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Climate CEO Verkooijen: prophet in a suit and tie

04 January 2021
Patrick Verkooijen (Photo: Global Center on Adaptation)
Patrick Verkooijen (Photo: Global Center on Adaptation)

Professor Patrick Verkooijen is the boss of the Global Center on Adaptation. This international organization helps countries in Africa and Asia to prepare for global warming. Verkooijen is closley involved in the Climate Adaptation Summit in January.

‘Let me give you an example,’ says Patrick Verkooijen, CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation (GCA), which is based in Groningen and Rotterdam, and professor at the University of Groningen. ‘Last year, we launched a GCA office in Peking. The Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, attended as host on behalf of the GCA. I travelled with Rutte and Ban Ki-moon to visit the Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who formally opened our new office. Anyone who isn’t familiar with the world of international organizations probably can’t appreciate just how important it is that the Chinese Prime Minister opens your office. It’s massive. But he did it for us! In fact, China has even asked us to write a piece about climate adaptation for their new five-year economic plan. That may sound like a sales pitch but it’s important legitimacy for a new international organization like ours.’

Special climate ambassador

Patrick Verkooijen grew up in Emmen and Veendam and once played for the FC Groningen youth team. He then left the Netherlands and went to work for the United Nations, and later for the World Bank. In the 10 years that he worked for the World Bank, he turned into a special climate ambassador, who attended annual climate summits and met international finance ministers to try and convince them of the urgency of climate policy. When the UN finally accepted the need to set up a single international organization dedicated to climate adaptation, Patrick Verkooijen was in theprime position to head up this pioneering work. He did this in close consultation with the South Korean Ban Ki-moon, former Secretary General of the UN, who became the chair of the monitoring body for the GCA.

Verkooijen with UG Honorary Doctor Ban Ki-moon (Photo: Global Center on Adaptation)
Verkooijen with UG Honorary Doctor Ban Ki-moon (Photo: Global Center on Adaptation)

Political reality

‘The hope that we might be able to stop climate change was first uttered in the early 1990s,’ explains Verkooijen. ‘I remember Al Gore (former presidential-candidate in the USA, ed.) making the following disparaging comment during a climate summit: “adaptation is a kind of laziness”. At that time, we were all preoccupied with reducing our carbon footprint. But we’ve moved on since then. The scientific consensus and political reality is that even if we do meet the goals of the Paris Agreement (with a target of preferably keeping the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees), we must still expect enormous impacts: more rain, more flooding, more drought, more heavy gales, and all the social implications that this involves. The bottom line is that climate adaptation is essential. The new part is the footnote that climate adaptation is actually an opportunity. If you see it as an “extra expense”, it will be shunned, particularly by finance ministers. We have tried to change the dialogue over the past two years from “it is necessary” to “it is in your economic interests”.’


The Global Center on Adaptation, which now has offices in Africa, China and Southern Asia, has three tasks: supporting countries and private parties in the implementation of climate adaptation programmes; compiling a knowledge base of solutions; and, like a prophet in a suit and tie, proclaiming the true gospel that investing money in climate adaptation now will generate major financial and social profits in the future. ‘Let me give you an example of the first task,’ says Verkooijen. ‘Ghana knocked on our door and said: “Our present infrastructure, including roads, airports, docks and hospitals, cannot withstand excessive rainfall, drought or flooding.” We are currently making an analysis before we sit down at the table with the partners: these are the risks, this is what it will cost if you climate-proof the infrastructure now, and this is what it will cost if you don’t. In addition, we’re having discussions with the African development bank. Infrastructure is part of their investment portfolio, and we are prescribing our analysis.’

Morally unfair

‘The morally unfair part of this’, he says, ‘is that the largest impact of climate change will be seen in the southern hemisphere, mainly in Africa and Southern Asia, including in Bangladesh and India. The economic sectors in these regions are the most dependent on climate. Take Africa: much of the continent’s revenue comes from agriculture, which means that it will be hit disproportionately hard. What’s more, the adaptive capacity in Africa is much more limited than in the northern hemisphere when it comes to budget, knowledge, experience and technology. Thirdly, African countries have contributed the least to climate change. It is therefore morally imperative that we invest in Africa and Southern Asia, which is why our programme field is mainly focused on these world regions.’

Verkooijen: It is morally unfair that the largest impact of climate change will be seen in the southern hemisphere. (Photo: Monika Mlynek)
Verkooijen: It is morally unfair that the largest impact of climate change will be seen in the southern hemisphere. (Photo: Monika Mlynek)

Millions of smallholders

Verkooijen: ‘Let’s look at Ethiopia to make things more concrete. The Ethiopian economy largely relies on smallholders, who farm small plots of land. They are commonly afflicted by drought and plagues of insects. The climate will have an even more serious impact on them in the years to come. How can you support these farmers? I’m not talking about tens or hundreds of thousands of smallholders; I’m talking about over a million. There is at least one concrete intervention: the telephone. Africa has an advanced mobile network. Digital support could be provided by phone, with messages like: it’s time to sow, it’s time to harvest. We aren’t going to offer every single smallholder a telephone server, but we will try to find out how this could be organized at a national level and how private parties could help. If you could also do business with your bank on that phone, it would be easy to take out insurance, for example, and make your agricultural system more resilient. For the first time in a generation, global poverty is increasing in absolute terms. During my time at the World Bank, the figures consistently decreased. But the coronavirus pandemic and climate change are causing a rise in extreme poverty throughout the world.’

Good news

The Paris Agreement in 2015 was a landmark, says Verkooijen, who was there in France at the time. The international community endorsed a target of keeping the global temperature rise to 2 degrees, and preferably less than 1.5 degrees. But it was said at the time that the plans must be updated every five years in order to meet this target. The climate summit organized in Glasgow has been moved to late 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The targets need to be delivered by then. But there has already been some good news, says Verkooijen. ‘The new Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, has announced that his country will be delivering far-reaching climate targets earlier than expected. China has announced that it intends to be climate neutral by 2060. South Korea, which relies heavily on the coal industry, has also embraced climate neutrality. This is revolutionary. We’re already seeing major economies moving in that direction. The question is: is it enough, and will it be in time? I mean: it’s a long time until 2060.’

Climate Adaptation Summit

At the end of January, the GCA is organizing a Climate Adaptation Summit in the Netherlands. This will include an academic conference in Groningen on 22 January, which Ban Ki-moon will attend. A few days later, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel will address the summit. In addition, a youth fund will be launched, to which young people from every corner of the earth may apply. Verkooijen: ‘So imagine you’re a young person in Accra and you want to do something in the agricultural sector. You can register with the fund, be allocated a grant and be supervised by the GCA. The UG is also developing a Master’s degree programme. This is not just relevant to Master’s students from the Netherlands, but also to young people from the southern hemisphere. Part of the programme will be provided online free of charge. We see one particular target group as a priority: the younger generation. We can only tackle the climate problem by joining together.’

Patrick Verkooijen (1969) has been CEO of the Global Center on Adaptation since it was founded in 2018. He previously worked as a climate envoy for the World Bank. He is now Professor of Practice in Sustainable Development Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in the USA. He obtained Master’s degrees at the University of Amsterdam and Harvard University and was awarded a PhD in Wageningen. In 2020, he was appointed as Professor of Climate Adaptation Governance at the Faculty of Campus Fryslân and the Faculty of Spatial Sciences at the UG.

This article has been taken from our alumni magazine Broerstraat 5. Text: Jurgen Tiekstra.

Meer informatie

Global Center on Adaptation

Last modified:11 January 2021 12.46 p.m.
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