Questions and Answers on Climate Change and Hunger

Q. For a long time, everyone seemed to think that climate change was something that people weren’t going to notice for a few decades. Lately we’ve all seen the photos of melting icecaps and stranded polar bears, and scientists are warning that it’s happening much faster than anyone had expected. But how can climate change be a leading cause of hunger already? Wouldn’t we have noticed?

A. The people whose farming and pastoralist livelihoods were disrupted earliest, before most other signs of climate change became obvious, were already among the poorest and most marginalized people on Earth. So frankly, no one paid much attention at first. These communities had always been poor, and farming had always been an uncertain way to make a living. Subsistence farmers knew that once every several years—how often depended on where they lived—the harvest was likely to be poor. Many also expected a “hunger season,” a time every year, maybe two or three months, when food supplies had nearly run out and the next harvest was not yet ready.

In hindsight, we know that weather patterns were shifting in vulnerable regions such as the Sahel – on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert—in the 1970s. Starting in the 1980s, people in several of these vulnerable areas–the Sahel, Native Alaskan communities in the far north, island states not far above sea level—were well aware that the weather was changing. But this knowledge reached mainstream science—meaning researchers from rich countries—later. And then it took time to put all the pieces together. Nothing like this had ever happened before. The idea that industrialization could change—and actually was changing—the climate of the entire planet seemed unbelievable.

And, of course, scientists have known for years now that climate change would worsen hunger.  Bill McKibben’s book was published in 1989. It has taken most of the time since then—time we couldn’t really afford to lose—to reach policymakers in industrialized countries, media in these countries, the “person on the street” in these countries, with a message that no one particularly wanted to hear. In fact, as we know, there are still people who refuse to hear or believe it.

Q. Does this mean that the world will stop making progress against hunger, and hunger will get worse again? Is there anything we can do?

A. The larger issue of slowing and halting climate change is outside the control of people living with chronic hunger. In Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities, we talk about what our commitments are under the Paris Climate Agreement, and the importance of fulfilling them. There are many complex policy, scientific, and technical questions. Reducing emissions, carbon offsets and “paying to pollute,” making renewable energy sources available, getting the financial incentives right, and so on and so on.

But the answer is no, climate change doesn’t have to lead to more hunger. So far, mitigation – all those larger questions just mentioned – has received almost all the attention and funding.  And, clearly, mitigation is extremely important. In fact, it’s critical to the future of the entire planet.

That said, however, the countries that have caused climate change also have a responsibility to help vulnerable people adapt to the changed conditions. Adaptation strategies need more attention and more resources. We already know about many effective tactics that can be scaled up. Some, for example, fall under the category of “climate-smart agriculture” – hardier crops, different techniques such as intercropping, newer ideas biofortification to compensate for the soil’s containing fewer nutrients, and so forth. There are also many promising ideas for adaptation that have yet to be fully developed.

Social safety nets and social insurance is another critically important component of keeping climate change from making hunger worse. Again, we describe these and give several examples of successes in Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities. These can range from crop insurance plans and food for work projects, to pensions for elders and school meals for children. Nations and the global community should do what they can to shield people from the effects of problems they have no control over. That is part of what belonging to a human society means.

And finally, we have to prepare for the fact that climate migration is going to increase dramatically. People can’t live where there is no way to produce food or earn a living. Or, obviously, in places that are now underwater.

Here’s more on adaptation from Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities:

“Adaptation finance is designed to help the poorest and most vulnerable countries cope with the adverse effects of climate change, such as rising sea levels, storms, drought, and the spread of unfamiliar diseases. The benefits from adaptation finance are specific to one area…  [Adaptation is] specific drivers of climate vulnerability and efforts to address those, such as providing farmers with drought resistant seeds, training communities in efficient water use, and building disaster resistant housing…”

Q. What will happen if we do nothing?

A. All scenarios are grim. Here’s a succinct explanation from Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities: “The current trajectory, without effective intervention, would mean a rise of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial level by the end of this century. Scientists believe that an increase of this magnitude would be catastrophic. Some of the impacts include a drastic reduction in crop yields, significant soil erosion and degradation, dramatic losses in biodiversity, more animal and plant disease, and destruction of marine life due to ocean acidification. Sea levels will rise by several feet, displacing hundreds of millions of people residing in coastal communities, causing waves of migrants unlike anything the world has ever seen.”

Q. Are there any other signs of hope?

A. Yes: human resilience, ingenuity, creativity, and adaptability. Human decision-making will determine the outcome.

The widest range of decisions has to do with whether the Paris Climate Agreement not only succeeds, but leads to the further agreements and progress that are essential. In a very real sense, the whole world is involved.

Other complex sets of decisions fall primarily within one sector. For example, here’s Fragile Environments, Resilient Communities on food production: “As temperatures continue to rise, human behavior will be even more important in determining outcomes for food production. Left to struggle with climate change on their own, farmers make decisions to protect themselves against catastrophic losses. These decisions could lead to cascading reductions in yields. On the other hand, the fact that 70 percent of the loss in crop production was within human control is encouraging. The more that’s known about how farmers react to climate change, the better the chances that the world can respond more effectively. Higher temperatures may be a fait accompli, but not all of the repercussions have to be.”