The forgotten fight against hunger

The price of staple foods is expected to double over the next 20 years, with half of that attributable to climate change. Local and global responses are needed to meet a worsening hunger equation.

This week, we’ll read and hear a lot about the science of climate change. But the story of climate change is also a story about people, and human suffering.

At Oxfam, our climate change work is about ensuring families have enough to eat and a prospect of a secure and healthy life. It is a basic right everyone in the world should enjoy.

The first installment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report will be released tonight, and Oxfam’s new briefing paper Growing Disruption provides a picture of what climate change means for the fight against hunger. Not only in the future. But right now.

The evidence is clear – a hotter world is a hungrier world.

We’ve long known that rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns are affecting crop yields. But the compounding effects of extreme weather disasters, damaged infrastructure and impaired livelihoods are causing millions of families around the world to be caught in a spiral of falling incomes, rising food prices and declining nutrition.

This week, the IPCC will conclude that we can be 95 per cent confident that observed changes to the climate are largely the consequence of human activities, and that the impacts are already severe and set to worsen.

Yet surveys continue to reveal an enduring disconnect between the scientific consensus on climate change and the perceptions of the public, media and decision-makers. Our indifference to the way communities are already suffering the impacts of climate change is chilling.

Oxfam’s paper discusses the devastating impact of climate change on hunger and diseases, already responsible for up to 400,000 deaths a year in the world’s poorest countries. Evidence suggests that the number of people at risk of hunger is likely to rise 10-20 per cent by 2050 as a result of climate change, and childhood malnutrition could increase by up to 20 per cent.

The chart below illustrates how climate change will act to undermine food availability

Projected daily per capita calorie availability in 2050, with and without climate change

Graph for The forgotten fight against hunger

Note: 'With climate change' is an average of National Center for Atmospheric Research (US) and Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (Australia) forecasts.
Source: G. Nelson et al. (2009).

In developing countries, people spend as much as 75 per cent of their income on food. A sudden price spike following crop losses to extreme weather can be a matter of life or death. Oxfam figures (illustrated in chart below) indicate the average price of staple foods is likely to more than double over the next 20 years – with up to half of that increase caused by climate change.

Predicted impact of climate change on world market food export prices to 2030

Graph for The forgotten fight against hunger

Source: D. Willenbockel (2011)

To some extent, these challenges can be tackled by helping vulnerable communities build greater resilience to climate shocks and through reversing decades of underinvestment in small-scale, environmentally sustainable agriculture. But there is no escaping the need for high-consuming countries like Australia to dramatically cut their carbon pollution.

In this light, the Australian government’s dismantling of both the Climate Commission and Climate Change Authority is particularly worrying.

In bringing this function under the Department of Environment, the onus is now on the government itself to distill the vast amount of complex information on the climate system into impartial terms that all of us can understand.

How it manages this role we will have to wait and see. Climate change is a global problem that transcends national and political interests, and right now the evidence calls for a far more ambitious response than the government has on the table.

Australia will find itself under mounting diplomatic pressure to make a fair contribution to international efforts to fight climate change at November’s UN Climate Summit in Warsaw. And next year, Prime Minister Tony Abbott will front a special summit of world leaders called by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to rekindle political momentum and dissolve remaining blockages in the negotiations process.

While coverage of the Fifth Assessment has focused more on areas of remaining uncertainty, the overall picture is even clearer than before.

Climate change is here. Its impacts will worsen. It will hit poorer countries the hardest. We must redouble our efforts to reduce emissions, at the same time increasing funding to vulnerable communities to adapt to climate change and implement low carbon development strategies.

There is no partisanship, alarmism or other agenda behind these conclusions. It is simply the rational and compassionate response to what the best available evidence is telling us.

Dr Simon Bradshaw is climate change advocacy coordinator for Oxfam Australia.

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