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Humanizing the climate change agenda


International reports, charismatic advocacy by world leaders and scenes of devastating floods, droughts and storms have galvanized public opinion and acceptance of climate change.


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 change agreement.

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 threats.

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 adaptation.

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 and 2012.

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
Matt Cochrane is media and public relations officer at the International Federation’s secretariat in Geneva.

A demonstrator in body paint poses in front of a globe at the Bali climate change conference to protest against deforestation.


Interview with Markku Niskala, International Federation Secretary General

What were your expectations for the Bali meeting?
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 future threat.

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 treaty.


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