Extreme weather endangers food security worldwide

Published: 28th November 2011

Durban climate talks must deliver action to prevent spiraling hunger

In the last year extreme weather events shocked global markets contributing to soaring wheat prices and imperiling food security in many parts of the world, according to research compiled by Oxfam at the start of the Durban climate talks.

This year could be a grim foretaste of what is to come as new warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show extreme weather events are likely to increase in frequency and severity without action to tackle climate change.

“From the Horn of Africa and South East Asia to Russia and Afghanistan, a year of floods, droughts, and extreme heat has helped push tens of millions of people into hunger and poverty,” said Kelly Dent, Oxfam. “This will only get worse as climate change gathers pace and agriculture feels the heat. Governments must act now in Durban to protect our food supply and save millions from slipping into hunger and poverty.”

Oxfam’s briefing Extreme weather endangers food security 2010-11: A grim foretaste of future suffering and hunger? shows how several extreme weather events have contributed to food insecurity at global, regional and local levels since 2010. Oxfam warns that increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events will compound the projected impacts of climate change on crop yields and food prices, creating food shortages, destabilizing markets and precipitating price spikes.

  • In an area of chronic vulnerability and political conflict, severe drought in the Horn and East Africa has pushed over 13 million people into crisis. In July, sorghum prices in Somalia were up to 393% higher and maize prices in Ethiopia and Kenya up to 191% and 161% higher respectively versus the five-year average prices.
  • Drought and fires following a massive heat wave in Russia and Ukraine destroyed much of the 2010 harvest and triggered a 60% to 80% increase in global wheat prices in just three months. By April 2011, wheat prices were 85% higher on international markets than the year before.
  • Heavy monsoon rainfall and multiple typhoons in Southeast Asia have killed more than 1,100 people and helped send the price of rice up about 25% and 30% in Thailand and Vietnam respectively versus the previous year.
  • In Afghanistan serious drought helped send prices of wheat and wheat flour in July 2011 up to 79% higher in affected areas over their levels a year before.

While it is difficult to attribute a specific weather-related disaster to climate change, the frequency and severity of extreme weather events such as those seen this year is set to increase due to climate change. For the poorest and most vulnerable who spend up to 75 percent of their income on food, this could have catastrophic consequences as families are forced into impossible trade-offs in a desperate bid to feed themselves.

“When a weather event drives local or regional price spikes poor people often face a double shock,” said Dent. “They have to cope with higher food prices at a time when extreme weather may have also killed their livestock, destroyed their home or farm, or stripped them of their livelihood. This toxic mix of higher prices and lower purchasing power has driven many people into crisis this year. If we don’t act in Durban, this pattern could become even worse.” 

Recommendations for Durban

Oxfam is calling for negotiators to make progress on three key challenges.

1. They must decide that the only choice is a legally-binding climate change regime. The Kyoto Protocol is the bed-rock of international efforts to tackle climate change. It is vital that Durban builds-on, and does not roll-back, the existing regime by securing the continuation of Kyoto and an agreement that negotiations must conclude as soon as possible in a comprehensive legally-binding agreement for all countries.

2. Governments must move decisively to close the emissions gap. An unprecedented range of countries have made pledges of emissions cuts – and for the first time, it is developing countries that are pledging to cut by more than developed countries, compared to their projected levels. Still the total efforts are insufficient to avoid catastrophic global warming. In Durban governments must agree to increase their emissions cuts before 2020, after which it will be too late to keep climate change below the 2°C target agreed in Cancun (let alone the 1.5°C needed). All countries must be prepared to do their fair share of the global effort needed. 

3. Governments must deliver the long-term finance to help poor people tackle climate change. By 2013 the Green Climate Fund must be up and running. The recommendations made by the Transitional Committee to design the fund should be adopted in full, and attempts by the US or anyone else to re-open these negotiations must be resisted. Vital provisions that ensure developing countries will control how money is spent at the national level, and that the needs and voices of women will be at the heart of the fund, must be protected.

But the fund cannot become an empty shell. The Durban climate talks must ensure that developed country promises to deliver $100 billion per year by 2020 become a reality. Governments must ensure there is no gap in funding after the $30 billion commitment made in Copenhagen to “Fast Start Finance” ends in 2012, and that revenues will be progressively scaled-up thereafter. A deal is possible in Durban to generate substantial new revenues from a fair carbon charge on the high and rising emissions from international shipping and aviation, which governments should seize.

“Durban will not deliver everything that is required of an effective global response to climate change,” said Dent. “But governments must build on the past, by continuing Kyoto, planning for a future legal deal to further slash emissions before 2020, and by mobilising the finance poor people need now to cope with climate change.”

When a weather event drives local or regional price spikes poor people often face a double shock
Kelly Dent

Notes to editors

Contact information

Ben Grossman-Cohen: +1202-629-6018 or +27 81 5820706 (SA number), bgrossman-cohen@oxfamamerica.org

Georgette Thomas: +44 (0)7824 503108 or +27 81 5820726, GThomas@oxfam.org.uk 

Nthateng Mhlambiso: +27 79 752 4039 NthatengM@oxfam.org.au