Our escalating climate crisis is also a humanitarian crisis. Even if rising temperatures are kept within 1.5°C of pre-industrial levels (we are currently on track for 2.7°C), the world can expect worsening global food crises, biodiversity loss, more frequent extreme weather events, and shorter growing seasons in the future. Fresh water will become scarcer, and disease and malnutrition will increase, fueling displacement and conflict.
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These consequences are borne disproportionately by poorer countries, which contribute the least to the problem. For example, the total greenhouse gas emissions of the 27 most vulnerable countries that are already hunger hotspots (and have the fewest financial resources to cope and adapt) are less than 5% of total G7 emissions. Those already experiencing marginalisation and gender-based inequalities, particularly women and girls, communities already living in extreme poverty, and those who rely on agriculture, are the hardest hit.
HUNGER AND MALNUTRITION: Climate change has serious consequences for people’s diets and nutrition. Reduced access to nutritious foods degrades nutritional status and reduces resilience, especially in low-income communities. Eight out of ten of the 35 countries most vulnerable to climate change are already suffering from severe food insecurity. Over 117 million people are suffering from crisis or worse-case hunger in just these 27 countries. Even in circumstances where disasters and drastic changes in climate change are unlikely to have an immediate impact, nutrition and health outcomes are likely to deteriorate.
Climate change affects maternal, neonatal, and child health through maternal nutrition, environmental risks, and infectious disease.
Nearly one-third of children in the 27 food-insecure countries most vulnerable to climate change suffer from chronic malnutrition and stunting (which impairs their ability to learn and develop) or acute malnutrition, which can be fatal. According to one global study, higher temperatures are associated with less dietary diversity in five of six regions. Higher CO2 emissions could cause an additional 138 million people to be zinc deficient by 2050, with children and pregnant or lactating women bearing a disproportionate burden due to their heightened nutritional needs.
LIVESTOCK, YIELDS, AND FISHERIES:
Malnutrition and insufficient access to nutritional needs affected 2.37 billion people in 2020. Climate change is expected to have an impact on livestock yield quantity and quality, reproduction, growth rates, increased temperature-related stress and deaths, feed quality, and the spread of pests, ruminant and zoonotic diseases. Because of increased runoff and reduced groundwater resources, livestock will have less access to water. At 2°C, a 7-10% decline in livestock is expected globally, with associated economic losses ranging from $9.7 to $12.6 billion.
Increased temperatures, ocean acidification, disease, parasites and pathogens, and other factors are affecting fisheries and hatching grounds (which are critical to the food security of many vulnerable countries). Rising sea levels and storm intensification add to the danger.
GENDER INEQUALITIES: Women, children, marginalized groups, and poor communities bear the brunt of climate change. Women and children are 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster, and women are often the most vulnerable to displacement: the UN Development Programme estimates that 80% of climate-displaced people are women. When lower yields mean lower income and food scarcity, women and girls are frequently the first to eat less. Women are unable to develop land to meet and adapt to their nutrition needs due to a lack of land rights, and they are frequently excluded from decisions on how to address climate challenges.
FOOD PRICES: Increased demand for dwindling resources, changes in tax and subsidy regimes, and changes in fossil fuel availability and prices (as a result of the global shift to more resource-intensive, meat-based diets) are limiting access to adequate nutrition for less-affluent communities, particularly women and children.
BIODIVERSITY LOSS: The World Economic Forum declared in 2021 that biodiversity loss is the third greatest threat to humanity, trailing only weapons of mass destruction and state collapse. Since the 1900s, farmers around the world have swapped local varieties for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties, and today only 12 crops and five animal species provide 75% of the food we produce. Climate change, ecosystem destruction, and hunger have all been exacerbated by the loss of agricultural diversity.
THE CONDITION OF OUR OCEAN: Sea levels are rising, as are heat storage and acidification levels in our oceans, reducing the ocean’s ability to moderate climate change. Rising sea levels result in saltwater intrusion into freshwater aquifers, flooding in low-lying areas, and land loss. The degradation of coastal ecosystems reduces protection against storms, tsunamis, and other sudden occurrences, leaving people exposed and vulnerable, and increasing their risk of displacement. If nothing is done, between 145 million and 565 million people who live in coastal areas today will be exposed to and affected by rising sea levels in the future.
WATER AND SANITATION: Changing rainfall patterns are exacerbating water scarcity in some areas and are expected to exacerbate tensions over river catchment access. At the same time, rising temperatures raise the demand for water among plants, animals, and humans. Climate change has the potential to reverse progress in improving access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, and good hygiene, pushing more people into extreme poverty.
CONFLICT AND CLIMATE SECURITY: Climate change is increasingly viewed as a threat to national security and a source of global conflict, with climate-related risks accounting for the majority of the World Economic Forum’s 2021 threat report.
30 The potential security ramifications are far-reaching and complex, and they are already being felt in vulnerable areas. According to the 2019 IPCC31 Climate Change and Land report, extreme weather and climate may lead to increased displacement and conflict. The eight worst food crises in 2019 were linked to both the effects of climate change and conflict. Additional crises, such as Covid-19, complicate matters. In the absence of climate change mitigation, climate projections predict a 54% increase in armed conflict (393,000 deaths) by 2030.