Red Cross/ Red Crescent Climate Centre

Review of the Year 2019

19/12/2019

The last year of the decade saw many intense climate impacts, extreme heat to storms to floods, hitting everyone from the poorest to the richest countries. But it was also a year of ever-growing attention to the need to anticipate those extremes, reduce risk, and act in advance of impacts.

From the growing number of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies active in forecast-based financing to the global commitments at the UN Climate Action Summit, from the launch of our guidance on heatwaves for local authorities to the impressive commitments at the International Conference, and from in-country advice to ICRC operations in the Sahel to discussions on climate and conflict in the Security Council, the Climate Centre has been privileged to support the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement and its many partners in confronting these challenges, linking science, policy and practice.

Here’s a look back at our engagement with the climate-related humanitarian events of 2019 through the eyes of our news service.

January

With the Hong Kong branch of the Red Cross Society of China, the German Red Cross, and the Climate Centre among organizing partners, the year began with a first in the form of an international expert forum, convened in Hong Kong, to find ways to reduce the growing global risk of deadly heatwaves.

In an op-ed for Red Cross Red Crescent magazine, Climate Centre Director Maarten van Aalst wrote that average global temperatures rises were just that: average. “We see much more rapid changes in extremes. In the last few years, record-setting – even life-threatening – hot spells have hit in Canada, India, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan and the United Kingdom.”

Professor Van Aalst advised on a new action plan on climate announced by the World Bank that more than doubled its financial support for adaptation to US$ 50 billion in the four years to mid-2025, putting this on a par with its commitment to mitigation.

Another important first came when the ICRC’s Permanent Observer to the UN, Robert Mardini, told an open Security Council meeting on climate and conflict that “climate change deepens vulnerabilities for communities affected by war”.

On a similar theme, the first of a series of high-level round tables on the interconnected impacts of climate and conflict was held in Nairobi amid heightened security after the attack in the city in the same week.

Senior representatives from governments, financial institutions, international organizations, think tanks and universities framed a humanitarian perspective on what’s become known as the climate and conflict nexus.

More than 250 experts from at least 60 countries held their first Lead Author meeting in Durban, South Africa, to make plans for the next assessment report by Working Group II, its sixth, on impacts and adaptation; they included Professor Van Aalst, the Climate Centre’s Manager, Climate Science, Erin Coughlan de Perez, and Senior Pacific Climate Adviser Olivia Warrick, who will all write for AR6.

February

In the depths of the northern winter, the IFRC again asked people to check on neighbours, relatives and friends – especially the elderly – who were at risk as freezing temperatures hit Europe.

Professor Van Aalst said that while the break-up of the polar vortex had increased the probability of cold snaps in North America, Russia and Europe, there was no scientific consensus behind the suggestion this is linked to Arctic warming.

“In any case,” he added, “the cold snap was forecast successfully well ahead of the event, partly based on stratospheric conditions,” and the important point was again preparedness.

This 2019 Humanitarian Networks and Partnerships week in Geneva heard calls for the expansion of anticipatory humanitarian action, including from Pascale Meige, IFRC Director of Disaster and Crisis Prevention, Response and Recovery, and included technical meetings on humanitarian cooperation with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), facilitated by the Climate Centre.

The IFRC announced that the first early-action protocol of the forecast-based component of its DREF emergency fund was in place and ready to help the Peruvian Red Cross assist alpaca herders in the Andes; it was developed with support from the German Federal Foreign Office and Red Cross and the Climate Centre.

The Indian Red Cross and government’s Earth System Science Organization umbrella agency that includes the country’s met department signed an MoU to share meteorological information and data to build local community resilience.

This came shortly before a series of PfR-related training sessions by the Red Cross in several states that included the India Meteorological Department, the IFRC and the Climate Centre.

March

From the first week of March onwards, the entire humanitarian community was focused on Southern Africa and the impact of Tropical Cyclone Idai on Mozambique especially.

The IFRC and the Climate Centre generated the first aerial video from Mozambique showing the scale of the disaster and this won huge media exposure worldwide.

Thanks to quick action by the German Red Cross team in Maputo, funds were diverted by the forecast-based forecasting project still being finalized in the country to enable a small consignment of emergency shelter kits to be sent to Beira ahead of the storm’s landfall.

The Climate Centre noted that two climate factors which could have played a role in the Cyclone Idai disaster were higher sea-levels and more intense rainfall embedded in the storm.

IFRC Secretary General Elhadj As Sy, speaking at the end of a visit to Beira, said: “The scale and scope of suffering and damage is breath taking. Hundreds of thousands of people have been impacted in some way. We must respond fast and at scale, and prepare to accompany the affected populations in the longer term.”

Also in March, evidence of one of the most serious instances of the conflict-climate nexus, Afghanistan, became irrefutable.

Ten million people in the country – more than a quarter of its population – were facing acute food insecurity and needed urgent help after floods and drought, the Afghan Red Crescent and the IFRC said.

We reported on the achievement of the Uganda Red Cross Society in becoming the first National Society in Africa to roll out the Y-Adapt curriculum at a week-long training of trainers for 30 young people.

In other highlights, Maarten van Aalst was appointed Professor of Spatial Resilience for Disaster Risk Reduction – a chair inaugurated in 2018 by the Red Cross and the University of Twente for the 75th birthday of Princess Margriet of the Netherlands.

And the Climate Centre rolled out a new collaboration with Bob Mankoff, cartoon and humour editor of Esquire, to bring humour into humanitarian communications.

‘The international community must 
consider how the simultaneous shocks
of climate change and conflict affect peoples
livelihoods in shaping our response’

April

We reported on a dialogue on early warning early action convened by the Tuvalu Red Cross Society in Funafuti, its capital, that centred on the challenges of reaching the ‘last mile’ to communities.

It was jointly convened by the Tuvalu Red Cross with the IFRC and the Climate Centre, with support from the Australian government and Red Cross – part of a productive and ongoing engagement between the Red Cross in the Pacific and local meteorological services.

In an interview to coincide with what was quickly dubbed “the first humanitarian COP”, Professor Van Aalst said that “one of the biggest rising risks with climate change is heatwaves in urban areas” – a pivotal 2019 theme.

This World Conference on Health and Climate Change was convened by the French Red Cross in Cannes and focused on “the latest scientific research, and innovative solutions designed to meet the greatest public health challenge of the 21st century,” the FRC said; it also marked the centenary of the foundation of the IFRC, founded on 5 May 1919.

Mr Sy said he hoped it would “start planting the seeds for the next visionary 100 years”. In a keynote address he said it was no longer possible to deny the impact of climate change on the “triptych of people’s lives, livestock and livelihoods”.

After Tropical Cyclone Kenneth later caused more flooding in northern Mozambique, the IFRC tweeted that floodwater had completely “covered the coastal town of Pemba”, capital of Cabo Delgado province bordering Tanzania.

The Climate Centre noted that, anecdotally, the entire episode had “set two scary modern records”: Kenneth was the strongest Indian Ocean cyclone to make landfall that far north in Mozambique, and it was the first time two such intense storms had been seen in quick succession there.

May

The Director General for International Cooperation at the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Reina Buijs, addressed a policy dialogue on conflict, climate and resilience – the next in the series that began in Nairobi in January.

“Through technical support,” she explained, “like improved post-harvest handling and storage, feed and seed systems...we help populations to be more resilient to shocks so conflict-induced food insecurity can be prevented.”

side-event at the Second Multi-Hazard Early Warning Conference in Geneva, jointly led by the IFRC and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization that also included the Climate Centre, focused on enhancing the link between early warning and early action through impact-based forecasts that paint a picture of what extreme weather will do as well as what it will be.

Another Climate Centre side-event at the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction centred on “the multiple dividends arising from investments in early action, challenges and opportunities, and practical next steps”.

It noted that FbF has “grown exponentially in recent years, with at least 30 countries developing early warning early action systems”.

June

The IFRC reported that the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society concluded that its operational decision-making process had become “clearer and more straightforward” thanks to its improved use of scientific information centred on FbF, as had been shown by the experience of Cyclone Fani.

Mark Lowcock, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, told an audience in Berlin he was allocating US$ 45 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund for “early action to mitigate a problem we now know is on its way” in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya: drought-related food insecurity.

The UN humanitarian chief said the international community needed to repeat the success of 2017 when “four consecutive failed rains brought Somalia to the brink of famine”, but “early warning led to earlier action”.

Germany, he added, the world’s second-largest humanitarian donor, providing nearly 3 billion euros in 2018, had become a global thought leader with its support for the piloting of forecast-based funding.

Early in a northern summer of what was to become record-breaking heat, the IFRC in Europe announced that an 80-year temperature record had been broken in the Belarus capital, Minsk.

The Climate Centre launched an updated and expanded version of its principal training resource for National Societies, the Climate Training Kit 2.0, developed with the IFRC secretariat and the Partners for Resilience (PfR) programme.

At the UNFCCC intersessional meeting in Bonn, a resilience roadshow and a Technical Expert Meeting on Adaptation looked at financing, the role of the private sector, and issues of scale, asking how we can be sure global mechanisms prioritize the highest risks and incentivise the most effective local actions.

                                                  ‘Heatwaves are one of the deadliest natural hazards facing humanity
and the threat will only get more serious’

July

The ICRC and the Jordan Red Crescent Society co-hosted a dialogue on climate change, conflict and resilience in Amman, jointly organized with the Climate Centre and the UK Overseas Development Institute and the fourth in the global series of policy round-tables.

A panel at the UN in New York heard a strong call from Ireland’s permanent representative for the most vulnerable people to be placed “at the centre of our work”. Geraldine Byrne Nason was speaking at a side-event, chaired by the IFRC and including the Climate Centre, at the end of the first week of the 2019 high-level political forum on sustainable development.

In a key humanitarian publishing event of the year, the new Red Cross Red Crescent Heatwave Guide for Cities, providing planners with an authoritative summary of possible actions to reduce the heatwave danger, was launched at UN headquarters in New York and was covered prominently, for example, by the New York Times.

“Heatwaves are one of the deadliest natural hazards facing humanity, and the threat they pose will only become more serious and more widespread as the climate crisis continues,” said IFRC President Francesco Rocca, who was at the launch together with Climate Centre Urban Manager Julie Arrighi.

Within only a few days, and for the second time in a month, Western Europe saw an intense heatwave and national temperature records broken in Belgium, France, Germany and the Netherlands, later joined by the UK, with many National Societies once again prominently flagging their public-health guidance on how to stay safe.

The first-ever North Pacific youth leadership camp in Pohnpei, Micronesia, was described by Climate Centre Technical Adviser, Brigitte Rudram, as “an exciting next step in the agenda for the rolling out of Y-Adapt worldwide”.

August

The ICRC published a wide-ranging talk by its Head of Policy, Dr Hugo Slim, at the 5th Singapore Red Cross Humanitarian Conference on partnerships and volunteerism.

On climate, Dr Slim said the IFRC and its Climate Centre were jointly “becoming an increasingly important partner to the ICRC as we too engage with people’s experience of the double effects of conflict and climate shocks on their lives.

“The Federation’s deep knowledge in the policy and practice of climate change response, disaster risk reduction, and adaptation now needs to become central to the way we work.”

The annual camel caravan in northern Kenya aimed at raising awareness of the importance of conserving the Ewaso Nyiro river basin, now in its fifth year, concluded at Archer’s Post in Samburu county; USAID, Family Health International 360, Isiolo Peace Link and PfR partners Cordaid and the Merti Integrated Development Programme took part.

After the IFRC said cases of dengue fever were on the rise across monsoon-affected Asia, Maarten van Aalst argued in an op-ed that while the research that would conclusively link a particular spike in dengue to a clearly climate-related warmer, wetter season somewhere does not yet exist, the risk must be there and in all likelihood is intensifying.

The Climate Centre helped specialists from Mali, Mozambique, Uganda and Zambia attend a course at the UK’s University of Reading centred on flood forecasting, FbF triggers and the Global Flood Awareness System.  

September

After Hurricane Dorian swept across the Bahamas, Professor Van Aalst reminded the humanitarian community that “storm surges – aggravated by sea levels that are established as being higher because of climate change – are probably the most easily attributable impacts we see.”

Dorian, he added, “neatly fits the expected pattern in a warmer world of stronger and more destructive, but not necessarily more frequent, storms.”

In the run-up to the UN Climate Summit, convened by UN Secretary General Guterres to increase global ambition on climate, the IFRC launced its #FacesofClimateChange campaign, to advocate large-scale local action and highlight the humanitarian consequences of inaction; this was championed by the social-media platform Tik Tok, with its 500 million users worldwide.

Julie Arrighi, one of the main contributors to the IFRC’s hard-hitting new Cost of Doing Nothing Report, said it presented “some of the potential consequences should the global community fail to address the rising risks of a changing climate.”

But it also highlighted positive outcomes “if the global community takes action now to build resilience, adapt and address the current climate crisis.”

The much-heralded Risk-informed Early Action Partnership intended to protect a billion people in the developing world from extreme weather was launched as one of the key new commitments at the UN Climate Summit, just ahead of the General Assembly in New York, signalling growing global attention for solutions to address the humanitarian impacts of climate change.

And the Climate Centre issued a lay person’s guide in cartoon form to the new IPCC report on the world’s oceans.

Red Cross Red Crescent engagement at the Asia Pacific Climate Week in Bangkok centred on side-events that included Stepping up Actions on Delivering a Resilient Future – organized by the Global Resilience Partnership, the Climate Centre and others.

The IFRC agenda featured “forecasting and early action, empowering local communities affected by the climate crisis, and integrated risk management.”

Later in September the Climate Centre Director officially accepted his assignment as Professor Van Aalst, delivering an inaugural lecture at the University of Twente in the presence of Princess Margriet.

                                                             ‘Small steps are not enough’

October

The IFRC Governing Board approved the organizations’s new Strategy 2030 that proposed “an urgent shift of leadership and decision-making to the most local level” and placed climate change at the head of a list of major global challenges facing the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

A rapid analysis by World Weather Attribution scientists found that the extreme rainfall and floods caused by Tropical Storm Imelda that affected Texas and Louisiana were made both more likely and more intense by global warming.

At least 130 people from 50 National Societies as well as the Climate Centre and the Global Disaster Preparedness Centre were in the Qatar capital, Doha, for the fourth Global Meeting on Innovation in Humanitarian Action, where the Climate Centre outlined operational experience with FbF and spoke about the IPCC oceans report.

November

We reported that the Pacific Islands Climate Services Panel will be jointly chaired by Simon McGree, a climatologist at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Olivia Warrick of the IFRC and Climate Centre.

Olivia was later at GEO Week 2019: Earth Observations for Disaster Risk Reduction in Canberra, where the Australian Red Cross and the Climate Centre presented at a side-event hosted by NASA and the IRI that focused on stronger links between Earth observations and humanitarian action.

Our colleague Andrew Kruczkiewicz quoted her telling the group: “There’s often an assumption that if people can access data or a data-based tool to support decision-making like a model output, a risk map or a forecast, then they will do things differently. But this isn’t always the case.

“You also need to ask if users have requested that specific information, and do they know what to do with it?”

This annual Global Dialogue Platform on Anticipatory Humanitarian Action in Berlin – the seventh in a series that began in 2015 – gathered more than 200 people from 40 countries.

Organized by the German Red Cross, the IFRC, the Climate Centre and the World Food Programme, it centred on the theme of Early warning early Action: evidence, coherence, influence and science.

In his opening remarks, Elhadj As Sy emphasized that “climate change is not a matter of the future, it is a matter of today – we need the science and we have the science now. The question is, are we listening to it?”

Overall he said, humanitarians could look forward to a journey that would encompass “commitment, courage, humility, questioning”.

December

Our own board member Jagan Chapagain, a Red Cross Red Crescent veteran, was selected as new IFRC Secretary General by the Governing Board shortly before the first of the 2019 Statutory Meetings.

Professor Van Aalst recalled that at last year’s UN talks in Katowice, Jagan had memorably told the Marrakech Partnership round table on resilience that “we need to move from debating value for money to value for people” – a view later explicitly endorsed in the outcome document.

After climate emerged as a growing concern in an exhaustive two-year consultation with the Red Cross and Red Crescent network, the IFRC’s new Strategy 2030, formally adopted at its General Assembly, highlighted how climate change is a growing concern for National Societies.

The 2019 Statutory Meetings between them saw many concrete commitments and insightful discussions. The International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent included an intense side-event on how to be climate smart, and the establishment of a consortium on climate research for the Movement, co-chaired by Gilles Carbonnier, Vice-President of the ICRC, and Cecile Aptel, the IFRC’s Director of Policy, Strategy and Knowledge.

Princess Margriet herself convened a high-level lunch on climate-smart disaster risk reduction, there was also a packed ‘spotlight session’, led by National Societies, and also a moving personal speech in the plenary by Australian Red Cross CEO Judy Slatyer, whose staff and volunteers are grappling with very serious wildfires, about “unprecedented risks in a warming world”.

A historic joint virtual event from COP 25 in Madrid and the International Conference was the first time the most senior figures from each meeting have been brought together in a webcast, and the 17th annual Development and Climate Days went ahead in Madrid over a single day after the UN climate talks were rescheduled from Chile to the Spanish capital.

When the UN climate talks themselves ended after a second day of extra time, Maarten van Aalst, vowed “to continue to work with all states as part of the UNFCCC process to reduce humanitarian impacts of climate change” but added that the “small steps” that had been agreed to Madrid were not enough to address rising risks.

At the end of the decade, then, the mandate borne by the Red Cross Red Crescent is more demanding than ever. In 2020 we hope to contribute to restoring the global momentum on climate change that was lacking at COP 25, but we take courage from the strong leadership on display at our own International Conference, and with that will support the Movement in addressing the rising risks we will continue to face in 2020, every day everywhere.

Clockwise from top left: Elhadj As Sy visits Mozambique in March; the Red Cross responds to the monsoon in Burma; ICRC President Peter Maurer speaks to International Committee beneficiaries in Jordan at the end of an official visit in February; the met map of Europe was redrawn to include a new temperature band above 40C. (Photos: Climate Centre; Burmese Red Cross; ICRC; ESA)