Oxford lawns, New York air-conditioning, and a breath of fresh air

by Maarten van Aalst | @mkvaalst | Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre
Monday, 26 September 2016 10:45 GMT

People punt on the river Cherwell past Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, southern England July 10, 2013. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh/File Photo

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Finally, action to respond to disasters, prepare for them and build resilience against shocks are coming together

The perfectly mown and manicured lawns of the University of Oxford and the air-conditioned meeting rooms at United Nations headquarters in New York are not, it has to be said, 100 percent‘climate-smart’.

But this week, moving straight from the very first international conference on the science behind the 1.5°C target of the Paris agreement to several high-level meetings on climate resilience alongside the U.N. General Assembly, I found myself encouraged by both the green grass of Oxford and the artificially chilled air at the U.N.

A 1.5°C increase in global average temperature is not some distant possibility. As Richard Betts, professor of climate impacts at the University of Exeter, told us in Oxford, we may well pass that threshold within a decade. Staying below it will require an immense effort to reduce greenhouse gases, and good luck with both technology and the response of the climate system to continued emissions.

And while staying below 1.5°C of warming would prevent some of the more dramatic impacts of the more likely 2, 3 or even 4 degrees, we’ll see a continued rise in climate-related hazards, and growing uncertainty about what to expect from our climate system. The most vulnerable – as always – will be hit hardest, and the discussions in Oxford reminded us of that.


Just a day later, at the U.N. General Assembly building in New York, Mary Robinson, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Envoy on El Niño and Climate, told delegates that the recent El Niño is but a foretaste of what will confront us more and more in a changing climate.

Those impacts ought to be very hard to ignore: at least 60 million people affected and a humanitarian bill of about $5 billion, of which only just under $2 billion has been pledged by donors so far.

Interestingly, Robinson and her co-envoy, Ambassador Macharia Kamau, made clear they wouldn’t want to just raise money for a one-off humanitarian response and then wait for the next El Niño or climate-related disaster to come around. 

Instead – and here in New York was a true breath of fresh air in the normally  compartmentalized international system – they opted for a “blueprint for action” that would integrate humanitarian response, preparedness and the building of resilience as part of long-term development.

The draft blueprint reflects the three areas of the Secretary General’s ‘A2R’ initiative on climate resilience that he announced at the U.N. climate talks in Paris last December and activated this week at the General Assembly: It should help ensure we cananticipate and absorb shocks and also reshape development to increase resilience. Thus two A’s and an R.


On Saturday morning we had the first meeting of the A2R leadership group, inaugurated the day before by the Secretary General. Composed of representatives of U.N. agencies and the World Bank, governments, the private sector, the Red Cross/Red Crescent and civil society, the group reflects the realities of resilience. It will pursue real systemic change that no one can deliver alone, and set its ambition at the level of the Paris Agreement, including not just world and U.N. leaders but also local government, the private sector and civil society.

The Paris Agreement itself rests on two pillars. The first is to work together to reduce emissions to limit the global average temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius and preferably 1.5 degrees; the second is a collective responsibility to deliver resilience, especially for the most vulnerable already facing rising risks today. 

In the months since the historic Paris meeting, we have seen many commitments on greenhouse gas reduction; now we need an equally ambitious push to deliver on the commitments made there on resilience. These are also enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and the outcomes of the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul; A2R coalesces them all.

There is a lot to do, not just showcasing progress in response to the high expectations on resilience before the Marrakesh global climate meeting in November, but especially in the real world to meet the needs of those still suffering from the humanitarian legacy of the 2015–16 El Niño.

So let’s spread that “fresh air” widely, and work to keep the grass green not just in Oxford but also in all those places affected by rising climate risks.

Maarten van Aalst is director of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. He also heads the ‘Knowledge Manager’ of the UK-supported BRACED programme, and is a member of the A2R leadership group. He holds adjoint appointments at Columbia University and University College London and is a former coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.