A global challenge: Climate change, hunger and migration

Today is Blog Action Day on climate change and tomorrow is World Food Day with this year’s theme “Achieving food security in times of crisis”. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to write about the interesection of climate change, hunger and migration which is one of the most pressing issues in terms of global inequality and global responsibility. In essence, climate change causes devastation and hunger which in turn causes migration. In other words, climate change is mainly caused by people in developed countries but primarily affects people in developing countries as we threaten their agricultural livelihoods through our carbon-based lifestyle. In turn, the resulting climate migration affects developed countries which can no longer simply look away as thousands of people are dying in front of their coasts. But let me begin with a personal insight…

In June, I met a citizen from Rwanda at the Vienna Energy Conference who told me that usually the dry season in his country lasts for six months. Last year, it suddenly lasted two months longer, thereby ruining the harvest which is the basis of the Rwandan population where approximately 90% of the population is engaged in agriculture and which already suffers from a shortage of land for cultivation. We can also take a look at Zambia where early floodings recently killed at least 31 people, destroyed the maize crops on which people depend and caused illnesses and infections of children. Or we can listen to the man from Uganda who wrote in the Guardian that seasonal patterns had gone in his country. While floodings destroyed people’s crops and homes last year, they were struck by a drought like they had never seen before this year. Farms were ruined, people died because of malaria and children couldn’t attend school because they were too weakened by diseases or because their parents had no more money for school fees.

It is a mixture of short-term effects like rising food prices due to biofuels and speculation or lower purchasing power because of the economic crisis and long-term climate change effects like water shortages due to melting glaciers in Asia, severe droughts in Central America or Africa, land degradation and desertification in the Sahel, increased floodings in the Ganges Delta or the Mekong Delta and threats to agricultural infrastructure on Tuvalu and the Maledives due to rising sea levels that threatens people’s lifes in developing countries where often more than half of a country’s population depends on agriculture. In fact, the US National Academy of Sciences stated that “a one-degree Celsius temperature rise above the norm lowers wheat, rice, and corn yields by 10%“. So, there is no doubt that “climate change’s most savage impact on humanity in the near future is likely to be in the increase in hunger” (Oxfam International).

The consequences become clear when we look at recent warnings from the renowed scientific journales The British Medical Journal and The Lancet: Food scarcity affects people’s health because it leads to illnesses and malnutrition. According to a recent study by the International Food Policy Research Institute, climate change will lead to a 20% increase in child malnutrition due to lower grain yields and rising crop prices. Moreover, meeting the demands for food coming out of population growth presents an additional challenge as overall food production will have to increase by 70% until 2050 because of rising demand for cereals, meat and biofuels. So, facing hunger, diseases, and devastated land, many people have to choose migration as the only possible adaptation strategy.

Leaving your home is never easy but the effects of climate change force more and more people to search for viable livelihoods and safety. In fact, institutions such as Kofi Annan’s Global Humanitarian Forum or the International Organization for Migration recently predicted that there will be 75 million climate refugees in 2030 and 200 million climate refugees in 2050. Moreover, the WWF warns that especially people living in coastal regions are threatened by rising sea levels which may eradicate fertile farmland and cause 100 million climate refugees in coastal regions alone. Unfortunately, we don’t have to wait until 2030 or 2050 as climate change displacement has already begun in places like the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific where rising sea levels have eroded much of the coastlines. Rising sea levels, severe droughts and other catastrophic events caused by climate change increase the competition for resources that is – according to Kofi Annan and Nicholas Stern – “already resulting in mass movement of people within countries and across borders, heightened social tension and, in many cases, violence.”

Policy decisions made today will determine whether migration becomes a matter of choice amongst a range of adaptation measures or merely a matter of survival. That’s why politicians and citizens in the developed world now must help the millions of people affected by climate change instead of looking away any longer. Ban Ki-moon recently wrote in a message to G8 leaders: “Any effective accord must help vulnerable countries – especially the poorest of the poor and the highly vulnerable arid and island nations – adapt to climate change”. In my opinion, such help must consist of a wide range of inclusive, transparent and comprehensive measures like binding commitments for technology transfer (energy, crops, etc.), renewable energy investments, financial support for adaptation measures, education efforts or female empowerment. Drastically increased financial support must lie at the heart of these measures as currently only $21 billion are provided as development aid for climate change mitigation and adaptation (according to the UN World Economic and Social Survey 2009).

It is clear that much more financial support is needed as climate change is increasing hunger, poverty and diseases worldwide, as it is already responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and as the economic losses due to climate change today already amounts to more than $125 billion a year. Moreover, it is important that climate change adaptation funds must come from additional sources instead of just being diverted from existing aid pledges. While Oxfam mentioned $50 billion, the World Bank estimates that $75 billion will be needed each year to adapt to the effects of climate change and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and EU Environmental Commissioner Stavros Dimas even said that rich countries should pay $100 billion or €100 billion per year. Unfortunately, Brown’s and Dimas’ numbers were flawed as they primarily relied on insecure sources such as private and public finance in the developing countries themselves or money from the international carbon markets. In fact, official public funding by rich countries has to form the basis of climate change adaptation funds for developing countries and further ideas such as a levy on rich nations’ international flights and shipping fuel should complement it.

So, the question for the future is not how many people we can feed but how we can help farmers and other people coping with the effects of climate change and how we can distribute food and resources more fairly. I hope that the urgency of this issue once again became clear when the UN Food and Agriculture Organization today reported that for the first time since 1970 more than 1 billion people go hungry every day.


Note: This blogpost was also published on the TH!NK ABOUT IT website.

Posted on October 15, 2009 in Climate Change

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out Vienncouver.com and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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