By Nayah Thu
There are many reasons to care about the climate crisis. But, fundamentally, most people care about climate change because they care about people. So why aren’t we talking more about food insecurity? With a growing population and ever-growing pressure on fertile land, it is one of the clearest threats posed by climate change, with concrete consequences for global health and inequality.
When climate-induced food insecurity is mentioned, it is often in one of two lights: either as an inevitable evil that we will have to live with, or as a far-away and uncertain spectre that may never materialise, especially if we keep developing our farming technology. Both perspectives reek of privilege, distancing the speaker from the reality of the situation. The immense suffering caused by hunger is neither inevitable nor invisible. We know this. Global hunger is one of the most highly profiled humanitarian causes. But it’s no longer an issue solely of resource redistribution. It’s a consequence of unsustainable and imperialistic farming practices.
The Global South is already disproportionately affected by climate-related food insecurity. For example, Africa is the continent with “the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, at almost 20 percent,” and as at August 2019, hunger was on the rise in “almost all parts” of the continent.
Some of this hunger is due to extreme weather events, such as droughts, which are occurring more frequently and more severely than they have before. Some of it is due to more indirect effects of these changes in the weather, such as the burden of pests and disease. While pesticides and management have historically helped increase production, pests and disease still reduce global harvests by 10-16%, a figure only set to get worse. The spring locust swarms that accompanied this year's pandemic can be directly linked to climate change; according to Nature, the climactic conditions which produce cyclones and wet weather—which create ideal breeding conditions for locusts—are becoming more frequent. Ethiopia, for one, has been battling constant locust swarms since June 2019. Increasingly frequent locust outbreaks have catastrophic consequences: a swarm covering one square kilometre can eat as much in a day as 35,000 people. And warming temperatures mean that even the winter won’t stop them.
The problem doesn’t stop there: the fall armyworm, which was first recorded in Africa in 2017, is now present in all Southern Africa Development Community countries (SADC) except Lesotho. Over 20 million metric tonnes of maize have been lost in just under three years to the armyworm: enough to feed 100 million people. This pest disproportionately affects smaller farmers, exacerbating existing inequalities. Loss of income is compounded by rising staple food prices, according to the World Food Programme. It’s clear that we need to address the causes of these problems.
To do so requires research and funding. Food production is threatened by warming temperatures, unsustainable farming practices, desertification and soil degradation. It’s a slippery slope: the topsoil is a quasi-finite resource, susceptible to erosion, especially with the single-crop, tilling-heavy intensive style of farming prevalent today. If current trends continue, global mean crop yields are projected to decrease between 3% and 10% per degree of warming above historical levels. Even limiting warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels (as per the Paris Accord) puts us at risk of losing 15% of global crop yields, at a time when some say the current consumption trajectory means we’ll need to increase food production by 60% by 2050. We can’t just expand: according to Valerie Masson-Delmotte, we humans affect more than 70% of ice-free land, a quarter of which is already degraded. The rest is either not suitable for farming, or represents important carbon sinks and biodiversity havens, like the remains of the Amazon. We need to make the most of the farmland we already have.
Doing that will require cooperation, but it is possible. Discussions of famine often veer into naïve techno-optimism, or sink into apathetic nihilism. The truth is somewhere in the middle: the situation is bad, and it will probably get worse. However, we can make a big difference if we get to the root of the problem. Innovation and implementation is needed now: it is not enough to be reactive. In the words of Hans Otto Pörtner: there is “no possibility for anybody to say, ‘Oh, climate change is happening and we (will) just adapt to it.’ The capacity to adapt is limited.” This is especially true for the most vulnerable, who often lack resources to implement mitigation and risk reduction strategies. We see much lower adoption rates of technologies in the countries where they are most sorely needed. Where action plans exist, they are often sector dependent – they are not optimised for specific geographies and communities, and don’t allow for inter-industry synergies. Right now, climate impact studies are mostly done on crops, but impacts on fisheries and livestock production are no less serious. Additionally, the narrow focus on yield fails to develop our understanding of the systemic ecological and social contexts within which crops exist. Research must continue, but it must diversify.
While we are living in the Anthropocene, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that everyone is equally culpable. Through the past centuries, traditional and sustainable farming practices have been ignored and destroyed across the world in the name of a limited vision of modernisation. Voices in the contemporary debate are overwhelmingly white and Western, corporations and techno-optimists who advocate continuing to exploit the land, only more efficiently, setting us up for more trouble down the line. Only treating the obvious signs of food insecurity, such as rising disease prevalence, will lead to new problems, like the overuse of pesticides and veterinary medicines. More voices need to be heard.
There is a wealth of traditional and indigenous knowledge to draw on, in conjunction with modern technology. As ecosystems are so varied, measures need to be specific enough to make a difference, and developed in partnership with those who know the land. One interesting example is that of 'climate smart villages' or CSVs, which act “as platforms where researchers, local partners, farmers’ groups and policy makers collaborate to select and trial a portfolio of technologies and institutional interventions.”
Only an inclusive approach can prevent further degradation and increase long-term agricultural productivity within the constraints of specific ecosystems and communities. There are also many social dimensions that have to be taken into account: bringing more voices to the table expands the horizon of possible solutions.
Global food insecurity is one of today's leading issues. Our response to it will either prevent or cause enormous amounts of human suffering. Only by looking at its connections to the climate crisis, can we effectively take control. It’s not always clear what should be done. But we’ve had to make decisions based on uncertain information in the past. The only real wrong is not taking the problem seriously enough.
Image by sarangib on Pixabay
By Laura Watson
While current attitudes in the USA towards environmental policy are not entirely positive, it has not always been this way. Indeed, in the past, environmental issues and responses have been centralised and significant. While the term ‘environmental policy’ only dates back to the 1960s, there had been policies in the USA on the protection of the natural environment for many years before this.
Protection of public lands
Up until the late 19th century, public lands could be used for private economic purposes, but with the establishment of the first National Park, Yellowstone, in 1872 (and many others following), these lands began to be protected by the government. The National Parks Service was later created in 1916 to federally oversee all parks. Today there are over 400 acres protected by the US National Parks system.
This system of conservation has been strongly critiqued in decolonial and political ecological circles, as it failed to acknowledge the prior rights of indigenous inhabitants to these lands, and assumed that they were 'naturally empty wildernesses' rather than empty due to the intentional expulsion of their original inhabitants by the forces of the colonising state. Furthermore, they have been critiqued on purely conservationist grounds as largely ineffective for actually preserving the 'nature' they sought to protect.
A move towards national regulatory frameworks
For many years, the United States took a highly localised approach to environmental issues, with active moves against centralised regulation—reflecting the country's ardently federal political structure. For example, in 1960 President Eisenhower vetoed federal water treatment funding.
This all changed in 1970, with the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which amalgamated a huge range of diverse pollution reduction programmes. Subsequently, many new environmental laws were enacted, regulating a range of environmental issues such as air and water pollution. Over time, the role of the EPA was expanded, allowing for the regulation of additional pollutants, more stringent regulation of already regulated pollutants, and the regulation of smaller scale issues.
In addition to its regulatory mandate, the EPA recognised the value of market-oriented incentives to implement regulations more efficiently and increase the number of people and businesses following them. For example, in 1990 a cap and trade scheme was implemented as an amendment to the Clean Air Act, to reduce sulphur and nitrogen emissions from power plants, to deal with the proble of acid rain. These market-oriented incentives can only be applied with the approval of Congress, though, which in more recent times has become increasingly hard to obtain due to the politicisation of environmental protection, and the increasingly polarised nature of American politics.
A Specific Example: The American Dustbowl
The dustbowl was a period in the 1930s, during which the Southern Plains region of the USA experienced terrible dust storms, associated with a dry period. Like many environmental issues, the dustbowl was caused by a combination of natural factors (drought) as well as agricultural (excessive tillage), political (land policy), and economic ones (the Great Depression).
In response to the disaster, Congress intervened, establishing the Soil Erosion Service and the Prairie States Forestry Project in 1935. These centralised schemes worked with farmers in affected areas to implement soil conservation practices such as reduced tillage and tree-planting, to reduce the susceptibility of these areas to the large-scale wind-driven erosion that had caused the catastrophic dust storms. Unfortunately, the efficacy of the land management practices introduced during this period have been debated among the academic community, as many of them were abandoned at the end of the drought. Others believe that natural changes which occurred at the same time as the end of the crisis were at least equally responsible for ending the disaster.
With the election of President Biden, it remains to be seen whether the rolling back of environmental regulation across the United States under President Trump will be reversed, and whether the new President will build on the long history of environmental protection in the United States outlined in this post during his term in office.
By Laura Watson
As Europe begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and potentially lean towards a green recovery, the immediate and longer term impacts of a warming world must be considered. While we learned in a recent blog post about the interaction between climate change and disease, climate change also poses a range of other health threats for a large part of the global population. Most of the information presented below comes from a recent review of climate change and mental health.
Physical implications of warming temperatures
Warmer temperatures can have many physiological impacts. It is thought that the optimum temperature for humans is around 22oC, while exposure to higher temperatures can directly impact biochemical levels in the body. For example, differing levels of heat change the amounts of key neurotransmitters, serotonin and dopamine found in the body. High temperatures can also disrupt human temperature regulation mechanisms.
Mental implications of warming temperatures
Beyond the physical impacts, warming temperatures can also affect mental health at differing rates and times, causing a variety of impacts. Heat stress, for instance, is typically brought about by heat waves, and is associated with anxiety and mood disorders.
In warmer temperatures, people experience higher levels of discomfort, which leads to an increase in aggressiveness and hostile behaviour. Empirical evidence shows that hotter cities experience higher levels of violence than cooler cities, a phenomenon which is likely compounded further by the urban heat island effect.
However, a caveat must be issued along with these findings, because heat stress and the implications of higher temperatures can be influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political, and behavioural factors. Another factor which adds to the complexity of investigating the relationship of temperature and mental health is the wide variation in levels of exposure to high temperatures between groups across the world, making it more difficult to assess the relationship between the two.
Expansion of areas and people experiencing high temperatures
The decade between 2010-19 experienced exceptionally high temperatures, and the month of May, 2020 was one of the warmest and sunniest on record. As of June 2019, Europe had experienced 5 500-year summers over the course of 15 years (meaning record breaking temperatures were experienced during those years). For a continent not expecting to experience such high temperatures, the implications were devastating. The 2003 heat wave was the most deadly, with 70,000 deaths attributed to the extremely high summer temperatures. Since then, medical services have become more prepared, but high temperatures continue to be dangerous, especially in areas less prepared for them.
This is compounded by the urban heat island effect, wherein urban areas are much warmer than their rural surroundings. This is caused by the energy produced by so many people concentrated in a relatively small area, as well as the way urban infrastructure tends to trap heat. People in cities frequently experience higher temperatures than forecasts predict, and night-time temperatures in cities often don’t fall as much as they would be expected to. The urban heat island effect intensifies the impact of increasing heat waves on cities with climate change.
Tropical economies (before COVID-19) were growing 20% faster than the rest of the world. This means that more people will be living in areas experiencing high temperatures, at the same time as the temperatures in these regions are rising. Rural to urban migration means that there will be an increased number of people exposed to high temperatures and heat stress.
Overall, it seems that climate change has impacts beyond the atmospheric and oceanic systems, and can affect mental and physical health in ways we are only just starting to discover.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.