Our ability as human beings to dramatically and adversely impact on our environment, and consequently on the lives of millions of people, has grown enormously in recent decades. This is usually depicted as the reason for devastating floods, the threat to our eco system and other grave environmental issues. The knock-on effect of this in terms of the relationship between climate change, hunger, disease and conflict is not always appreciated.
Last year the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) set by World Leaders at a special UN conference in 2015 officially came into force. Their objective is to end all forms of poverty, inequality and to tackle climate change. It also includes the objective of eradicating hunger and preventing malnutrition worldwide by 2030. While these goals are not legally binding governments are expected to establish policies to achieve them.
Last month the United Nations produced its first report on the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Entitled, ‘Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017’ it makes for depressing and distressing reading. It reveals that following 15 years of less people experiencing hunger the numbers jumped dramatically between 2015 and 2016. It went up by 38 million from 777 million to 815 million people going hungry. That’s 11% of the world’s population.
There are a variety of reasons for this increase, including the desire to secure new resources, especially energy (oil, coal, and gas) and water. This has often precipitated invasion and war. That was evident in the recent wars in Libya and Iraq, and is especially evident in the ongoing Israeli occupation and theft of Palestinian water from the River Jordan valley.
However, the effects of climate change, largely created by the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal, and the results of drought, flooding and storm damage are also now playing an increasing role in the growing number of conflicts around the world. The UN report concludes that; ‘conflict is a key driver of situations of severe food crisis and recently re-emerged famines while hunger and undernutrition are significantly worse where conflicts are prolonged and institutional capacities weak.’
In the last seven years conflicts between states worldwide has increased by 60%. Violent conflicts within states have jumped by 125%. The UN report states that over half of those experiencing hunger – 489 million people – live in states where there is violence. A study carried out in Africa and Asia and covering the 25 years between 1989 to 2014, found that the “risk of conflict increases for each year of growing season drought … With climate change, the risk of extreme weather-related events increases as does the variability in rainfall. If left unaddressed, climate change should therefore be expected to have an increasing impact on the risk of conflict outbreaks.”
Currently, there are 64 million citizens displaced as a consequence of conflict and suffering from food insecurity, famine and disease. Many of these are in the band of countries across sub-Saharan Africa, Syria and Yemen. In the latter country it is expected that up to a million people will have cholera by the end of this year and a quarter of these will be children.
Last week a further example of the detrimental impact of human activity was highlighted in a scientific study from Germany, published in the journal PLOS One. It revealed that between 1989 and 2016 the numbers of insects in protected nature reserves had decreased alarmingly by a seasonal average of 76%. Scientists are concerned because insects are key pollinators in the food chain, as well as providing food for other animals. The implication of this is enormous.
The increasing use of pesticides is considered a probable reason for this and climate change has also been cited as impacting on insect numbers.
Dave Goulson, who is a professor of life sciences and the study’s co-author, said: “Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth but there has been some kind of horrific decline. We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”
A key weapon in our line of defence against climate change is the Paris climate agreement which was signed in late 2015 by 194 countries. The agreement seeks to limit any increase in global average temperatures to “well below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels” It also says that it aims to “pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, This means limiting and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
However, the Paris agreement is now under threat as a result of a decision by President Trump to withdraw the USA from the accord. The United States is the second largest polluter behind China. President Trump’s decision was recently described by the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, whose country was devastated by Hurricane Irma in September as “the most backward step” that the US government “has ever taken.” Regrettably it reflects President Trump’s hostility to climate change which he has described as a ‘Chinese hoax’.
Further evidence of this governmental shift against climate change by the US government was highlighted earlier this month when the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency produced its’ strategic plan for the next four years. The plan doesn’t mention climate change, or greenhouse gas emissions, or carbon dioxide - the major cause of global warming. And as if to reinforce the US administration’s rejection of climate change the Republican party successfully cleared the way in the US Senate earlier this month, to overturn a ban on oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
The impact of climate change on our society and our environment is the gravest threat to life on our planet. The recent Hurricanes in the Caribbean and USA, and Storm Ophelia which caused huge disruption across this island and led to three deaths, are evidence of the impact of climate change. Urgent action is needed. Without it we will exhaust our natural resources and undermine the biodiversity needed for all life to exist. Collectively we risk a human tragedy in the 21st century unparalleled in the thousands of years of human experience.