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 Emily Passmore
Although we are all affected by climate change, we are not all affected to the same degree. Those in poverty, who are most reliant on natural resources and least able to adapt and rebuild following natural disasters, are most severely impacted by the effects of climate change. As women make up 70% of those in poverty worldwide, they are more vulnerable to climate change than men. Tackling climate change fairly requires a sensitivity to this gender disparity, but we must guard against slips into gender essentialism in the climate movement.
Patriarchal structures and climate
Women’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change stems from oppressive social, economic and cultural institutions. Women are not only more likely than men to live in poverty, but patriarchal structures also often mean that women are more locked into poverty than men. For example, they are excluded from ownership of land and property, making up 50-80% of the world’s food production workforce yet owning only 10% of the land. They are therefore reliant on others for their livelihoods and homes, and are often unable to make proactive changes to adapt to climate change. Furthermore, motherhood often means women are less able to move around for work or in the aftermath of climate disasters.
Despite these challenges, women are often in the best position to design and implement ways to adapt to climate change. For example, women in Latin America have designed new, more sustainable ways to farm, such as patio gardens, applying their existing knowledge of how to source and provide food to a new problem. Policies designed solely by men are likely to miss out on these insights, thereby creating less effective solutions, or perhaps ignoring certain climate issues altogether as they have simply never had to think about issues specifically faced by women.
A just climate movement must platform women’s voices – however, it is important to remember that women’s experiences are incredibly diverse. A truly feminist climate movement cannot just include white 'Western' women and believe it can speak to the problems faced by all women. What we need is an intersectional approach to climate, acknowledging the ways in which both racial and gender hierarchies, along with countless other axes of oppression, combine to make different groups more or less vulnerable.
It is clear that women are a key part of a just climate movement, and can provide key insights on how to move forward. However, some have taken this argument further, claiming that women are innately more suited to tackling the climate crisis—it is said they are inherently more altruistic and caring than men, and as givers of life, far more suited to protect the world. Nature is often characterised as feminine – think of Mother Earth. This perspective can sometimes tip into assigning responsibility for nature to women, seeing them as connected to the environment on some deeper level.
This gender essentialism, claiming that differences between men and women are at least in some way innate rather than socially constructed, cannot play a part in any truly just climate movement. Though claiming to empower women, it in fact reduces them to a caring role, embedding existing stereotypes and assigning women responsibility for a problem they are largely not responsible for, particularly in the case of women from the developing world, while absolving men of responsibility.
A feminist climate movement must therefore acknowledge the increased violence women suffer as a result of climate change, and tap into the insights women have on fighting climate change thanks to their roles in society, while at the same time guarding against a regressive gender essentialism that threatens to segregate the fight for a sustainable future.
We are all part of the environment, and we all have a duty protect it; theories advocating this theoretical equality, whilst acknowledging the historical factors making some more susceptible to or responsible for climate change, are the most progressive way forward for the climate movement. Take hydrofeminism, which sees each of us as a watery body, taking things in and giving things out alongside every other body on Earth. We can and should acknowledge humanity’s connection with nature – however, unlike so many other aspects of the climate crisis, this connection is not gendered.
Image credit: Pascal Bernardon, Unsplash
Event summary by Laura Watson
Professor Joni Seager:
Links between gender and climate change can most easily be seen in the differential impacts of climate change. However, the impacts of climate change ripple through society along lines of vulnerability not limited to gender. The impacts of natural disasters are particularly notable, often exacerbating existing social issues; and the recovery from natural disasters also tends to be biased against women.
In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the connections between the drivers of—and solutions to—climate change and gender. For example, overconsumption, considered a key contributor to climate change, is a gendered behaviour, due to masculine and feminine identities and the consumer habits these identities encourage. Further, around the world, studies have shown that women are more perceptive of climate and environmental issues and potential solutions to climate change, and thus their role in building a sustainable future cannot be overlooked.
Lorena Aguilar Revelo:
As the impacts of climate change become more significant, and more people become vulnerable to these impacts, women are often portrayed as passive victims. But, in reality, they are often agents of change.
There are some links between climate change and gender that we are only just starting to research. For example, sea level rise and its associated rise in water salinity has been linked to an increase in complications during pregnancy for women in affected areas. There may be many more links between climate change and gender that we do not yet know about: this area requires more research.
Gender has now become a guiding principle at climate change Conferences Of Parties (COPs), but much more can done to address this constantly evolving issue.
Q: Women are often seen as passive victims of environmental degradation, but key figures in environmental movements are often women – why do you think this trend exists?
Joni: Joni favours a structural explanation: that crises cause fractures along pre-existing social lines, and those more vulnerable are more likely to perceive these threats to their wellbeing
Lorena: Women often see issues more readily, and pay attention to them. It should however be recognised that not all women act in the same way and come into discussions for different reasons.
Q: Have you seen governments become more likely to take equality implementation more seriously now its so clearly linked with climate change?
Lorena: Gender has to be addressed in any project addressing climate change in order for funding to be given, so it is now an addressed part of climate action.
Joni: There has been progress in equality over the decades, but it is fragile and halting. Gender requirements can be seen as a box people have to tick, and gender is often done for the purposes of ticking this box rather than as an issue which needs to be tackled for its own value.
Joni: Gender is part of the toolkit for action on climate change, and in the face of crisis, it is a part of the toolkit which cannot afford to be left behind.
Lorena: No amount of planning can mitigate the impacts of climate change, and there are uncertainties surrounding humanity's capacity to act.
To watch the rest of this speaker event, please head to our Youtube channel here.
About the speakers:
Joni Seager is a feminist geographer and Professor of Global Studies at Bentley University in Boston. She is the author of author of many books on gender equity and global environmental policy, including her award-winning feminist classic 'The Women’s Atlas', 'The State of the Environment Atlas', and 'Earth Follies: Coming to Feminist Terms With the Global Environmental Crisis'. She has been an active consultant with the United Nations on several gender and environmental policy projects, including consulting with the UNEP on integrating gender perspectives into their work on disasters and early warming systems, and with UNESCO and the Division on Economic and Social Affairs on gender in water policy.
Lorena Aguilar is the Regional Coordinator of International Cooperation and Research at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO). She previously served as Costa Rica’s Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and Worship where she participated in the development of the first Decarbonisation Plan for the country and lead the UNFCCC “unconventional 25 Pre-COP”. Until 2018, Lorena was also Global Senior Gender Advisor and Global Director of the Governance and Rights Program of the International Union for Conversation of Nature (IUCN). She has been a pioneer in the creation of international international gender networks such as the Network of Women Minister and Leaders of the Environment and the Global Gender and Climate Alliance (GGCA).
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