Madeleen Helmer heads the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center in The Hague. Photo by: Tiziana Cauli

The past years saw increasing collaborations among aid and environmental experts. The reason: The impact of weather events on development is no longer ignorable.

The Red Cross, for one, has a specific organization that works to help mitigate the impact of climate change. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center - which claims to be the first of its kind to be set up by a humanitarian group - supports 186 national Red Cross/Red Crescent societies to develop actions against the risks of climate change, particularly in the areas of disaster risk reduction, disaster management and health and care programs.

Madeleen Helmer heads the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center. Prior to joining the Red Cross in 2001, she worked with the Pacific Working Group and the European Center on Pacific Issues, which addresses social, environmental, peace and human rights issues in the Pacific. She also studied the civil society's role in developing European aid policy toward African, Caribbean and Pacific countries.

In late October 2009, Helmer attended the European Development Days, where she spoke with Devex about the role of the center and Red Cross's partnerships with environmental groups.

What is the role of the Climate Center within the Red Cross/Red Crescent?

We look at what is projected by the IPCC - the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - on climate change impact. They cover melting of glaciers, the melting of Greenland, the melting of the North Pole ice. But they also come with messages on more extreme weather events, which will lead to more disaster. In fact, we have already seen them happening. So, since we are one of the major humanitarian organizations and we deal a lot with disasters, and this is a clear message for the future happening today, it makes every sense in the world that we need to start to prepare for these changes and avoid paths which may lead to disaster.

Are other organizations in the humanitarian field also focusing on climate change and setting up departments like the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center? When did this trend start?

I think it is coming. I think we were quite early. We started in 2001 based on the 13th session report of the IPCC, which still mainly projected a global temperature rise, a global sea level rise as the key messages, which, of course, is difficult to translate into humanitarian action. But there was a little corner in that big report, which said: "We also expect extinction of species, more extreme weather events." And then, they had a relation to the kind of temperature rise they expected. So, it was the first time they related the global temperature rise to more detailed changes, which were extreme. So, that got us going.

It wasn't the same [as today] because in those days there were very few who made the link between climate change extreme events and humanitarian action. We had to explore from zero: What actually is the science? What actually do they know? What do they not know, and how can we make it operational? How can we use that knowledge, and what do we need to do differently in our programs to take this into account? So, that was a very interesting period, and it still is a very interesting period.

At the same time, we did invest in getting more colleagues on board, because we soon realized a few of us weren't working on this. This is a major issue. And it took a while, I think also because climate change was so strongly embedded in environmental corner that people didn't really see the development aspects. In the beginning, I really had to defend and explain for quite a few years that the Red Cross was not an environmental organization, but it was because it touches our core business that we had to do this. They were really confused: The Red Cross and the climate change, what is the connection? So it is advocacy that we had to do at the time - awareness raising - but also pointing and looking at real time changes.

We had in Europe the heat wave of 2003, which affected many people and was kind of related to climate change risks. [We heard] more and more stories from colleagues and particularly from the poorest people at a local level, who said: "The weather has turned funny. We don't understand it anymore. It is different from what we know, from the way - in our traditional knowledge - the weather normally behaves."

How did you figure out what kind of expertise was most needed in order to effectively merge two previously separate fields such as environment and development?

So basically, we could add, in fact, two sets of experts. One were the IPCC experts - so the scientific experts - and we could mix that with the real experts on the ground: the farmers, people who were stuck in the same place for decades, people who move often [and] lose touch with what is normal weather. I don't know where you are based, but if this is not your home town, you don't know what is normal weather [here in Stockholm]. And that is often the case with scientists. They have their knowledge from computers and models. But when they are born in Bosnia and they are now working in Geneva, they have no idea what the normal weather is, so their knowledge is based on models. But farmers, who often do not have a chance to move, they are too poor to move to a capital for education. They are too poor to move to a capital for the improvement of their job opportunities, let alone that most of them are too poor to move on to international places. So, they are stuck in their local conditions because of their poverty. But they have a lot of knowledge about the weather.

What motivated me is one of the saddest things that are happening. We talk about extreme [events]. But what we don't capture in the statistics, although it is happening - and I know because of these stories - is that one of the few assets that poor people have. They have hardly anything: They have a family, they have poor economic assets, and they have the traditional knowledge. … The traditional knowledge is eroding because of the changing weather patterns. So, while we talk about Millennium Development Goals and supporting the poorest, at the same time through climate change, we are stealing their knowledge. So, their knowledge from which they can judge when to sow seeds, when to plant and so on has become irrelevant because the weather is changing. So, there is a big tragedy going on in Africa, in Southeast Asia, and so on and so forth, which is diminishing the crop harvests. So, there is a lot happening right now. Climate change already now has an impact on poverty and, therefore, on development.

Does the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Center partner with organizations and institutions that specialize in environmental issues? Do you work together within the humanitarian field? Do these two different drives - development and environment - sometimes clash?

Yes and no. The "yes" part is climate change is the place where it all comes together. The "no" part is we still need to strengthen the adaptation imperative. So, I still hear very much from working with civil society environmental organizations. They say "yes," but mitigation - the reduction of greenhouse gases - is the best measure for adaptation. That is simply not true. Adaptation is about the unavoidable impacts. So, these are the impacts that you cannot change anymore, that are already in the making because of the historic emissions of greenhouse gases.

Mitigation is crucial, is very important, and we support it very much. But that is to prevent future catastrophes, and the approach to it is very different. So, for mitigation, whatever you do in the world in terms of hydro power, planting trees, solar power, smart use of energy, or energy savings is very good for development because energy is a key element for development. But adaptation is about protection against risks that cannot be avoided anymore. So, it is different. It's about knowing where risks are coming [from]. It's about smaller measures: draining systems, cleaning up wastes so that drainage systems are clear, dengue protection programs, malaria bed nets to place them where you never needed them before. All that has nothing to do with environment, but has a lot to do with adaptation and climate risk reduction.

Do you think collaboration and partnerships between organizations in the two fields will be more numerous in the future?

They are already on today. But today, I'm far more concerned by the lack of engagement from development actors. They should be more engaged; they should understand very quickly what risks are coming their way and prepare for it. So, there is no shortcut yet to the environment side. We need a very big investment in adaptation awareness, adaptation capacity. And that is quite crucial because we have at a U.N. level - and this is what the Copenhagen agreement, if it is going to happen, will be about - an understanding of the global community that mitigation partly has failed.

So, in the 1990s, all climate change contenders agreed on a protocol reducing greenhouse gases to avoid impacts from happening. We had to conclude that that was not good enough. So, with the Bali Action Plan, the climate change agenda has broadened up to also address the unavoidable impact, and that is the adaptation part of it. That requires a whole new set of capacities as I have explained before. It is about risk management, not about energy management or environmental management. [About] the existent capacities on health, agriculture, infrastructure, key local governments need to be aware that these risks are changing and that they can adapt to it.

So, we are now mobilizing - and the global community should mobilize - massive financial commitments to take the responsibility for a damage that is going to happen. You need actors in those sectors to receive the money and do something useful with it. That is my first concern. And my second concern and my third concern: That capacity is not there at all.

Your professional background is not within the environmental advocacy field but in development work. Do you think professionals in these fields understand the importance of matching the two areas?

I always also worked with environment in a development context. My background is in a small island state in the Pacific where a lot came together.

It comes back to the big U.N. conference on environment and development that took place in Rio in 1992, which was, I found, a very important conference where environment and development were brought together. And then people lost track again, and we need to bring them together again. And it happened [also] before the 1970s. So, we see that there are limits to development because the environment is basically saying, "Here is the borderline, be careful, the Rome report, and so on and so forth." We got lost in the 1980s, with the economic crisis - and then another crisis. Then, it came back again, in a second round, in early 1990s with this U.N. conference, which led to the Climate Change Convention, the Biodiversity Convention, the Desertification Convention. And then it got lost again in the 1990s, when we were also wealthy and invested in Internet bubbles. And now again we are confronted with the limits of nature, and every time, the situation is worse. So, we see a little bit of improvement in terms of technical innovation, but it is not sufficient. The calls from the boundaries of nature get louder and louder, and our window of opportunities to protect ourselves is really closing in very quickly.

So, in that sense, it is not new for me. But I always found that we need to match the environment knowledge with the development possibilities and opportunities, and that is where I see a lot more needs to be made.

About the author

  • Tiziana Cauli

    Tiziana has contributed to Devex News since mid-2008, focusing mainly on Africa as well as the European donor landscape, especially those in Brussels, Rome and Barcelona. Tiziana has worked as a journalist for Reuters and the Associated Press in Johannesburg and at Reuters in Milan and Paris. She is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish.