Climate: Changes, Challenges, and Consequences

Sat, 09/01/2007

The 2007 World Food Day teleconference (Tuesday, October 16th) will examine climate change and its disastrous consequences for millions of poor and chronically undernourished people. The world’s climate scientists, by an overwhelming majority, are now convinced that global warming, driven by human activity, is underway. They predict that relatively fast change of the natural environment – temperature, ocean level, desertification and the melting of the polar ice cap – will first disrupt tropical life and agriculture, plunging millions of highly vulnerable people into a state of unremitting hunger, poverty, forced migration and natural disaster. In the fullness of time, all nations could be undermined by unchecked warming.

Meeting the challenge of climate change is daunting and all encompassing. It calls for nothing less than evolving new priorities for everyday human activities, based on more conservation and less consumption and on greater human collaboration and less national, racial and religious competition.

Climate change is a tragedy in the making for billions of poor people found mostly between the 30-degree latitudes, north and south. While ultimately a danger everywhere, the ravages of climate change are more intense and immediate in less developed countries (LDCs.) 

The impact of Global warming on tropical people is hard to deny. The average proportion of the global population harmed by climate-related disasters every year has nearly doubled since 1975, reaching nearly 4% or 225 million in 2001. Based on current trends, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that by 2030 between 6% and 8% of the global population would be directly affected.

AGRICULTURAL LOSS

Agriculture is the only source of food, income and work for the vast majority of poor people. By contrast, agriculture occupies only a small minority of the rich country workforce. As a foretaste of what is to come, the tropics have been hit in recent years by increasingly intense floods, drought and heat waves that affect food production.

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts, “sixty-five developing countries, representing more than half the developing world’s population in 1995, will lose about 280 million tons of cereal production as a result of climate change.”

Bad harvests for poor farmers limit agricultural exports, the prime source of income for most less-developed countries, and mean reduced resources for central governments. Lost governmental revenues means reduced basic social services.

DEGRADED LANDS

Most tropical agricultural lands are already degraded by overuse resulting from poverty and burgeoning population growth. The process will be accelerated by even more violent weather and small farmers’ unsustainable attempts to extract more food from increasingly exhausted plots. Global warming will intensify and spread animal and crop pests that thrive in the hottest areas, thereby further limiting meager harvests.

LOST WORK

The climate change induced decline of arable land will disconnect people from the only source of food and income they have. Today in the developing world, more than 40% live on less than $2 a day.

HUNGER

Roughly 850 million people in the world are chronically undernourished. Lost crops, mounting impoverishment and increasingly degraded agricultural lands will expand hunger among the poorest of the poor.

DISEASE

Climate change increases an individual’s risk of early death or becoming sick. Global warming spreads and intensifies malaria, already a major LDC affliction. TB and HIV/AIDS also stand to gain. National health infrastructures will be debilitated and safety nets swept away. The ability to treat disease will become increasingly under-funded and under-staffed.

ENVIRONMENTAL REFUGEES

Climate disruptions and resulting chaos will force people to flee their tropical homes. Already Europe and North America are confronted by the issue of people seeking refuge. Oxford Professor Norman Myers, a veteran environmental observer, predicts that the number of environmental refugees, estimated at 25 million in 1995, will rise significantly.

“The environmental refugee total could well double between 1995 and 2010. Moreover, it could increase steadily for a good while thereafter as growing numbers of impoverished peoples press ever harder on overloaded environments. When global warming takes hold, there could be as many as 200 million people overtaken by disruptions of monsoon systems and other rainfall regimes, by droughts of unprecedented severity and duration and by sea-level rise and coastal flooding.”

Doomsday-sounding scenarios may be challenged but the fact remains that full-blown global climate change would create incalculable social and economic problems for highly vulnerable people.

Climate change has, in the incredibly short period of less than 50 years, moved from a barely perceived scientific problem, to a fast evolving threat largely ignored, to today, a popularly understood challenge to the global environment and human security. In the 1970s, the CIA made a study on how global cooling threatened U.S. security. Now U.S. military and security agencies have taken up the issue of how global warming challenges U.S. security.