Hotspots hit poor hardest

by Bryan Walker on June 4, 2011

Another report this week drives home the message that the world’s poorer people are going to suffer the early and potentially devastating effects of climate change. The report is the work of the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) programme associated with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), a group of food research organisations.

The report, Mapping Hotspots of Climate Change and Food Insecurity in the Global Tropics, was produced by a team of scientists responding to what CCAFS describes as an urgent need to focus climate change adaptation efforts on people and places where the potential for harsher growing conditions poses the gravest threat to food production and food security.

The researchers identified places around the world where the arrival of stressful growing conditions could be especially disastrous.  They are areas highly exposed to climate shifts, where survival is strongly linked to the fate of regional crop and livestock yields, and where chronic food problems indicate that farmers are already struggling and they lack the capacity to adapt to new weather patterns.

For example, the report points to large parts of South Asia, including almost all of India, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa — chiefly West Africa — where there are 369 million food-insecure people living in agriculture intensive areas that are highly exposed to a potential five percent decrease in the length of the growing period. That’s a big enough change to significantly affect food yields and food access for people — many of them farmers themselves — already living on the edge.

Higher temperatures are also likely to exact a toll, the report indicates. Today, there are 56 million food-insecure and crop-dependent people in parts of West Africa, India and China who live in areas where, by the mid-2050s, maximum daily temperatures during the growing season could exceed 30 degrees. This is close to the maximum temperature that beans can tolerate, while maize and rice yields may suffer when temperatures exceed this level. For example, a study last year in Nature found that even with optimal amounts of rain, African maize yields could decline by one percent for each day spent above 30 degrees.  This map shows where the threatened areas are:

GISTEMPFig E201104

The intention of the report is to identify regions where adaptation measures are likely to be most urgently required. Crop production and livestock capacity are likely to be severely affected. One of the researchers commented on the need to move quickly on innovative solutions to meet the challenges if future serious food security and livelihood problems are to be avoided.

Time journalist Bryan Walsh’s blog remarks that the report is a reminder of one of the inescapable facts of global warming politics: those who are least responsible for the problem, those who are already living close to the edge, are those who will almost certainly suffer the most. The implication he draws is surely correct:

“That leaves much of the responsibility in the hands of the developed nations, whose wealth will shield them from the worst impacts of climate change – provided they plan well. Reducing emissions is a must, to blunt the worst effects of warming.  But adaptation will be just as important – if not more so… In short, we’ll need to help with the hard work of international development – which in a hotter world, is all but synonymous with climate adaptation.”

In obvious exasperation with lack of progress on mitigation he pushes the cause of adaptation:

“As diplomats gather for yet another round of climate negotiations – this time in Bonn – I’d rather see governments make concrete pledges on adaptation, foreign aid and technological development, instead of another empty promise about preventing temperature rise or keeping the atmosphere’s carbon concentrations at a ‘safe’ level. Action now is worth a lot more than promise tomorrow.”

It’s certainly a cause worth pleading, although not one that is likely to have much traction if New Zealand’s recent budget is any indication.  For yet another year the small proportion of our gross national income devoted to aid has suffered a cut. Caritas politely says how regrettable this is.  I think I’d have chosen a stronger adjective.

No matter how impervious politicians appear to the hardships global warming is beginning to impose on the poor and will impose on generations to come it’s important to keep hammering the message, if only to bear witness, as Stephen Gardiner’s recently reviewed book, A Perfect Moral Storm, puts it. There may be some ethical embers lying dormant which might yet be fanned into a blaze. Here’s a short video from CGIAR which brings viewers face to face with those who already grapple with climate change.

There are a couple more of the videos, on Ghana and Kenya, which can be accessed here.

BBC News carries some useful comments on the report, and John Vidal’s Poverty Matters blog in the Guardian is worth a look.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas June 6, 2011 at 9:05 am

Meanwhile the UK gets a prequel of how its like to be hit by climate change too: Driest spring in a 100 years and warmest since records began in 1659:

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=10730494

Harvests potentially down 50% in the southern parts of the UK!

Thomas June 6, 2011 at 9:11 am

On further research, the drought issue is a lot bigger than the UK:

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-06-05/wheat-fields-wilt-in-drought-as-parched-earth-spreads-from-china-to-kansas.html

The drought of 2011 may well become the biggest story of this year yet!

“In 32 years, I’ve never seen so many problems in so many places,” said Dan Basse, the president of AgResource Co., a farm researcher in Chicago. “We’re concerned about the world story now,” said Basse, who has been studying agricultural markets since 1979 and expects prices as high as $10 this year.

Byron Smith June 8, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Climate change –> drought (and other nasties) –> crop failure/loss –> price rise –> increased hunger for those on marginal food budgets –> political instability &/or suffering.

This chain needs to be spelt out again and again (of course, it is not simply climate change causing food instability, but also water availability, soil degradation, invasive species, biodiversity decline, pollinator decline, peak phosphorus, nitrogen cycle disruption). It is complex, but it is very important that it is widely understood.

Previous post:

Next post: