Climate change and hunger

Oct 6, 2021, 11:20 AM

Human actions have created a world in which it is becoming ever more difficult to adequately and sustainably feed and nourish the human population.

A 150-year run of rapid economic growth and a consequent rise in greenhouse gas emissions have pushed average global temperatures to 1°C above preindustrial levels. Experts agree that with the current rate of emissions, the increase in average global temperatures will likely reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052. Climate models project higher average temperatures in most land and ocean regions, hot extremes in the majority of inhabited regions, and heavy precipitation and ever-greater probability of drought in some areas (IPCC 2018a).

These changes will increasingly affect human systems—including food systems—across the world on a large scale. In South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara—regions currently with high concentrations of poverty and hunger—agriculture is highly dependent on rainfall and susceptible to even small changes in temperature. Large populations (up to 80 percent of rural households in some countries) depend on agriculture for their livelihoods, and it is the regions in which these populations reside that are most at risk of climate change–induced hunger and food insecurity.

For the world’s hungry and undernourished people, climate change is an increasingly relevant threat multiplier. Almost 822 million people remain undernourished, and 149 million children are stunted because of undernutrition (FAO et al. 2019). In addition, more than 2 billion people suffer from deficiencies of one or more micronutrients (von Grebmer et al. 2014). Previously on the decline, the number of hungry people has been rising since 2015, a shift that the Food and Agriculture Organization has attributed to persistent instability in conflict-ridden regions, economic slowdowns in more peaceful regions, and adverse climate events (FAO 2018b). For example, the El Niño weather event of 2015–2016—which was exacerbated by higher sea surface temperatures, among other factors—led to widespread food insecurity and hunger in multiple countries. Since the early 1990s, the number of extreme weather–related disasters has doubled, affecting the productivity of major crops and causing food price hikes and income losses (FAO et al. 2018). These disasters have had a disproportionate negative impact on people living in poverty and their access to food.

One of the major blind spots in climate change decision making has been the framing of climate change as a biophysical challenge— that is, one driven by carbon emissions privileges, carbon sequestration capacity, and emissions reduction—rather than as an outcome of consumption, economic growth, and societal choices (Pelling, O’Brien, and Matyas 2014). In reality, the risks posed by climate change are the result of a range of underlying causes driven by societal values and behaviors, including production and consumption patterns, and human population. Only in recent years have discussions about climate change been reframed to focus on human lifestyles and consumption choices, equity of responsibility, associated impacts, and climate justice. This shift is a necessary step toward building societal consensus for the sweeping changes needed in current economic, consumption, and value systems, especially in high-income countries, to avoid the resulting catastrophic outcomes, including worsening hunger and undernutrition, of a significantly warmer world in the near future.

Human-caused factors, including the global food system, are raising average global temperatures by 0.2°C per decade (IPCC 2018a). Extreme weather events, such as storms, fires, floods, and droughts, have increased in frequency and intensity. Globally, the average sea level has risen by 16–21 centimeters since 1900 (IPCC 2014). All of these manifestations of climate change have direct and indirect negative impacts on food security and hunger through changes in food production and availability, access, quality, utilization, and stability of food systems.

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