Millions face climate-related hunger as seasons shift and change

New Oxfam report warns multiple climate impacts could reverse 50 years of work to end poverty

Shifting seasons are destroying harvests and causing widespread hunger - but this is just one of the multiple climate change impacts taking their toll on the world’s poorest people - concluded a new report launched by Oxfam today (6 July 2009).

The report ‘Suffering the Science - Climate Change, People and Poverty’, is being published ahead of the G8 Summit in Italy, where climate change and food security are high on the agenda. It combines the latest scientific observations on climate change, and evidence from the communities Oxfam works with in almost 100 countries around the world, to reveal how the burden of climate change is already hitting poor people hard.

The report warns that without immediate action 50 years of development gains in poor countries will be permanently lost. It says that climate-related hunger could be the defining human tragedy of this century.

Suffering the Science outlines evidence of how climate change is affecting every issue linked to poverty and development today including:

HUNGER: New research based on interviews with farmers in fifteen countries across the world reveals how once distinct seasons are shifting and rains are disappearing. Farmers from Bangladesh to Uganda and Nicaragua, no longer able to rely on generations of farming experience, are facing failed harvest after failed harvest.

AGRICULTURE: Rice and maize, two of the world’s most important crops on which hundreds of millions depend, particularly in Asia, the Americas and Africa, face significant drops in yields even under mild climate change scenarios.  Maize yields are forecast to drop by 15 per cent or more by 2020 in much of sub-Saharan Africa and in most of India. One estimate puts the loss to Africa at $2bn a year.

HEALTH: Diseases such as malaria and dengue fever that were once geographically bound are creeping to new areas where populations lack immunity or the knowledge and healthcare infrastructure to cope with them. It is estimated that climate change has contributed to an average of 150,000 more deaths from disease per year since the 1970s, with over half of those happening in Asia.

LABOR: Rising temperatures will make it impossible for people to work at the same rate on hot summer days without serious health impacts with huge ramifications for labourers paid by the hour and the wider economy. Tropical cities such as Delhi could see a drop in worker productivity of as much as 30 percent.

WATER: Water supplies are becoming so acutely challenged that several major cities including Kathmandu and La Paz which are dependent on the Himalayan and Andes glaciers may soon be unable to function.

DISASTERS: Disasters including mega fires and storms are on the rise and could triple by 2030. A record $165 billion was lost in the 2005 hurricane season alone and the insurance industry says that climate change will make the situation worse, particularly for poor people who have no access to insurance.

DISPLACEMENT: An estimated 26 million people have been displaced as a direct result of climate change and each year a million more are displaced by weather related events. Island communities from Vanuatu, Tuvalu and the Bay of Bengal have already been forced to move because of sea level rise.

"Climate change is the central poverty issue of our times,” said Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam International Executive Director. “Climate change is happening today and the world’s poorest people, who already face a daily struggle to survive, are being hit hardest. The evidence is right in front of our eyes. The human cost of climate change is as real as any redundancy or repossession notice.”

A survey of top climate scientists, also published by Oxfam today, said poor people living in low-lying coastal areas, island atolls and mega deltas and farmers are most at risk from climate change because of flooding and prolonged drought. The scientists, all contributors to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), named South Asia and Africa as climate change hotspots.

Many scientists are now sceptical that the world can limit global warming to 2°C because they do not believe that politicians are willing to agree the necessary cuts in carbon emissions, the report says. Two degrees is considered to be “economically acceptable” to rich countries however it would still mean a devastating future for 660 million people.  

Professor Diana Liverman, a leading contributor to three IPCC Assessment Reports and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee which advises the US government on climate change, said: ”If we do not make deep cuts in emissions now the changing climate will bring heat stress, sea level rise and more extreme drought and floods. Scientific observations tell us that the world is already warming and it appears that many of the most vulnerable people are starting to experience the impacts of climate change.  Organisations like Oxfam can try and help people adapt to climate change but without a serious effort to reduce warming, and in the absence of international funds for adaptation, the food, water, health and livelihoods of millions of people will be at risk.”

Oxfam’s report says that it is a bitter irony that in temperate zones the impacts of climate change will be milder – at least initially. However in the tropics, where the bulk of humanity lives, many of them in poverty, climate change is beginning to play out more erratically and harmfully.

Oxfam is calling for G8 leaders to take personal responsibility for delivering a fair and adequate global deal to tackle climate change as only political commitment at the highest level can prevent a human catastrophe. Rich industrialized countries, which created the climate crisis and have the resources to tackle it, must cut their emissions by at least 40 per cent on 1990 levels by 2020 and mobilize $150 billion per year to fund emissions reduction and adaptation in the developing world. 

“It is scandalous that our leaders continue to resist doing what’s needed, and within their power, to tackle the climate crisis,” Hobbs said. “G8 leaders, who represent the world’s richest polluting countries, must take personal responsibility for delivering a global climate deal which has the needs of the world’s poorest people at the heart.”

Download the report: Suffering the Science - Climate Change, People and Poverty

Notes to editors

Professor Diana Liverman, a scientist and a member of the new National Academy of Sciences Committee on America's Climate Choices which is advising the US government on responses to climate change is available for interview, as well as Oxfam spokespeople based across the developing world.

For strong images and personal stories go to, visit the Oxfam International Flickr site.

Survey of top climate scientists: 330 scientists who contributed to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report; Working Group II on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, were invited to take part in an on-line survey. 12.73 per cent of scientists responded. 

Oxfam International [http://www.oxfam.org] is a group of independent non-governmental organizations from Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Quebec, Spain, the UK and the US.

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