C2GTalk: An interview with Maarten Van Aalst, Director of the International Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre
How can solar radiation modification governance account for different political and ethical perspectives?
12 June 2023
As of 1 February 2023, Prof. van Aalst will take on a new position as Director-General and Chief Science Officer at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI).
Professor van Aalst is Coordinating Lead Author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC WGII) and Member of the European Advisory Board on Climate Change under the European Climate Law. He is also co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Climate Risk Management and serves on the Technical Expert Group on Comprehensive Risk Management of the UNFCCC Warsaw International Mechanism on Loss and Damage, and Steering Committees of NWO-WOTRO, the World Weather Attribution Consortium and the Partners for Resilience alliance, as well as advisory boards of several international research programmes on climate risk management. He is a trustee at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
After completing a PhD in atmospheric science at Utrecht University and the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, he worked on climate and disaster risk management with the World Bank, regional development banks, the OECD, and several governments
We are now at around 1.2°C of global warming above the preindustrial average, and the trend remains upward. What impact is this having on the prevalence of humanitarian crises around the world, and what do you see to be the trends moving forward?
I could refer either to what we are seeing around the world in practice, and many volunteers on the frontlines of those writing risks are reporting that they are responding to more events, also events that they have not seen before. I could indeed also refer to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), which in the last Assessment indeed confirmed also in the summary for policymakers that we are already seeing these humanitarian impacts of climate change with a side note also that it is particularly in cases of high vulnerability, so that is something to note here.
I think the realization has also changed over the years. Where previously people would say contexts of high vulnerability, where people are already at the edges of tolerance for even normal climate variability are places where climate probably does not matter so much because people are worried about other things, what we are seeing now is that actually those are the places we should be most worried about climate change because it pushes people over the edge much more quickly, and that is basically what we are seeing both in practice and in the science.
So you have seen a shift in the way humanitarian aid agencies approach the topic of climate change?
Definitely. Actually, in some ways it was seen as a risky topic because it was seen as politically divisive, and one of the hallmarks of humanitarian work is of course to be politically neutral, so it was seen originally as an environmental topic that was associated with particular parts of the political spectrum.
Now it has moved to one of the top priorities in lots of the day-to-day work, certainly all of the work having to do with disasters triggered by natural hazards but increasingly also in contexts of conflict, where we also see that double whammy in a way of high vulnerability due to the other circumstances people are already facing and then the climate risks that come on top of that.
How does the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre help countries, people, and communities tackle these impacts?
We always see ourselves as a bridge between science, policy, and practice. Twenty years ago the question was even asked in a very general sense — also under the Geneva Conventions, so not only the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement or the national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, but all the states that are parties to the Geneva Conventions — “Should we be worried about the potential humanitarian consequences of climate change?” That is how it was phrased then.
Our initial work was to look at that time at the IPCC Third Assessment Report and interpret it in terms of what those humanitarian consequences might be, and we found that there were primarily many questions. Of course, rising uncertainty partly means rising risks. It partly also means homework to do in terms of understanding what is coming our way.
So we have worked with the scientific community to get more of those questions properly articulated and then addressed. The IPCC Special Report on Extremes in 2012 was a very important element in that as well. That also led to a different realization in policy, for instance, the growing together of adaptation to climate change, which was long seen as an adjustment to gradual long-term trends and risks, big patterns — gradual sea level rise — to a realization that that is actually very close to what humanitarians had been calling “disaster risk reduction,” dealing with changing extremes and also tackling not only those extremes from the perspective of the shift in the hazards due to climate extremes but also the elements of exposure and vulnerability — who is affected by what is changing and why are they vulnerable? Of course that also puts attention to issues of equity, where we see the poorest countries being hit hardest.
That brings it to our work in practice. That is 80 percent of what we do day to day, answering questions of people in the field who are confronted with changing conditions and asking the questions: “Is that climate change? Should we be preparing for more of that?”
But part of it is also then integrating what science brings to the table that also allows us to improve our humanitarian work in the day-to-day practice.
An important example of that is that in the more volatile climate we face nowadays a critical asset we have in a way is seeing extreme events coming also at shorter time scales, so a season ahead or even a couple of days or hours ahead. Some of the biggest success stories in the past decades in humanitarian aid have been the development of good early warning systems, particularly on the back of better meteorological observations and forecasts, but particularly making sure we reach the last mile to local communities and we build the shelter so they have a safe place to go when those warnings arrive. All of that has led to better saving of lives. That is being scaled up.
We were very hampered by the fact that the humanitarian funding still arrived only after the events happened, and we know from many countries from our own humanitarian work but also from calculations of institutions like the World Bank, for instance, that we get a much bigger bang for our buck but also much more impact in terms of avoiding suffering if we can spend that money before the disaster happens, both in long-term risk reduction but also even in those hours and days before a disaster happens. So we have invested a lot in something called “forecast-based financing,” and a whole field of anticipatory action has now become a branch of humanitarian work, where all sorts of big funding instruments in the humanitarian world enable allocation of finance based on credible scientific evidence but ahead of the actual event, allowing us to be more effective.
Those sorts of examples are a sense of the adaptation in a way that is happening in the humanitarian system being confronted with ever-rising risks.
Speaking of sources of funding, there was the recent Conference of the Parties 27 (COP 27) UN climate summit. Responses to its results have been mixed — not enough progress on mitigation — but there was some celebration of at least the principle of setting up a new fund on loss and damage and perhaps some progress on adaptation. I was wondering if you could give a sense of how you viewed the outcome of that meeting, and what are some of the things that are going to be able to happen over the next year or two as a result of it?
I share that very double feeling that you expressed there. It has been trying to play catchup with the goals that the global community set so clearly already in Paris and reaffirmed even with greater urgency and stricter margins last year in Glasgow.
The science of the latest IPCC cycle is very clear that we have no wiggle room. We have to stick with those ambitions. But we are not delivering on them. In that sense, I think Sharm el-Sheikh frankly has not delivered the “implementation COP” that people were calling for, the practical progress to go much faster in the transitions that we need to be going through, and it is clear on the mitigation side. It also applies to adaptation and adaptation finance.
There are important discussions happening about scaling up adaptation finance but also making sure it reaches more of the most vulnerable communities that are hit hardest but often not reached with that climate finance.
I think important discussions now on loss and damage to fund establishment is, I think assigned to the whole world, not just in a political sense but also in an individual sense in terms of almost everyone I speak to around the world, having seen the weather around them change, realizes that we are in this changed climate already and have to come to grips with the equality aspects of that, but they also recognize that we are at risk of seeing the impacts shape future vulnerability. If we do not manage to deal with the impacts we are already facing today, that itself will hamper our ability to tackle what is still coming our way, which will be worse than what we are already facing today.
In terms of the overall architecture of the Paris Agreement, that is something we have to come to grips with. It is a global problem that needs everyone to tackle the mitigation challenge, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That means we need solidarity, particularly in helping poorer countries adapt but also allowing them to deal with the blows they are already getting today.
Doing that effectively I think is going to require a mosaic approach rather than just counting on this one fund to solve it all, and I think that has been the same on adaptation. It was naïve maybe in the beginning to think that only the adaptation funds were going to solve all of our adaptation problems. That is also not how they have evolved. There is still a lack of financing. It is not reaching the right places, but we are seeing a diversity of approaches there, and I think you will see that on loss and damage as well.
Can you explain a little bit more what the “mosaic approach” is?
It is basically saying that the call for a fund on loss and damage was symbolically politically a very important one because it recognizes the collective responsibility for some of the impacts, particularly those already hitting the poorest countries. How exactly the responsibility to pay into the fund is going to be distributed still needs to be negotiated and who gets access to the fund for what type of impacts still needs to be negotiated, but the principle was established, and that was a very important step.
At the same time I think it would be naïve to assume that this one fund is then going to deal with all of the impacts. We have a number of existing mechanisms that are dealing with some of those impacts already, and the humanitarian system is one of them, but we have been very clear: Don’t just rely on us to solve this problem. If anything, we need other approaches alongside us to take away some of the burden that frankly are currently not meeting the needs.
I think the other mechanisms that would be part of that mosaic include the development banks, which were set up after the Second World War to cope with the impacts of that shock and help countries rebuild their economies. They are doing that also for disasters triggered by natural hazards. They do it after other economic shocks — countries after Covid-19, etc. — so there have been other examples.
We are potentially seeing some change at the level of the World Bank and the international financial institutions (IFIs), right?
Exactly, yes. Just to complete the mosaic, other examples would be at the international level you could have insurance, and you could also have it at national and subnational levels. Social protection has been talked about as a mechanism by which dealing with shocks can be strengthened.
We know we have gaps in all kinds of places in that mosaic, so it is also identifying those gaps and figuring out how to strengthen those mechanisms or to plug gaps with that additional fund that needs to be established.
So we have a lot of homework on our plates, and for humanitarians it is primarily making sure that the gaps that we see that are not being addressed are brought to the fore, and indeed there is a collective sense of responsibility to plug those.
You were hinting at the development banks and the IFI reform. I think that might be the biggest glimmer of hope in a way coming out of the COP. It was not a huge formal decision on the part of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) but I think a collective realization that the agenda that Mia Mottley, the Prime Minister of Barbados, put forward, this “bridge down” agenda, to have a discussion about whether the old Bretton Woods architecture that was set up after the Second World War is serving us well to tackle the climate crisis. That discussion is certainly being picked up right now, and it extends I think all the way from enabling that financial architecture to do the energy transition but also all the way to the instruments that we have to deal with loss and damage.
I know this is a tricky one to answer, but is it possible to give a sense of the amount of money in total we are looking at? If we just think of one example, Pakistan and its devastating floods this year, the enormity of response to that one crisis in one country over one period is so large that it begins to dwarf the amounts of money that we are talking about in various pots that we have seen so far. Can you give a sense of how much more money is going to be needed throughout the system to deal with adaptation and loss and damage?
I won’t put a number on it. The IPCC has also shied away from that because the level of confidence on one number would be exceedingly low. The one thing we can be very confident about is that it is orders of magnitude more than the sort of money going around now and also certainly one order of magnitude more than the $100 billion a year that has been promised so far under the Paris Agreement, so we are dealing with very substantial flows of money, which again also means that we need to be efficient addressing those and figuring out how to channel that money, probably through a variety of sources. It is not going to be an easy one that we can sort of do on the side of other things.
These are all fundamental questions that relate to the shape of our economic architecture and our global political architecture. They are the big questions for the coming years.
If I could turn to one of the issues that C2G has been looking at over the past few years, obviously given the lack of mitigation and the challenges that you have been outlining, we have seen something of an increase in interest in the idea of this approach called solar radiation modification (SRM), the idea that it might be possible to reflect a portion of incoming sunlight back into space in order to lower temperatures and reduce risk. Of course these approaches bring new risks of their own in terms of different impacts in different parts of the world and different regions and many other potential risks.
You have been looking at these ideas for a while. What are your overarching thoughts on this idea of solar radiation modification? Just to reiterate, you are speaking in your personal capacity on this issue.
I would say that even on a personal level it is a struggle in a way. I was concerned when I first heard about it and about the huge uncertainties that would be involved with applying such techniques at the global scale. I also got concerned that they might be applied much more quickly than might be a good idea given that some of them are actually remarkably cheap compared to some of the costs that we were just discussing and the transitions that the world needs to go through. I sensed a risk that these technologies would be developed and applied haphazardly, too quickly, without taking full account of all those risks.
At the same time, over the past couple of years I have seen that we are basically failing on the other fronts. That leads to two observations.
One is that we cannot afford to see these new technologies as an easy way out. The risks are very high and there are massive gaps in our knowledge, for instance, relating to the impacts of those new risks that we might create on the most vulnerable countries and peoples.
To some extent there are also more fundamental risks that also will not go away with doing more research, especially on those areas. They are related to the big uncertainties we have in the climate system, and we have only one experiment to play with, and there is no way of capturing all the uncertainty. We can make it smaller, but we won’t be able to make it go away.
In the context of those very high uncertainties my initial concern was let’s not even go there and let’s also take away the risk that we would be taking energy away from the extremely urgent need to do mitigation and, where we are failing on that, to do adaptation, where there is also still an immense amount of work to be done that we know can be extremely effective at reducing risks.
Then again, if we would continue to fail but also if we would then — again, speaking of those same uncertainties, they all apply to some extent also to global warming itself — get into the runaway climate change scenarios that are getting increasingly likely already today, but certainly if we enter the territory above, say, 1.5°C global warning, then at some point we may need it.
I find myself also seeing it very difficult not to justify at least considering these options much more seriously and have the discussions about how we would govern them. I think that is the main message in line with the discussions you have been organizing. We need to get our heads around how we then weigh those risks and how we get everyone with a stake in the difficult decisions that would need to be made at the table and with the proper cause.
There is a lot to unpack in that answer, so many key issues surrounding the consideration and governance of SRM. I will pick a couple of them and tease out a couple of the issues.
First, you refer to research but also the limits of what it can achieve, as it were. Do you support more research in this field at the moment? There is a bit of an active debate going on. We are certainly seeing some efforts to promote more research but at the same time a growing set of voices saying, “No, no, we can’t go down this route.” Broadly is your instinct that more research is needed or that there should not be more research?
I would say I am somewhere in the middle. I understand both perspectives. As noted, one of the concerns about deploying solar radiation modification would be that it could trigger all kinds of side effects. In order to reduce that uncertainty we will need to know more.
At the same time, spending a significant amount of research money on this line of climate intervention will take some research money away from other areas, where we also have big research questions still to address. In addition, there is the moral hazard that it starts sending the signal that we have an escape route here and a quicker way out, which by itself could have an impact on the broader climate debates.
I think the primary message at this point is that with the little we know it looks like a very dangerous escape route, so let’s not count on it. Then again, if there is the risk that we will need that escape route, I would rather make it safer. That is where I see the case for research.
In order to make it safer I think the research would need to be focused on the areas where those risks are highest. I think the tendency at the moment is to focus the research primarily on the technology side — what sort of technical mechanisms do we have and how would they play out? I think we need to have a much better chain to the impact and a much bigger voice also of researchers in the areas where the voice currently is weakest. I do worry about if there are big research investments the balance in that and the assurances about how even research is being governed but also voices are being strengthened for everyone to be at the table.
I will definitely come back to that one in a second because it is very important, but just quickly back to the issue of moral hazard, this risk that even just talking about this let alone potentially deploying it, could lessen the energy. Do you see that that is actually something happening in any way in practice in the sense that does it take SRM to be the thing that stops people putting the requisite effort into mitigation? Is that actually happening or are we seeing quite frankly other aspects of economic and political life stopping sufficient action on mitigation that really has very little to do with SRM? I am trying to calibrate how big this moral hazard effect is, seeing that it is such a fundamental concern for so many people.
The honest answer is, I don’t know. I definitely think the major drivers of why mitigation isn’t happening as quickly as it should are different. It is not that SRM at the moment is the big impediment. Then again, the message on mitigation is also that we need to chip away at it at every single aspect, in every single sector, looking at multiple interventions in a very systemic way across all our societies.
I also do not buy the argument that if SRM only takes a bit of the attention away from mitigation then why worry about it. I think mitigation needs attention on all those fronts all the time. We cannot afford to let go of any one of those things.
More fundamentally I think your question about do we see that driver existing at all or is it also possibly even playing out the other way — I see both frankly, and I cannot quantify how big the impacts are. I see people in public lectures, for instance, to a range of audiences — the Red Cross is also a very wide constituency of people who are very much a crosscut of society.
I do not make solar radiation modification a big element of my presentations, but it sometimes slides in somewhere toward the end. My presentation will usually be: “We have moved from seeing climate change only as a long-term environmental problem dealing with greenhouse gases and understanding whether greenhouse gases are to blame but then doing something about them to one also of recognizing that the climate is already changing and we need to come to grips with that, so adaptation, to one where we are also realizing that we are basically not doing enough on both of those fronts, and we are dealing with the consequences already, the losses and damages.”
Some discussions are already appearing, even about whether we can “fix” the climate, so we get into the solar radiation modification element. If I do that, in quite a few of the talks I will get the reaction: “Oh, my God, is it that serious? Are we really considering those sorts of interventions?” That means we need to get much more serious about mitigation. It sometimes actually motivates people to do more on mitigation rather than the other way around.
I also see the other effect.
I do not know if that is worrying, but to some extent, maybe it is in terms of the potential drain of energy away from the focus on mitigation.
Among students, for instance, I sometimes see this, including technology students in particular, who feel like the whole climate “talk shop” has been going on for so long: “We have had our climate marches, we have had so many years of international negotiations, we have had the film stars saying, ‘This is so important and we need to do something about it,’ and we have all the greenwashing by the big companies, and we are not succeeding.”
Ideally, we want young technology-driven students to say, “So I am going to make it my life’s work to contribute to that shift.” But I see some of them saying, “Well, that’s just a morass of basically too little too late progress.” Also, there are many people already in that space apparently not doing what the world needs.
Now here is the new thing, an exciting new technology, where something drastic and new could happen that could actually fix this problem. That sounds exciting. That worries me to some extent, if you see what I mean, because I think we need all the energy of those bright young people to tackle the problem at the root cause.
I wanted to touch on this issue of how you go about assessing risks. Essentially what we are looking at are the risks of SRM and measuring that against the risks of a hotter world without SRM, risks felt in various different ways — perhaps on health, perhaps on agriculture — all sorts of different kinds of metrics by which you can feel risk, and of course these are going to be felt differently in different parts of the world. Even within countries different regions will have quite different impacts.You end up with a bewildering array of different risks from different things measured in different ways also incidentally according to different perhaps moral and ethical systems. People will feel risk differently depending on how they assess that.
How does one even begin to go about creating a matrix, putting the risks of SRM on one side against the risks of a hotter world without SRM on another, adding up to some sort of governance decision process that can lead to decisions about whether or not to deploy them? I am interested. This seems very complicated to me.
Yes it is. In a way it already is for mitigation as well. People are often asking IPCC Working Group II, the one dealing with impacts and adaptation: “Just give us how much climate change will cost at a certain level of warming, and we will see how much mitigation costs for the marginal warming that we avoid and we will optimize. We will just do the calculation, and that tells us which measures we deploy, and then we get an economically optimal outcome.”
Of course it doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t work like that in the sense that we have huge differences around the world, different decision-making systems colliding but also different types of impacts that people also value differently. Even the value of a human life is difficult. The loss of ecosystems or the loss of cultures, how do you value those? That is already a problem with climate change itself. It will be equally difficult or more difficult even if you add that second layer.
There is a risk — and I think we have seen some of that with some mitigation but also adaptation choices — that if you don’t pay attention, especially to those dimensions, the noneconomic losses but also the economic losses facing vulnerable groups that the choices will be made to first order looking at the biggest interests, the people with the power and the money, the people who might be making the decisions about deployment of SRM, for instance, who will do “back of the envelope” calculations possibly but tuned primarily to the impacts they are most concerned about.
We are seeing this in adaptation, for instance, regarding water management, the decisions that are made about allocation of water but also protection against too much water. There are very clear tradeoffs. There are winners and losers, and you already see some groups losing out. At least figuring out processes by which that voice is strong enough for the decision to do justice to everyone’s impacts would be important.
An important element of that then is also to have mechanisms by which people first of all can be to some extent part of the discussion, but of course if there are winners and losers — in a way we are already making suboptimal choices in the world right now — you may also be confronted with governance choices that are not going to be to everyone’s liking, but then you ensure that you properly compensate people who would be affected.
Can I unpack a couple of those things? First of all, in terms of governance fora at the international level, what fora would most be appropriate and most able in effect to bring in all these different voices and maybe deal with some of the power dynamics that could come at the expense of equity and inclusion? Where do you think these discussions could be usefully had? Do those places already exist and need to be perhaps updated and reformed, or are new places needed?
I think the places exist in theory, but they also already struggle in practice. I think the first place you would go to is the UNFCCC. It is the one place where all countries come together and you have all these different elements of the global climate challenge in one package in a way and also interacting with each other to some extent, but we also know it is struggling basically to meet the world’s needs in terms of decision making.
I would say the national decision making below that is a very important element of it, but in terms of the negative impacts that would also be felt at the global level we would really struggle. Strengthening UNFCCC would be the ideal solution. Whether that is an easy one to do I am struggling to see, also with the current geopolitics how you could do that quickly, but I think you would need to invest in it for sure.
The other side of it is that the broader climate community around it, so the scientific community organizing itself like in the IPCC, the whole climate discussions in societies around the world, including companies with vested interests that maybe are not eager to see a very aggressive climate policy but also companies that are inventing the new technologies and want to see certain regulations go faster, also nongovernmental organizations with a range of different concerns that they are representing, and also youth movements, artists, all of those coming to the table. I think you would want the whole community in a way also to start coming to grips with some of these questions, a diversity of voices.
Let’s dig into that. This question itself that I am about to ask could be the subject of a much longer talk just by itself. I know that you and your colleagues have pioneered a lot of participative communications techniques to help involve local communities in different parts of the world to actually get to grips with what are the challenges and the issues and how do we go about tackling them, and to some degree helping to feed that back into national and international decision-making processes.
What kind of lessons have you learned about that, especially in an environment where trust is limited, we have an infodemic, and people are not sure what sources to turn to? If there were ever that level of consultation on SRM, one can only imagine the amount of mistrust that there might be there. What kind of lessons from your experience would you bring to helping bring that discussion to a much lower participative level?
The first is that you need to invest in making it work. The example I mentioned earlier about the reform of humanitarian financing is a good example maybe. There are donor agencies with a political mandate to support people after a disaster has resulted in human suffering. They are suddenly being asked to do something different that is not within the laws that they have been given by parliament that allow them to support humanitarian agencies, in this case to alleviate humanitarian suffering. We are suddenly asking them to do something differently that they cannot do.
In a way that leads to activating all of these systems. In the end it is not the donor who is implementing the action before the disaster. It is the local community volunteer who needs to get a cue from their national meteorological service, so we need to have the governments in those countries in the early warnings they provide in that loop. So it is a mix of all these kinds of actors.
You are never going to get there if you just make a case, for instance, writing an academic paper that shows that it is more cost-effective to do things before the fact. It is partly confronting people with the failings of current decision-making systems and that we actually need to overcome some barriers to be able to find each other and to discuss whether we can do things differently.
It takes effort to bring those people together, first of all. It does take scientific evidence to inform the discussions that they need to have. But the design of how you have the discussion also makes a big difference, so I would argue that part of the humanitarian reform on what we are calling “forecast-based financing” — enabling forecasts to trigger release of humanitarian support to alleviate suffering before an event has happened — the games that we designed at the time to facilitate decision makers in local communities, deciding whether or not they take certain early actions when the forecast arrives, whether it is worth it, would also confront donor agencies with the monetary implications even of whether or not they allow the flexibility to spend money beforehand — playing that out literally with rice and beans in a workshop session had a massive impact in the change in mindset and allowed people to understand each other better and understand the complexities but also the tradeoffs that they were facing in allocation of resources.
That is in a way an easy case because in that sense there was just a system transformation that needed to happen, but it was clear that that was going to be a beneficial one. In the case of SRM, you are dealing with a potential system transition where you have many more unknowns, so that makes it harder, but I think even more important to invest in the right ways to facilitate those discussions.
There is so much more we could talk about with this, but we are obviously coming to the end of this talk.
Perhaps I could turn to a couple of more personal things. You mentioned a couple of times as it were the goal of reducing suffering, that perhaps being the ultimate measure of whether what we are doing is right or wrong, and that is certainly a very powerful motivator.
At the same time it might not be the primary ethical concern of all people. It is perhaps more utilitarian — how do we reduce the most suffering for the most people? — and some people would just have more of an idea that some things are just right and wrong: “SRM is playing God; therefore wrong.” When you come with essentially your sense of moral guidance, which is around reducing suffering, how do you then make connection with other people who have a slightly different perhaps way of judging whether something is ethical or not, a more deontological Kant-type approach, just, “These are lines in the sand?” I would be interested in your thoughts on that.
I think you need to have space for conversations between people with different ethical backgrounds and also make those considerations explicit to be able to understand and respect each other’s perspectives on that.
I have learned a lot. I came from hard science when I entered the Red Cross world, and that is a world, for instance, where we are providing humanitarian aid in the context of conflict. It means we talk to both parties in a war to have access to those areas, sometimes with violent conflict happening almost at the same time — there might be a short ceasefire so that we can enter those areas — and it sometimes means compromises: From a purely ethical perspective I don’t want to talk to those guys; they’re shooting each other. Yet we want to reach those people. So yes, we do talk to those people, and we sometimes find solutions that work in that context to do the humanitarian support that is needed, but you might not prefer it from a purely random ethical perspective.
There are very strict humanitarian drivers that dictate in a way how you position yourself there, and I have learned a lot from that ethics but also about the importance of explaining that ethics when I explain the tradeoff that we face in those areas and also the limits that we then put on ourselves sometimes, for instance, being vocal about some issues, even being vocal in the initial stages about climate change. If being very vocal about climate change might make the Red Cross be perceived as a political actor that could not be trusted as a neutral intermediary in a conflict, then it would not be worth it to talk about climate. That prerogative of being able to access those areas would be more important.
That is maybe an illustration of where I think there are “horses for courses” and different ethical perspectives that matter in certain contexts and also for certain actors, but it is important that we are explicit about them and that we are able to have conversations about them.
I think in the case of SRM that includes discussions that need to be had at all levels between people from very different political backgrounds and also with very different ethical perspectives, and we are already seeing that in some of the discussions about field experiments on SRM, where certain religious feelings, for instance, are coming to the fore. There is a whole ethical literature also on how you deal with those principled objectives for a much wider range of political decisions. I think we have to confront that practice of respecting all of those different perspectives in how we set up governance for SRM.
For many professionals, as you begin to realize the extent and depth of the crisis it can be quite hard to maintain a sense of hope and motivation, especially when you see outcomes like, “Oh, the world is just not doing what it needs to do.” How do you personally maintain some sense of hope and motivation while not slipping into “hopium,” as the expression goes, by pretending we have got this, continuing to recognize the severity of the crisis but still keep going? What philosophies do you turn to and what practices do you turn to to keep that sense of motivation?
I think at heart I am an optimist, and I have seen people be remarkably resilient in very dire circumstances. I don’t give up easily. That is maybe also the broader mission that I have internalized with my work in the Red Cross Red Crescent over the past almost two decades now. There is always an opportunity to make things better, even if things are extremely dire. Giving up would be the worst we can do, especially if it gets really bad. There is always a little bit of light somewhere, and it is even more important that we get it to the darkest places.