Shift in seasons will bring hunger for millions

By agency reporter
July 7, 2009

The impact of climate change in poor countries is leading to a shift in seasons that is destroying harvests and causing widespread hunger according to a new report launched yesterday by the international aid agency, Oxfam.

The report comes as the UK faces its biggest heat wave in three years and warns that people living in poor countries, particularly outdoor workers and agricultural laborers, are experiencing dramatic losses to their livelihoods and severe impacts upon their health as temperatures rise across the globe.

The report ‘Suffering the Science - Climate Change, People and Poverty’, is published ahead of the G8 Summit in Italy, where climate change and food security are high on the agenda.

Oxfam hopes that the bulk of human evidence presented in the report will push leaders to deliver a fair and safe climate deal before the end of the year, with emissions cuts of at least 40 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 and $150 billion per year to fund emissions reduction and adaptation in the developing world.

The report combines the latest scientific observations on climate change and evidence from the communities with which Oxfam works in almost 100 countries around the world, revealing how the burden of climate change is already hitting poor people hard.

The report warns that without immediate action, 50 years of development gains are under threat. It says that climate-related hunger will be the defining human tragedy of this century unless urgent action is taken ahead of the UN Conference to renew the Kyoto Protocol in December.

New research based on interviews with farmers in fifteen countries across the world reveals how once-distinct seasons are shifting and rains are now disappearing. Poor farmers from Bangladesh to Uganda and Nicaragua, no longer able to rely on generations of farming experience, are facing the repeated failure of their harvests. Rice and maize, two of the world’s most important crops on which hundreds of millions depend, particularly in Asia, the Americas and Africa, face significant drops in yields even under even milder climate change scenarios. Maize yields are forecast to drop by at least 15 per cent by 2020 in much of sub-Saharan Africa and in most of India.

Scientists in the region are now saying that Africa should prepare to see a 50 per cent drop in all cereal yields by 2080.

Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever which were once geographically limited, are creeping into new areas where populations lack immunity or the knowledge and healthcare infrastructure to cope with them. It is estimated that climate change has contributed to an average of 150,000 more deaths from disease per year since the 1970s. Over half those deaths are in Asia and 85 per cent of them are children.

The report suggests that rising temperatures will make it impossible for people to work at the same rate on hot summer days without serious health impacts. This will have huge ramifications for labourers paid by the hour and for the wider economy. Cities such as Delhi could see a drop in worker productivity by as much as 30 percent.

Disasters including extreme fires and storms are on the rise and could triple by 2030. A record $165 billion was lost in the 2005 hurricane season alone and the insurance industry says that climate change will make the situation worse, particularly for poor people who have no access to insurance.

An estimated 26 million people have been displaced as a direct result of climate change and each year a million more are displaced by weather related events. Island communities from Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Bay of Bengal have already been forced to move because of rising sea levels.

Across the world the effects of climate change on agriculture will be grossly unbalanced, says the report. It is estimated that whilst US agricultural profits are set to rise by $1.3 billion per year because of climate change, sub Saharan Africa alone will lose $ 2billion per year as the viability of just one crop, maize, declines.

“Climate change is happening here and now and the world’s poorest people are being hit the hardest, said Oxfam CEO Barbara Stocking. “The overwhelming bulk of evidence, from every corner of the globe, is right in front of our eyes and cannot be ignored. Finding a solution to climate change cannot be left to our grandchildren. We have to face up to the challenges that are bearing down on poor people and for many 2009 is the most important year in human history.”

The report say that many scientists are now sceptical that the world can limit global warming to 2°C because they do not believe that politicians are willing to agree the necessary cuts in carbon emissions. Two degrees is considered to be “economically acceptable” to rich countries. However it would still mean a devastating future for 660 million people.

Professor Diana Liverman, a contributor to three IPCC Assessment Reports and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee which advises the US government on climate change, said: “If we do not make deep cuts in emissions now, the changing climate will bring heat stress, sea level rise and more extreme drought and floods. Scientific observations tell us that the world is already warming and many of the most vulnerable people are starting to experience the impacts of climate change.

"Organisations like Oxfam can try and help people adapt to climate change but without a serious effort to reduce warming, and in the absence of international funds for adaptation, the food, water, health and livelihoods of millions of people will be at risk.”

Oxfam is calling for G8 leaders to take personal responsibility for delivering a fair and adequate global deal to tackle climate change as only political commitment at the highest level can prevent a human catastrophe.

“G8 leaders, who represent the world’s richest polluting countries, must do the right thing and deliver a global climate deal this December that has the needs of the world’s poorest people at its heart,” said Stocking.

You can read the report ‘Suffering the Science - Climate Change, People and Poverty’ in full here

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