IN December 2007,
10,000 representatives from governments, United Nations (UN)
agencies, scientific institutions, the private sector, non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), the media, the Red Cross Red Crescent
and other interested parties descended on the Indonesian island
of Bali for the UN Climate Change Conference — two weeks
of meetings, negotiations and debates.
The goal? A first step towards a new, international climate
Stuck in the muck
It’s Sunday 11 December, the middle weekend of the
Bali conference, and Madeleen Helmer, head of the Red
Cross Red/Crescent Climate Centre in the Netherlands,
is standing in mud.
The International Federation has arranged to plant mangroves.
On one hot afternoon, representatives from eight Red Cross
societies — Australia, German, Hong Kong, Laos, Netherlands,
Philippines, Thailand and Viet Nam — joined hundreds
of Indonesian Red Cross Society volunteers to plant 3,000
mangroves. In all, Indonesian Red Cross volunteers plan to
plant 10,000 of the saplings, one for each of the participants
of the conference under way just down the road.
“There is still a sense among some conference participants
that they don’t quite know what climate change adaptation
means,” explains Helmer. “This is one of the million
examples of what adaptation is about. But they all come down
to protecting against climate risks like floods, storms, droughts
and new diseases.”
Mangroves can act as a sturdy, natural barrier against storms
and sea surges, hazards that are expected to increase as a
result of climate change. It is a simple, low-cost example
of how vulnerable communities can adapt to new environmental
The event, promoted exhaustively by the delegation over the
preceding week, drew a good crowd of onlookers. Dozens of
people from NGOs and international and local media gave up
their Sunday, their one day off during the conference, to
make their way out to the beach and learn more about community-based
But of the 10,000 international decision-makers attending
the Bali conference, only a fraction made it down the road
to the beach at Tanjung Benoa.
On the agenda, just
Climate change adaptation has always been the forgotten half
of the climate change debate.
The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by governments in 1997
and ratified in 2004, mainly addresses climate change mitigation,
that is, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Kyoto saw most
industrialized countries agree to legally binding targets
to limit their emissions of greenhouse gases between 2008
Maarten van Aalst, a senior adviser with the Red Cross/Red
Crescent Climate Centre, says, “Climate change is already
happening; it’s already contributing to an increase
in some disasters and some people need help to adapt to them.
The international community needs a much stronger mechanism
to deliver that assistance.”
Red Cross Red Crescent advocacy in Bali was built precisely
around this point, explains Helmer. “Despite the progress
within the development sector and within the Red Cross Red
Crescent, climate change is still treated almost entirely
as an economic or environmental topic. Our message was that
it is bigger than this.”
In recent months, extreme weather has affected millions of
people. Last November, communities living on Bangladesh’s
low-lying coast were battered by Cyclone Sidr with countless
lives and livelihoods ruined; large swathes of South Asia
were inundated by the worst floods in a generation; wildfires
across Greece and the United States of America have claimed
lives and farmland; unusual floods and storms have hit previously
little-affected countries such as the United Kingdom.
As a result, the Red Cross Red Crescent called for a focus
on vulnerable countries and communities. One of climate change’s
cruellest ironies is that people who have contributed least
to the problem are now the ones bearing the brunt of its impacts.
In this context, Bali can be seen as a successful start.
Adaptation has been given greater prominence in the Bali Roadmap
— the document that sets out the path towards the new
agreement — with priority given to assistance for vulnerable
countries. It also explores funding mechanisms for adaptation.
However, adaptation is still dwarfed by mitigation, and it
is rarely addressed by the media.
The way forward
At the launch of the International Federation’s appeal
for 2008 and 2009, Encho Gospodinov, the International Federation’s
director for policy and communications, placed climate change
at the top of the agenda.
“One of our goals over the next couple of years will
be to raise the profile of this part of the climate change
equation,” he told journalists. “To make sure
that the people already suffering from its consequences are
at the centre of the new international climate change treaty
and that they are protected against climate risks.”
Matt Cochrane is media and public relations officer
at the International Federation’s secretariat
A demonstrator in body paint poses in front of a globe at
the Bali climate change conference to protest against deforestation.
©REUTERS / MURDANI USMAN, COURTESY www.alertnet.org
Interview with Markku Niskala, International Federation
What were your expectations for the Bali
Well, we wanted a stronger recognition that climate
change is already happening and affecting vulnerable
people. And we wanted increased recognition that measures
need to be taken now to help them face these impacts.
Climate change is still largely talked about as an
environmental, economic or political issue. But I believe
it is very much a humanitarian issue as well.
Are you happy with the outcomes?
The first point is that Bali was not an end in itself.
All that has been achieved is that states have agreed
on a ‘roadmap’ towards a new agreement.
There’s still a lot more negotiation to be done
over the next two years.
Are we happy? In terms of where adaptation change was
on the international agenda even one year ago, we are
very happy with its increased profile. In terms of where
it should be, we can’t be happy. There’s
still a tendency for people — for governments
and media — to talk about climate change as a
This just isn’t the case. We’ve seen in
the past years a striking increase in the number of
storms, floods, droughts, health crises, etc. The message
that we have to push is that climate change is here,
and vulnerable communities need support to deal with
it, and they need our support now — not in five
or ten years, let alone 50 or 80 years.
What role does the Red Cross Red Crescent
have to play?
In November at our General Assembly and the International
Conference, National Societies and governments reaffirmed
their commitment to reducing the humanitarian impact
of climate change. This gives us a clear mandate to
scale up our actions.
As ever, our role is twofold. First of all, we have
to continue to increase our efforts to help vulnerable
communities reduce their vulnerabilities to climate-related
disasters and threats. The International Federation,
through the Climate Centre, identified how communities
can adapt to climate change risks. We have already been
doing a lot of work with vulnerable communities. Now
we need to do more.
Secondly, we need to work to raise the profile of climate
adaptation. I think it is the Red Cross Red Crescent
that can help to put the human face on climate change.
We need to be louder, we need to communicate more, we
need to advocate more, and we need to challenge decision-makers
to make sure that communities are at the heart of the
climate change debate and of the new climate change