Hunger and Climate Change: A Double Injustice

Hunger and Climate Change: A Double Injustice

Publication info

Sven Harmeling

The global fight against hunger is characterized by both success stories and daily suffering. Recent reports by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) show that there has been progress in reducing the absolute number of undernourished people, from 1 billion in 1992 to around 805 million today. The FAO also says that approximately 2 billion people suffer from so-called “hidden hunger”, characterized by the deficiency of micronutrients.

However, that there are still so many poor people going hungry is a gross injustice and a violation of people’s human rights. The right to adequate food is, according to the UN “realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has the physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.” Different factors are used to determine people’s ability to realize their right to adequate food. First, food must be available, which means that poor people can obtain it either by producing it themselves, or buying it from functioning distribution systems. It must be accessible both physically and economically, which means people must have the means to ensure they can have an adequate diet without compromising their basic needs. Finally, the food must be adequate, meaning it must satisfy the dietary needs of every individual.

In today’s highly connected and modern world, which has seen massive economic growth and poverty reduction in recent decades, it must be possible for humankind to realize such a basic human right for everyone. However, there is another statistic that tells us where part of the problem lies. A significant share of the world’s population, an estimated half a billion adults, mostly in the richer world, are estimated to be over nourished. While there may be different reasons for this for each individual, this situation also indicates that overconsumption, and food wastage lies at the root of the problem. We produce enough food on our planet to feed everyone. Therefore, simply pulling out the stops to increase production is not the solution.

All aspects of food security are potentially affected by climate change

There is one overarching trend that is already impacting on poor people’s food supply today: climate change. The simple fact is that climate change is already and will increasingly make it even harder for people to realize their right to food. And the fact that climate change is primarily caused by a small minority of the global population, while the poorest are most affected by its impacts, creates another major injustice. Hunger and climate change are inextricably linked – and represent a double injustice for the world’s poorest people.

This challenge has been made very clear by the second part of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 5th Assessment Report, released in April this year. The report focused on the impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities related to climate change with particular emphasis on observed impacts. In recent years, several periods of rapid food and cereal price increases following climate extremes in key producing regions of the world indicate that markets are extremely sensitive to changes in climatic conditions. The urban poor, often on very low incomes, are particularly vulnerable to undernourishment, chronic hunger and loss of assets when spikes in food prices follow crop failures. Bangladesh is a case in point. As a net food importer, it is projected to see a 15% rise in poverty by 2030 due to climate related food price rises.

Climate and poverty have been found to be the two dominant causal factors in food insecurity in Southern Africa and, across the continent, climate change is projected to contribute to declining nutrition. The number of undernourished children under 5 is projected to rise from 5 to 52 million by 2050 due to climate change and other socioeconomic factors. Climate change is already affecting crop and food production in several regions with predominantly negative effects. Without any adaptation measures, local temperature increases of more than 1°C are projected to reduce yields for the major crops such as wheat, rice and maize in tropical and temperate regions. By 2030 it is likely that adaptation responses, such as shifting to crops like cassava that are more resilient to temperature extremes, will not be enough to counter the effects of climate change on yields.

Food losses push people into chronic poverty

Elevated CO2 levels also negatively affect the nutritional quality of food, including that of proteins and micronutrients. Equally, drought threatens the loss of livestock in Africa where extensive rangelands in the North and South are projected to become drier. Vector-borne livestock diseases may also expand their range with rising temperatures. In many regions, poor pastoralists are already being affected by chronic poverty when livestock assets are lost. In parts of South East Asia, sea-level rise is already inundating fertile coastal areas. Tropical and sub-tropical countries are set to experience the worst losses and also have some of the highest poverty rates, meaning citizens at these latitudes are often the least able to cope with additional climate-related shocks and stresses. Rural areas are expected to experience major impacts on water availability and supply, food security, infrastructure, and agricultural incomes.

In all cases the initial losses can and do push people from transient into chronic poverty. Women-headed households, children, people in informal settlements and indigenous communities are particularly at risk, due to compounding stressors such as lack of government support, urban infrastructure, and insecure land tenure.

Climate change action: a driver for more just and sustainable food systems

However, the IPCC report is not only about the problems, it also outlines solutions for a more sustainable global food system which delivers on the vision of eliminating hunger and realizing the right to food, while also reducing the global food system’s contribution to dangerous levels of global warming.

Adaptation to climate change impacts can help poor people better manage the storms, droughts and other climate-related events. In recent years, CARE has gained a range of experience in this area. For example, the Where the Rain Falls project explores the circumstances under which households use migration as an adaptation strategy when faced with rainfall variability and food and livelihood insecurity. Through Farmer Field Schools in Ghana and Kenya, CARE has been working with farmers to experiment with climate resilient farming techniques and crop varieties. This allows local communities to observe and analyze how and why some methods work, while others fail, and enables farmers to make more informed decisions about local food supply in face of climate change.

However, it is also clear that long-term changes such as sea-level rise and the acidification of our oceans will go beyond what people can manage to adapt to on their own. There is increasing recognition that loss and damage from climate change impacts can no longer be avoided, and the slower we are to cut emissions now, or to shift to sustainable renewable energies and more efficient energy use, the higher the bill will be, both in terms of lives lost and economic costs. It is a moral imperative and an obligation of global human rights to help those whose are most at risk.

Finally, the IPCC’s analyses also show that behavior, lifestyle and culture have a considerable influence on energy use and associated emissions. Emissions can be substantially lowered through changes in consumption patterns, adoption of energy savings measures, dietary change and reduction in food waste.

The IPCC holds lessons for us all, for our daily lives, and in terms of what we demand from our governments and businesses as we urge them to work for more just and sustainable economies and societies where hunger can eventually be eradicated. 


Floods have affected the residential areas in Niger. © 2013 Hadjara Moumine/CARE