Solveig Olafsdottir in Geneva
Climate predictions indicate that the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will increase in years to come. But reality shows that climate change, once considered a threat of the future, is happening here and now.
Scientists have been taken by surprise by the short intervals between extreme weather events, such as floods and heat waves throughout Europe in consecutive years.
In 2003, the South of France experienced within the space of a few months a once-in-a century heat wave, and once-in-a-century floods.
This trend towards extreme climatic events has prompted European Red Cross societies to gear up now for the imminent risk that people throughout the continent are facing.
On 21 October the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and the Netherlands Red Cross organized a seminar for European Red Cross societies on the heat waves of the summer 2003.
The purpose was twofold: to find out what Red Cross societies around the continent had done in response to this tragedy, labelled by insurance companies as one of the deadliest and costliest disasters of last year, as well as to identify what role the Red Cross Red Crescent could play in preparing for and responding to the expected increase in disasters related to extreme weather events.
According to a study recently released by the European Environmental Agency (EEA), the rise in temperatures during the 20th Century has been higher in Europe than globally – the average is 0.7°C worldwide but more than 1°C in Europe.
Not only is Europe is warming up faster than the rest of the world, but worrying, weather variability is forecast to increase as well.
Most scientists agree that more extreme and more variable weather will result in more severe disasters – floods, heat waves, droughts, forest fires and other weather related disasters - in which large numbers of people are affected.
Southern and Central Europe will be hardest hit in the coming years, but the countries of Northern Europe are unlikely to be spared.
The most serious impact of extreme weather events is the unnecessary loss of life, but countries also experience great economic loss, as infrastructure, buildings and harvests are destroyed, and ecosystems are threatened due to forest fires and melting glaciers.
During August 2003, between 22,000 and 35,000 people died in Europe as a result of the scorching heat, and billions of euros were lost, according to insurance companies.
Are European Red Cross societies prepared to respond to these disasters, and what role should they play in preparing and advocating for climate change? Is it within the mandate of the Red Cross to make climate change part of their preparedness, response and early warning systems?
These questions were asked during the one day seminar, and the answer was clear: yes – the Red Cross must make it part of its core business in disaster preparedness and response.
It was felt to be important that the Red Cross understands the trends caused by climate change, informs the public of the risks involved, and prepares itself to respond to more frequent weather-induced disasters through its community-based network.
In places like Greece and Portugal, where heat waves are more common than in other European countries, the value of coping mechanisms within communities themselves is obvious.
The Hellenic and Portuguese Red Cross societies have been responding to yearly heat waves in collaboration with their governments, by providing assistance to the most vulnerable groups within the society – the elderly and the disabled. These nations do not experience much fluctuation in deaths during the summer, despite having spells of extreme heat.
As this year’s World Disasters Report outlines, the French and Spanish Red Cross societies were better prepared to respond to the crisis of 2003 than their national health authorities, and provided crucial services by distributing water, fans, paying home visits and assisting in hospitals, as well as providing vital survival information through hotlines and call centres.
Their services were further recognized by the French and Spanish governments, which made them crucial partners in setting up response plans to extreme weather events in their respective countries.
Both National Societies participate in their national heat wave plans and both have been asked by their governments to help identify vulnerable groups due to their unique presence within the communities, and to provide services to those in need.
The French and Spanish Red Cross furthermore operate call centres/hotlines to provide information on how people can protect themselves, as well as keeping track of people who are socially isolated and have no one else to take care of them.
Europe has long considered climate change to be of particular concern in the developing world –tropical islands at risk from rising sea levels or African countries threatened by desertification. The summer of 2003 brought the problem much closer to home.