Climate Change Is An Even Bigger Health Threat Than COVID-19 – International Red Cross
climate change effect on maize ears crop
A woman shows how her maize ears have dried in the drought stricken garden. A new report has shown that countries most affected by climate change receive only a fraction of available funding for climate change adaptation.

Climate change poses an even greater threat to public health than the COVID-19 pandemic – and needs to be treated with equal urgency, Jagan Chapagain, Secretary-General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), told a virtual news conference on Tuesday.

He was speaking at Tuesday’s launch of the IFRC’s World Disasters Report 2020, which finds that a rising wave of extreme weather and climate-related events have killed more than 410,000 people over the past decade.

“Of course, the COVID is there, it’s in front of us, it is affecting our families, our friends, our relatives. It’s a very, very serious crisis the world is facing currently,” Chapagain said.

But, he warned that “climate change will have a more significant medium and long term impact on the human life and on Earth… and unfortunately, there is no vaccine for climate change”.

The report finds that over the past decade, 83% of all disasters triggered by natural hazards were caused by extreme weather and climate-related events such as storms, floods and heatwaves. Together, these disasters have killed more than 410,000 people and affected 1.7 billion people. Meanwhile, efforts to tackle climate change are failing those people who are most at risk from its effects.  Those countries most affected by climate change receive only a fraction of the funding that is available for adapting to climate change, the report found.

At-Risk Populations Not Receiving Full Funding

The report shows that countries most affected by climate change receive only a fraction of the funding that is available for climate change adaptation, meaning the populations most at risk are not protected.

Analysis by the IFRC showed that none of the 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change were among those that received the most funding for adaptation.

People receive food assistance during the dry season in the Sahel. The region has suffered from extended droughts due to climate change.

Somalia, the most vulnerable country, ranked 71st for funding disbursements per person. Meanwhile, more than half of the countries categorised as highly vulnerable to climate change received less than $1 per person in climate adaptation funding, while two countries – the Central African Republic and North Korea – received none at all. Of the countries with the highest disbursement for climate adaptation, none had high or very high vulnerability scores.

“There is a certain amount of climate adaptation funding out there [which is] really needed in a lot of countries, but there are some particular countries that are particularly vulnerable, many of which are fragile, and they are getting left out,” said the report’s editor, Kirsten Hagon, in a press conference on Monday. “One of the things we would like to see happen with this report is to really push for an increased investment in those countries that are currently left behind.”

Given the steady increase in the number of climate and weather-related disasters, the failure to protect the people most vulnerable to climate change is alarming. According to the report, the average number of climate and weather-related disasters per decade has increased nearly 35 per cent since the 1990s.

No Vaccine for Climate Change

More than 100 disasters have taken place since the start of the pandemic in March this year, affecting more than 50 million people. Pandemic response and recovery are at the top of most governments’ agendas, but the IFRC are urging governments not to let the pandemic detract from making climate change a priority.

“We are slowly learning to deal with the pandemic…and once we have vaccines available, hopefully in the next two years, we should be able to largely manage the impact of the virus,” IFRC Secretary General Jagan Chapagain told Geneva Solutions. “But unfortunately there is no vaccine for climate change, and the depth and scale of the impact it is having and will have on the planet would be much more significant, and extremely difficult to reverse.”

Dead and dying animals at the Dambas, Arbajahan, Kenya, which has dried up due to successive years of very little rain.

Chapagain argues that the massive stimulus packages being developed around the world to respond to COVID-19 are an opportunity to “build forward better”, prioritising a green recovery that not only tackles the causes of climate change but also makes communities more resilient to future climate-related disasters.

“Broadly we have seen global solidarity around COVID-19, and there have been quite huge stimulus packages announced by different governments,” explained Chapagain. “It will really be a massive lost opportunity if governments and organisations do not use those massive stimulus packages in ways that are climate friendly, and that not only don’t do harm but actually strengthen recovery in a more green, inclusive, and adaptive manner. This is absolutely possible.”

Humanitarians Urged to Make Climate Change a Priority

The IFRC is also encouraging investment in early warning systems and anticipatory action to reduce risks and prevent disasters before they happen, calling on humanitarian organisations in particular to step-up their implementation of early action plans.

“Unfortunately, climate change has already happened, and it’s increasing the frequency and intensity of disasters, so of course we will have to continue to respond rapidly and at scale to save lives,” said Chapagain. He explained that many organisations have made progress towards facilitating anticipatory responses in recent years, but more can be done to invest in forecasting systems and encourage forecast-based financing.

The IFRC has also urged humanitarian organisations to ensure their work on the ground is sustainable and always keeps climate change in mind. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of local actors in humanitarian response, and made practices such as distributing cash rather than importing goods overseas more commonplace. Organisations should focus on putting resources in the hands of communities most affected by climate change and supporting their efforts to adapt and build resilience against future shocks.

“As we have seen during COVID-19, the local actors are very capable of responding,” said Chapagain. “I think recognising that, investing in them, and really empowering the local response makes a huge, huge difference.”

Health Policy Watch Watch is collaborating with Geneva Solutions, a new non-profit Geneva platform for constructive journalism covering International Geneva.

Image Credits: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam, EC/ECHO/Anouk Delafortrie, Brendan Cox / Oxfam.

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