
Our climate games, designed to make climate science relevant for decision-making, are now played and enjoyed worldwide by officials and disaster managers who we hope will be equipped to make more climate-smart decisions as a result, shaping agendas and strategies. Our cartoons inspire deeper conversations about the challenging topics that need to be discussed, and have found their way from practical workshops to the White House and the corridors of COP26 in Glasgow.
Similarly through the years, the Development and Climate days have played a pivotal role, not only midway through the annual UN climate talks but also between the sometimes inward-looking world of climate negotiations and the realities already happening worldwide.
I vividly remember the giant balloon created by artist Tomas Saraceno, made from plastic rubbish collected by volunteers in local communities, that took to the air just by the heat of the sun outside the venue of COP20 in Lima, Peru, inspiring participants to think differently, but also to confront the realities of climate and poverty. In Glasgow, our ability to enable frank discussions was deployed by the UK COP presidency for a challenging discussion on loss and damage.
Above all perhaps, I would argue that in its two-decade history, the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre has been a human endeavour. Sourcing the smartest scientists and students from around the world, enabling them to work on the world’s hardest problems, often in the most challenging places. Some stayed in our team, some moved back to academia and continued to seek to answer “our” questions. Others moved into the humanitarian world, injecting climate knowledge into our systems.
What started as a physical centre of climate work in the humanitarian world – literally an office within the Netherlands Red Cross – is now a global team of over 50 people and many more collaborators, largely working virtually (even before Covid), linked to knowledge centres and global regions where our insights on climate still matter the most.
All have fire in the belly, genuine curiosity, and true humanity. They have helped to create what I would term a common professional space within the IFRC, ICRC and National Societies, as well as countless partners well beyond the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
The big picture is at once as simple as it was when the 2007 resolution was drafted: we must help the most vulnerable people worldwide withstand climate impacts, and yet complex in new ways. What our Secretary General has called “the three C’s” – Covid, climate, conflict – throw down challenges that shift and morph almost by the month; the latest being the impact on global, especially African, food supplies of the war in Ukraine.
It has been many years now since – to borrow a climate metaphor – we in the Climate Centre were sailing against the prevailing wind. Our struggle now is to keep up with the huge and growing importance of, and humanitarian engagement with, the issue of climate change. And while we are proud of our tremendous progress, we are more worried than ever about the state of the world. Sadly, our growth and relevance is tied to the world’s failure to address the issues we face.
To all of those who help us ride these choppy waters – our amazing staff, including our small administrative team in The Hague and our junior researchers, our wonderful board members, but of course also our colleagues in National Societies, the IFRC, ICRC and other reference centres, our hosts the Netherlands Red Cross, scientific and other partners, including think tanks, donor agencies and other multilateral organizations – I can only express my deepest gratitude and warmest wishes for the next, no doubt challenging, decades.
The new Climate Centre board at the June 2022 Council of Delegates, from right to left: Katrin Wiegmann, observer (ICRC Deputy Director General); Maarten van Aalst, director; Yolanda Kakabadse, chair; Marieke van Schaik, member (General Director, Netherlands Red Cross); Xavier Castellanos, member (IFRC Under Secretary General). (Photo: Derk Segaar/NLRC)