From the Big Easy to the Big Apple


From the Big Easy to the Big Apple:Local to Global Impacts of Climate Change

I just arrived in New York City for the Millennium Development Goals Summit – a chance for the nations of the world to recommit to meeting eight global development goals by 2015. This trip comes right on the heels of my trip last week to New Orleans for a climate change strategy retreat. As part of that meeting, we toured the wetlands and volunteered in the Lower 9th Ward, where the impacts of Hurricane Katrina are still very much evident.

The captain of our boat tour – also a local fisherman – shared at length the impacts he and his family have seen on the wetlands and the result of those impacts on their livelihoods as fishermen. He recounted how, as the wetlands have shrunk and the area of open water has increased, their coastal communities become more vulnerable to storm surge: the wetlands act as a speed bump for the rushing water. In the Lower 9th, we saw what was once a neighborhood with rows of houses that now features a scattering of dwellings and countless overgrown lots, some with porch stairs still leading to the house that was swept away.

The story of New Orleans is not unlike stories you might hear on the coasts of Mozambique, in the highlands of Peru, on the floodplains of Bangladesh, or in the farm fields of northern Ghana. Locally and globally, climate change is affecting people: their lives and their livelihoods. In developing countries, climate change disproportionately impacts people living in extreme poverty, particularly girls and women. These individuals are the least responsible for causing climate change but are the first – and worst – to be hit.

As world leaders gather this week in New York, the climate crisis looms overhead like a dark storm cloud. The impacts of climate change threaten to reverse decades of development progress and severely impair our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, particularly MDG1 to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger by 2015. Part of MDG 1 is a target to halve the proportion of hungry people between 1990 and 2015.

Global hunger remains a challenge without climate change. Just last week, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program released the latest numbers of hungry and malnourished people: 925 million people. While the numbers represent a decrease over 2009, when numbers topped one billion, the numbers are still higher than before the food price and economic crises of 2007-2009 and higher than the number of hungry people in 1990-1992. The proportion of hungry people has decreased from 20% to 16%, but that is still a long way from the 10% that is the MDG goal. And let”s face it, 925 million hungry people is 925 million too many.

Climate change makes our job harder. It”s expected that climate change will reduce agricultural productivity in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa by as much as 50%, shorten the growing season, and contribute to decreased fisheries resources. The melting glaciers in the Andes will alter water availability, negatively impacting agricultural production. Extreme weather events, like the flooding in Pakistan, are expected to become more frequent, severe, and intense. As in those floods, natural hazards can adversely impact food security for longer than the immediate aftermath as a family”s assets are sold off, destroyed, or washed away.

Yet there”s no need to throw up our hands and give up. There are solutions to the climate crisis and to extreme poverty. These solutions require political will and a mobilized citizenry to call for and to take bold action: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions immediately and aggressively, to provide substantial assistance to help local communities adapt to climate impacts, and to improve the way we address short-term and long-term global hunger. The MDG Summit is just the time for that bold action.