Climate change and the food security dimension

A new report emphasises that climate change will affect us all, and fundamental changes are needed to avoid the worst.

A field of corn is seen in Embrun, Ontario
Warming temperatures will have major effects on global food supply, according to a new IPCC report [Reuters]

The world’s most authoritative body on climate change science recently published a report emphasising that climate change is happening even faster, and with more damaging effects, than previously anticipated.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report made clear that climate change will be harmful for all of us – and not only for a few remote island states or polar bears – by affecting the world’s food supply.

Although the Panel has a deserved reputation for being a conservative and careful intergovernmental body, it declared its concern in this report using bold language. Even though the report repeated many of the findings of its Fourth Assessment Report published in 2007, some commentators nevertheless called its conclusions “alarmist”.

The report has sparked a discussion as to whether such alarming assessments are useful to spur people and governments to action.

Similarly, a new nine-part documentary series on American Showtime TV, “Years of Living Dangerously”, is attracting lots of attention – akin to the reaction to Al Gore’s 2006 movie “An Inconvenient Truth”, which introduced the general public to the threats associated with climate change.

Polarising or mobilising?

Social scientists continue to disagree about the effects of such alarming publications and films, and debate whether the message is polarising, rather than mobilising, the public.

Most people assume that the effects of climate change will never affect our daily lives. The famous picture of a polar bear precariously floating on a fragment of a melting iceberg, for instance, did little to convince people – especially in the developing world – that they should divert resources from economic growth, increased consumption and an improved standard of living.

Global climate change report urges action

But refusal to heed earlier warnings about climate change might be overcome by this most recent IPCC report, which reframed climate change as a food security issue. “Nobody on this planet is going to be untouched by the impacts of climate change,” said Rajendra Pachauri, an Indian scientist who serves as the distinguished chair of the IPCC.

For a long time, environmentalists exhorted the public to “think of your children and grandchildren”. No more. This report warned that negative impacts on declining crop yields due to climate change could become more likely in the 2030s, just around the corner.

Meanwhile, crop yields could decline by two percent per decade, at a time when demand is projected to increase by two percent each year.

Given the World Bank’s report predicting temperature increases of four degrees Celsius by the end of the century, those gaps would widen dramatically. We should stop worrying about the world that our children and grandchildren will inherit, but think of how to protect ourselves!

‘Global implications’

Food security is an immediate concern for every human being, and ensuring it calls for fundamental changes in our daily habits. Individual and common action will be required to achieve a viable global agricultural policy and trade in a warming world.

In March, Oxfam, a global non-governmental organisation, published its own report called: “Hot and Hungry: How to stop climate change derailing the fight against hunger.” In a press conference, Oxfam’s head of policy for food and climate change said: “This is no longer a picture about poor farmers in some regions being hit by climate change. This is a picture about global agriculture being hit – US, Russia and Australia – with global implications for food prices.”

The negative impact of climate change on food production is no surprise. Farmers and herders are the best observers of how changing climate, drought, flooding and other extreme weather events affect their harvesting of crops or animals. As early as 2008, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) emphasised that: “Climate change will affect all four dimensions of food security: food availability, food accessibility, food utilisation and food system stability.”

While many countries are inadequately prepared for climate change’s effects on food supply, it is the world’s poorest and most food-insecure countries that will likely be most affected. Nevertheless, no country’s food system will be unaffected by worsening climate change.

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Greater food insecurity could even pose a security threat as competition intensifies for water and arable land. The IPCC Report warns about an “increase in risks of violent conflicts in the form of civil war and intergroup violence”. The decade-long armed conflict in Sudan, the ongoing civil war in Syria and unrest in Egypt are all example of how severe drought, internal migration and economic hardship can lead to devastating instability.  

“Battles over water and food will erupt within the next five to 10 years as a result of climate change,” said World Bank President Jim Yong Kim of the IPCC report.

“The water issue is critically related to climate change. People say that carbon is the currency of climate change, water is the teeth. Fights over water and food are going to be the most significant direct impacts of climate change.”

Diplomats have been trying since the late 1990s to put in place legally binding agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But they have not been successful. Now, disappointed by diplomatic efforts, many have turned their eyes towards the world’s major energy companies, the biggest contributors to carbon dioxide emissions. This will be the key battleground if a coherent plan to fight climate change is to emerge.

Regressive politics

If climate change is reframed as primarily a food security issue, is it possible some climate sceptics will lose their influence, especially the members of the US congress who have taken them so seriously? The prospects are not encouraging. Just after the IPCC report was published, some US congressmen outrageously proposed a bill limiting the research activities of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to exclude climate change from its work and to focus only on forecasting severe weather events. These legislators don’t want to hear about climate change science.

We cannot have much hope, given the powerful fossil fuel lobbyists who so generously support climate deniers. Their political influence seems sufficient to block all reasonable efforts to move towards a post-carbon economy. Instead, the United States is ready to become the “Saudi America” of the 21st century by pioneering a new energy revolution based on fracking technologies and huge deposits of natural gas.

Can this regressive trend be stopped? Not a chance – unless a massive grassroots movement takes hold and changes the political climate in the United States and elsewhere, possibly by saying to the peoples and governments of the world: “Enough is enough!”

Hilal Elver is Research Professor in Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Co-Director of the Climate Change Project.