Maarten van Aalst, professor at Twente university and director of the Red Cross Crescent Climate Centre, brings together the two worlds of climate research and action. The good news is that he believes we have finally woken up to the full urgency of the climate change crisis. But whether we’ll win the battle depends on how quickly we can turn that realisation into action. "We're building cities where we're literally constructing risks in front of our own eyes."

Predicting risks today to avert disaster tomorrow

“Often science can be too abstract and large-scale, when what we need is research that can be understood and useful to people on the frontline. So a lot of our work involves trying to bridge those divides.” As an example, Maarten cites the work one of his PhD students is doing on improving early-warning climate systems in conflict settings. How climate change and conflict interrelate is increasingly recognised as an important question, and now under discussion at the UN Security Council. “Is climate change causing new conflicts? At an academic level, there are so many other factors involved it’s hard to identify a direct causal line. But at a pragmatic level, we can definitely say people in fragile conflict settings are extremely vulnerable to the effects of rising climate risks. So the issue of how we deal with climate risk in these settings is even more important than elsewhere. In practice, of course, it’s more difficult to deliver solutions in such settings. So the question is how we enable people in these vulnerable circumstances to cope with, for example, increasing weather extremes. And it’s not just a question for relief organisations like the Red Cross, but any organisation or fund trying to address climate change.”

“We’re building cities where we’re literally constructing risks in front of our own eyes”

Leveraging science advancements

One question Maarten and his PhD student are considering is how to leverage scientific advancements. For example, satellite-informed weather predictions have improved enormously in recent decades, which means forecasts have also improved even in places with no adequate weather stations. “So we’re looking at how we can use this to improve modelling and provide relevant data that informs practical action on the ground.”

Another example Maarten gives is social protection systems. “We know that societies that have social protection systems, such as health insurance and financial safety nets, are coping better economically with the pandemic. And thankfully such systems are increasingly used in even the poorest countries to protect people from shocks. But currently the systems are largely poverty-driven: if a farmer drops under a set poverty line due to a bad harvest, he then gets supported. But why wait for the bad harvest before giving the pay out? If we can predict extreme weather is coming that will destroy the harvest, wouldn’t it be smarter to pay out to the farmer beforehand, so he can prepare his farm and finances for the extreme weather.”

A third area is forecast-based financing, where the forecast of a certain weather severity automatically triggers a release of finance to enable early action. Today, nearly all weather-related natural disasters are to varying degrees predictable. The forecasts are based on historical data on the types of disasters people have to cope with in that region; scientific assessment of the forecasting ability in that area; and, depending on the probability of the severe weather, what specific steps can be taken at that point to reduce the impact. These might range from evacuating communities to cleaning out ditches so floodwater doesn’t reach villages. This is now a standard component of natural disaster relief work and the international Red Cross network, for example, now has such formal financing systems in place in 35 countries.

“The countries where these disasters are most likely to occur are often also the poorest. So part of my work is to consider which available forecasts are most relevant. This is often about translating a weather forecast into an impact forecast, which combines meteorological data with what we know about the vulnerability of people in those areas.”

Maarten van Aalst

“We need to accept this is also an equity-related problem. The shocks are unevenly spread over the globe and these issues are everyone’s responsibility.”

Feeling the heat

One disaster risk where Maarten feels awareness is lacking is heatwaves. Heatwaves are a global trend rising even more rapidly than models are predicting. The risk of heatwaves occurring has increased at least ten-fold since industrialisation. In Europe, the August 2020 heatwaves caused some 9,000 deaths, with 650 in the Netherlands alone. What 10-20 years ago were seen by scientists as worst-case scenarios, due to happen decades into the future if climate change continued unabated, are happening now.

Like the melting of the Siberian permafrost, creating a vicious circle whereby the methane released by the melting permafrost catalyses global warming, which in turn melts more permafrost. “We can say almost with certainty that events in Siberia this summer, with both a terrible heatwave and wildfires, wouldn’t have happened without climate change, as they would have been 600 times less likely to happen if climate change hadn’t existed. And it’s not an isolated incident. This year’s major wildfires in California and bushfires in Australia were also more likely due to climate change. Heat is a highly underestimated risk factor with major negative social and economic impacts. The Lancet Countdown estimated that in 2017 153 billion hours of labor were lost due to heat extremes – a tremendous economic toll that is rising rapidly, as scientists we can inform action by studying extreme heat across the world. Not just in terms of the temperatures but also the impact of those temperatures. For example, by reviewing public health data to see the effect of extreme temperatures on mortality rates or agricultural output.”

Aligned interests

Maarten believes more sophisticated risk assessment techniques are needed to drive upfront investment in disaster prevention. “Whether it’s investments made by individuals, companies or local authorities, the risk of low-frequency, high-impact events currently aren’t factored sufficiently well into investments (even though climate change means those frequencies are rising). In the developing world in particular, we’re building cities with no regard for disaster risk, and therefore literally constructing risks in front of own eyes.”

Factoring risks into investments properly is a way to address those risks, but also makes good business sense. Maarten does see this starting to take place around climate-related financial disclosures, but feels there is still room for a smarter approach.

“Initially people thought of financial risk as being about transition risk. For example, if you’ve invested in a coal powerplant in a country where the government decides to phase out coal usage. However, people quickly realised physical climate risk also needs to be included in the equation. But it’s important investors consider not only the risk to their physical assets, but also the indirect risk to their wider business operations, which is seldom taken into account. So a processing plant on the coast at risk from rising sea levels may be worth less than you’ve got it in the books for. But more importantly, any erosion in local sea defences means business interruption. It will affect your supply chain. And even if the plant itself is strengthened against flooding, impassable roads may mean trucks or workers can’t reach the plant, or that workers’ homes are flooded.”

This is why Maarten believes the sort of knowledge acquired by humanitarian organisations is also invaluable to companies and investors. “We need to join forces to understand and address the risks together. In the end, there’s a pretty close alignment between the sorts of investment risk assessments needed by a company looking at the bottom line, a development bank looking to make profits while addressing poverty, and the Red Cross looking to keep people safe.”

Maarten van Aalst

“When it comes to climate change, I’m worried there’s too much global talk and too little action.”

Collective effort

Who does he think needs to step up if we’re to hit the climate-related SDGs by 2030? “When it comes to climate change, I’m worried there’s too much global talk and too little local action. Climate-related financial disclosures are helpful, but at a fairly abstract level and only impacting global investment streams. I see too little of it filtering down to local practice. The private sector needs to step up but can’t be expected to do it alone. In FMO’s own backyard in the Netherlands, a centuries-old system of polders delivers living space, but also unparalleled agricultural productivity generated by semi-public arrangement and joint efforts to keep the land dry, feed the population and maintain productive assets. Just that sort of collective public investment needs to occur alongside growing companies and economies. It’s critical the new cities springing up in West Africa, for example, grow in the right way. So they not only provide new economic opportunities, but also a relatively safe environment in which companies can function. With good public planning and good information available to all the players in a city’s development, companies can make the right investments with confidence.”

Unique opportunity

Maarten sees Corona affecting the climate change agenda in various ways. First, by moving climate issues from centre stage and slightly reducing the sense of urgency. In addition, practical barriers due to COVID-19 mean that key international meetings, such as the Glasgow UN negotiating round, have been postponed. Thirdly, the huge economic setback has reduced the capacity to invest in climate-related solutions, but also makes the most vulnerable people even more vulnerable to a wide range of shocks.

“We recently published a paper showing that already some 50 million people have been affected by climate-related events and COVID-19. For example, with the recent typhoon in India we not only had to evacuate people, but do so while maintaining social distance. That means adjusting early-action protocols, spreading people over more shelters, providing protective materials, etc.”

Maarten believes reduced economic growth and less air transport are only temporary dips unlikely to affect the longer-term underlying climate change trends. But he does see one potential silver lining. “By exposing our vulnerability to shocks, COVID-19 serves as a wake-up call— at the very moment governments worldwide are investing some US$13 trillion in rebuilding economies. The question is whether they’ll do so in ways that make those economies more resilient, cleaner and more inclusive. People like IMF Managing Director, Kristalina Georgieva, are advocating this as the only smart way to invest our way out of this crisis, as it’s the only way to protect the world from the bigger crisis heading our way: climate change.”

There are examples of governments doing this. Germany is making major investments in renewable energy as part of its COVID-19 recovery strategy. But for the most part, and especially in the most vulnerable economies, investments are going into supporting projects that were already lined up, for example in infrastructure, without appropriate consideration of climate risk. Instead putting faith in old, blunt instruments like trickle-down economics.

“Climate change isn’t a lost battle, but we need a really rapid transition now, in terms both of addressing greenhouse gases and how we deal with risk in the world.”

Now or never

“So I’m not too optimistic we’re going to seize this opportunity. Climate change isn’t a lost battle, but we need a really rapid transition now, in terms both of addressing greenhouse gases and how we deal with risk in the world. Finding the right mix of public and private investments is a key component, and I see some signs of hope there. But we need to accept this is also an equity-related problem. The shocks are currently very unevenly spread over the globe and addressing these issues is everyone’s responsibility.”

But despite his considerable misgivings, Maarten ends on a positive note “What really gives me hope is the younger generation. And how climate change is now perceived very differently from ten years ago. Then it was still seen by most as a long-term environmental problem. I think everyone senses now that our environment is changing, and way faster than anyone expected. So the realisation that this is the moment to really do something about it is bigger than ever before. I just hope that realisation will be turned into action quickly enough. Because we have very little time to lose.” And as if to underline just how little time, Maarten van Aalst apologies but he must dash off to his next engagement.

Who is Maarten van Aalst?
Professor Maarten van Aalst is Director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Princess Margriet Chair in Climate and Disaster Resilience at the University of Twente. He is also adjunct senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate & Society, Columbia University. Maarten oversees support for climate risk management across the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, and its links with scientific and policy communities on climate change, disaster risk management and development planning. He is a Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and serves on the Scientific & Technical Advisory Group of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, the Leadership Group of the UN Climate Resilience Initiative (known as A2R), the Partners for Resilience alliance, and the advisory boards of various international research programmes on climate risk management. Maarten has a PhD in Atmospheric Science and before his present roles had worked on climate change adaptation and disaster risk management with the World Bank, regional development banks, the OECD and various governments.
Recently published paper: Climate-related extreme weather events and COVID-19: A first look at the number of people affected by intersecting disasters

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