Red Cross chief laments 17,000 climate deaths in call for action at UN assembly

Francesco Rocca told 'The National' that climate change, conflict and record refugee flows are all connected

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - March 12, 2019: Francesco Rocca (L) president of international federation of Red Cross and red crescent societyÕs at the Dubai International Humanitarian Aid and Development (DIHAD) Conference. Tuesday the 12th of March 2019 at Dubai International Convention Centre, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Leading humanitarian Francesco Rocca urged world leaders on Friday to cut carbon dioxide emissions more aggressively, saying droughts and other climate shocks were wrecking millions of lives and worsening conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria and beyond.

Speaking with The National, Mr Rocca, president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), said climate-related disasters had affected 139 million people and claimed more than 17,000 lives since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

He urged US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the many other leaders headed to New York for next week’s annual UN assembly to cut back more on planet-heating gases amid projections of higher-than-expected global temperature rises.

“This is not about taking only the interests of their own countries - it is about taking care of the world, and the fragility and the desperation of the most exposed and the most poor,” Mr Rocca told The National.

“All the leaders of the world, not only Boris Johnson, Biden and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, all the leaders of the world can together make the difference.”

Climate change and tackling the coronavirus pandemic top the agenda for the UN’s annual high-level week, which kicks off on Monday with closed-door talks between dozens of world leaders on cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases.

The hosts, Mr Johnson and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, seek to raise ambitions before the Cop26 climate talks in the Scottish city of Glasgow in November, when nations must list their emissions targets as part of a global bid to keep temperature rises below 1.5°C.

The UN on Friday released a report saying that progress was falling so far below expectations that a 2.7°C temperature rise against pre-industrial levels was likely to occur this century, raising the prospects of more devastating droughts, fires and storms.

Mr Rocca said such a rise in global temperatures would cause “immense tragedies”.

The Middle East is already experiencing droughts and searing temperatures amid tension and conflicts in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Iraq, he added. Likewise, Afghanistan’s decades of turmoil is connected to drought and other climate shocks.

Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 15 million people across the Middle East have seen their lives upended by 30 severe weather events that claimed the lives of 317 people, IFRC data, which was provided to The National, show.

UN assemblies typically offer leaders a chance to debate several crises, but this year’s event has been scaled back due to Covid-19 and only Yemen’s humanitarian situation will be tackled at the UN, while the G20 group of major powers will meet separately on Afghanistan.

Mr Rocca said that leaders could “take their eyes off” wars affecting millions of people due to the trimmed-down agenda.

“There is a need that they [use] their eyes to see the consequences of their inaction,” said the veteran Italian humanitarian.

“We should force the leaders to see what is happening on the ground because of their inaction and their inability to find political solutions for these people.”

Dragged-out wars in Syria, the Sahel, Yemen, Afghanistan and other hotspots have already helped push the global number of people fleeing wars, violence and persecution to more than 80 million, said Mr Rocca — a figure he said could rise further still.

"Desperation is stronger than any wall we can build," he said.

Updated: September 17th 2021, 7:19 PM