Changing Attitudes for a Changing Climate

Global policymakers meeting in Marrakech must promote decisive climate action to help end hunger and malnutrition.

by Carlo Scaramella.

No zodiac system has a sign for “drought”. But in parts of the world, being born in a drought year will crucially influence how you fare in life – or if you get to live at all. In Zambia, for example, it will make you 12 percent more likely to grow up stunted; it will shave years off your lifespan, damage your educational opportunities, and severely undermine your nation’s economy. We at the World Food Programme (WFP), together with the African Union, Africa’s governments and other partners, have been painstakingly researching the cost of hunger to the continent: depending on the country, we found that this can be as much as 16 percent in lost GDP – a formidable brake on development, as well as a wrecker of lives.

Even when they don’t single-handedly trigger hunger and malnutrition, extreme weather events make them worse. In the last eight years alone, climate-related disasters have displaced some 26 million people. Their fallout ripples to deadly effect: in the Philippines, 15 times as many infants will die in the two years following a typhoon as die in the typhoon itself. As I write, El Niño has been ruining crops and livelihoods from Malawi to Madagascar. When households are pushed into destitution, they cut down on their meals, eat less nutritious food, sell off everything they own and, if all else fails, leave their homelands. Around the globe, the number of refugees and internally displaced has never been higher. As populations expand, there is hardly a conflict or migration crisis in which competition over depleted resources doesn’t have a hand.

All of this tells us that if we are serious about ending hunger by 2030, as pledged under the Sustainable Development Goals, we must make climate action a priority. It will cost money, of course. But it will also save money. Economic losses due to climate-related disasters are estimated at more than US$100 million annually. In 2014 alone, over US$2o billion was sought in humanitarian aid over climate-related disasters.

At WFP, we assist some 80 million people every year – some with in-kind food, others with forms of cash support. Yet proud as we are of our ability to save lives in a crisis, we are trying to reduce the number of times we need to do so. If to feed a hungry mouth is a moral imperative, to feed the same hungry mouth, over and over, is an avowal of failure.

That is why, through climate-conscious policies and programmes, WFP strives to build people’s resilience. By working with communities and nations to bolster their capacity to withstand climate shocks, we make it less likely that they will need repeated emergency assistance. New approaches are constantly being developed. Current ones include drought insurance protection; flexible, forecast-based financing; the unlocking of funds before an expected shock occurs, rather than after it’s struck; and the reduction of risk by using food assistance as an incentive to build or upgrade communal assets – bridges, roads, school buildings, and everything that strengthens people’s rootedness and viability in the place they call home.

In North Africa, which hosts this year’s Conference of the Parties (COP), climate change compounds resource scarcity, rapid population growth and high rates of outward migration. Around the world, challenges will vary – and so will solutions. There are as many paths to climate resilience as there are countries and regions. Some of these paths will overlap. Others won’t. But this much is clear: with its explicit recognition of the link between climate change and food insecurity, last year’s Paris Agreement offers us a moral and legal template for action. Governments must now commit political will and financial resources to enacting it. They must team up with humanitarian and development organizations for their operational expertise; with civil society for its creativity and inclusivity; and with the private sector for its business acumen and delivery culture. If we are to beat hunger, partnership must be our creed – and innovation our default setting.

Carlo Scaramella is the United Nations World Food Programme’s delegate to COP 22.

Photo © WFP/Matteo Caravani.

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