IFRC chief: urgent climate action needed to help crisis-hit communities

People make their way through floodwaters in Beira Mozambique after Cyclone Eloise passed through the city, January 2021. (Keystone/AP Photo)

Urgent action is needed at Cop26 and beyond to help millions of people displaced by climate change who are being “overlooked”, the head of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has warned.

IFRC secretary general Jagan Chapagain, who is in Glasgow this week alongside National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society representatives from communities hardest hit by climate change including Fiji and Kenya, said that Cop26 “has not gone far enough” to help people on the frontline of the climate crisis.

“Humanitarian response cannot keep pace with a crisis of this magnitude, we need to make sure communities are more resilient in the face of rising risks – including resources to anticipate and act ahead of rising risks and to cope with the devastating impacts. Vulnerable communities need action now, not words.”

Over 30 million people were internally displaced by disasters in 2020 alone – over three times more than by conflict and violence – according to a new report from the IFRC, which looked at displacement data across 11 countries. Flood and storms, as well as wildfires, landslides, extreme temperatures and drought were responsible for almost all the displacements.

Speaking to Geneva Solutions, he said the data highlighted that while countries most vulnerable to climate change bore the brunt of displacements, big polluters were also beginning to see their own populations forced from their homes.

“Climate-related disasters are even affecting the countries who thought that they would be protected,” said Chapagain. “This has become a truly global crisis, and it will require a global response. And clearly, the richer countries, those who pollute more, also have capacity to do more.”

“Not only do they really need to do more but they can do more, and I think it's sad to see that that realisation is coming only after they go through the same crisis,” he added.

In the United States, devastating wildfires in California have burned nearly 2.5 million acres this year – nearly double the amount burned on average over the past five years – and displaced thousands across Europe this summer.

Marginalised groups, including people with existing health conditions, children and indigenous communities are often the worst hit when extreme weather events upend their lives.

“While climate change affects everyone, it has a disproportionate impact on the world’s poorest people, those who are contributing the least to climate change,” Chapagain said in the report. “This is also true of climate-related displacement – the most vulnerable communities in low and middle-income countries are the most at risk.”

For example, case studies from Mozambique show how displacement caused by the cyclones that have battered the country has driven up cases of illness within those affected populations. In Iraq, the IFRC has tracked the impact of extreme weather on children's health and cognitive development.

In Australia, massive bushfires fuelled by record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought destroyed hundreds of hectares of sacred spaces, flora and fauna which is irreplaceable for indigenous communities.

Chapagain said that although addressing the “fundamental macro issues” driving climate change such as carbon dioxide and methane emissions was essential, climate adaptation was also key to keeping the numbers of displaced people down.

“While mitigation is extremely important, and the focus on mitigation should not in any way go down, there is a huge need to invest in adaptation because climate change has already happened,” he said.

Chapagain said investment was urgently needed for adaptation as well as early warning systems and to enable early action, allowing countries to build resilience to prepare for increasingly unpredictable extreme weather events.

He gave the example of his home country Nepal, where freak floods and landslides killed hundreds of people two weeks ago. “It’s not only the intensity and frequency of [extreme weather events], but it’s the timing. People were simply not prepared for this type of rain in October,” he said.”

However, Chapagain said that climate financing still lagged far behind the amount required. Moreover, he said even the funds that were available were not reaching the places that needed it most.

Climate finance has been one of the most pressing issues discussed at Cop26 this month. Addressing the conference on Tuesday, the Climate Vulnerable Forum (CVF) called on rich countries to deliver on their promise of putting up $100bn a year to help developing countries fight climate challenges. The pledge has been missed by billions every single year since it was made over a decade ago.

The CVF, which includes 55 countries among the worst hit by climate change, called for $500bn of climate finance to be delivered between 2020 and 2024, of which half should go towards adapting to climate impacts and half to mitigation through reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Countries most vulnerable to climate-related disasters receive a fraction of the funding available for adaptation, IFRC's World Disasters Report released last year showed, with none of the 20 countries most at risk from climate change among those that received the most funding for adaptation.

More than half of the countries categorized as highly vulnerable to climate change received less than $ 1 a year per capita in climate adaptation funding, while two countries - the Central African Republic and North Korea - received none at all.

“Even the money that is readily available is not reaching the most vulnerable countries and it is not reaching the high-risk countries,” said Chapagain. “So reaching the amount [needed] is one thing, but equally important is available resources not reaching the community level.”

Chapagain added that although the majority of climate-related displacement was currently internal, cross-border displacement would likely increase over the coming years as increasingly frequent extreme weather events and other climate impacts such as sea-level rise drive more people in climate-vulnerable countries to leave their homes.

He said the IFRC was calling on big emitters to act urgently to address climate change, if only to help themselves if not to help those countries worst affected.

“You've got to change the investment in your countries and you've got to help the countries who are affected - not by their own fault, as they are the smallest emitters, but they are affected by your actions,” he said. “So if it is not for them, at least take action for yourself.”

Chapagain said there had been a “few hopeful signs” from Cop26 so far, including pledges made by big polluters China and India to cut emissions, the multi-billion dollar package to end and reverse deforestation, and an agreement to cut global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent by 2030.

However, “the challenge is whether these signals turn into actions or not,” he said. “A lot of times what we have seen is that these big announcements are made, then it goes back to business as usual.”

“But I think that we should not underestimate the power of individual actions and individual commitment,” he added. “So while we challenge the governments to do more, we have to do more as an organisation and we have to do more as individuals.”