Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Human Face of Climate Change (Or Why I'm Fasting Today)

When you think about the climate crisis, which of these two images stands out as the face of climate change?

Chances are, the polar bear cub is more closely associated with global warming in your mind than the two Sudanese children on the right. Global warming may threaten one quarter to one half of all species on the planet with extinction if left unchecked, and the unprecedented human-caused loss of so many of our cousins on this small blue globe certainly conjures up images of one of the most charismatic species threatened by our warming planet: the polar bear.

But what about the human face of climate change?

Global warming certainly poses an unprecedented environmental and ecological catastrophe and preserving the habitats and species threatened by the climate crisis may be motivation enough to tackle the challenge. But the climate crisis doesn't just threaten cute and cuddly animals and their less charismatic cousins. I would argue that the real face of climate change is, or should be, a human face.

The second of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's reports released this year detailed the human impacts and vulnerabilities of climate change and it painted a bleak picture of starvation, thirst and extreme weather impacts (see pdf).

Today, I join over eleven hundred others in the Climate Emergency Fast to raise awareness of these human impacts of climate change. Today, as Congress returns from recess and Americans return to work after a long Labor Day weekend, hundreds of us will make a small sacrifice to send a message: It’s time for our leaders, at all levels of government, to take action to solve the climate crisis!

Today, will feel hunger and remember that as global warming intensifies, it will bring with it much more extensive hunger worldwide, especially in poorer countries, as drought, intense storms, glacial melting and sea level rise take their toll. Many are begin fasts today that will last much longer than one day.

Join me today in taking a closer look at the human face of climate change.

Hunger, Thirst, Floods and Disease: the Human Impacts of Climate Change

"As the world gets hotter by degrees, millions of poor people will suffer from hunger, thirst, floods and disease unless drastic action is taken."

That was the Associated Press's summary of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) second working group report, entitled Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability (pdf). The report, released in April by the IPCC, a UN network of thousands of climate scientists, details the impacts of climate change, particularly those affecting human populations. The report is a true consensus document assembled by literally thousands of scientists and unanimously approved by the 120-plus governments that participate, including representatives of the Bush Administration.

Despite the high level of consensus required of the document, and a deadline-busting contentious final editing session described by the AP article, the IPCC report was nonetheless the strongest authoritative warning that all the world's nations must take concrete actions to address the climate crisis or hundreds of millions of human lives will be impacted, impoverished or lost.

The picture the report paints is bleak, yet preventable, and we should use it to help keep in mind the human face of climate change.

Here's what the report warns is in store if we do not rise to the climate challenge:

  • Water shortages: water is the stuff of life, yet climate change will mean water shortages and reduced water supplies for literally billions of people. The IPCC reports that while total annual water availability may increase in higher latitudes and in some wet tropical areas, water supplies will likely decrease in already dryer and water-stressed regions. Drought-stricken areas will increase and droughts are projected to become more severe.

    Additionally, warming temperatures will mean less precipitation falls as snow, being captured in snowpack and glaciers. This will make river flows more seasonal and make summer months - when snow and glacier melt traditionally keeps rivers flowing - more prone to drought while increasing the incidence of winter and spring flooding. According to the IPCC, water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover will decline, reducing water availability in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges including the Himalayas in Asia, the Andes in South America and the Cascades/Sierras and Rockies in North America. This could affect areas home to one-sixth of the total world population!

    The IPCC projects that between 75 and 250 million Africans will face increased water shortages due to climate change and more than a billion people in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia will be adversely affected by reduced freshwater availability. Water security problems in Australia, already a consistent problem, are projected to intensify by 2030 and areas in the United States' Dessert Southwest will face more frequent and severe drought.

    When coupled with growing populations and increasing standards of living, demand for clean, fresh water will clearly increase, putting further stress on water supplies reduced by climate change.

  • Food and Famine: Reduced water supplies not only threaten drinking water availability, but also present a clear problem for agriculture. The IPCC projects that while on average, worldwide crop productivity may increase slightly with the first couple degrees of warming, further warming will mean crop yields will likely plummet and regional yields, especially in seasonally dry equatorial areas, are projected to decrease even with small temperature increases.

    As would be expected, more frequent and severe droughts and floods (see above) are projected to ravage local agricultural activities.

    Agricultural production in many African countries is projected to be "severely compromised by climate variability and change," the IPCC reports, which would "further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition on the continent." In some countries, agricultural yields may be cut in half, the IPCC reports.

    Crop yields may increase by up to 20% in East and Southeast Asia while falling up to 30% in Central and South Asia by mid-century, the IPCC reports. "Taken together," the report says, "and considering the influence of rapid population growth and urbanization, the risk of hunger is projected to remain very high in several developing countries" in Asia.

    Productivity from agriculture is projected to decline over much of Australia's southern and eastern regions, home to the large bulk of the country's population and it's major breadbasket. This summer, Australians got a sneak preview of what's to come, as their Prime Minister told them to pray for rain as prolonged drought forced Australians to consider cutting off water for irrigation in order to supply drinking water for urban areas. This year, just enough rain fell in June and July to forestall this dire outcome, but will Australian's be so lucky in years to come?

  • Rising seas: The IPCC report predicts that coastal areas will be exposed to increased coastal erosion due to climate change and the resulting sea-level rise and the effect will be exacerbated by increased population pressures along coastal areas. Coastal wetlands, important flood and storm protection barriers, will be lost to rising seas at the same time they are being lost to human development activities, making coastal populations more vulnerable to hurricanes, tsunamis and monsoons.

    "Many millions more" people are expected to be flooded every year due to sea level rise, the report projects. Densely-populated low-lying areas like the 'mega-delta' areas of Asia and African including broad areas of Bangladesh, India and China will b particularly vulnerable, as will small, low-lying islands. Whole island nations may be lost and their populations relocated.

    As usual, adaptation in poorer, developing countries will be more difficult, placing these populations at higher risk.

  • Spreading diseases and death: Climate change is expected to negatively affect the health of millions of people, particularly in poorer countries through:
    -increased malnutrition;
    -increased death, disease and injury from heat waves, floods, storms, fires, droughts and other extreme weather events;
    -increases in diarrhoeal disease;
    -increased heart and respiratory diseases due to high concentrations of ground-level ozone and smog due to rising temperatures;
    -several infectious diseases, including malaria, will be wider spread due to increased habitable areas of important vectors like mosquitoes.
    The report does note that climate change will likely bring fewer deaths from cold exposure, but these benefits will be "outweighed by the negative health effects of rising temperatures worldwide, especially in developing countries."

  • Flood, fire, heatwaves and storms: Extreme weather events including floods, forest fires, heatwaves and hurricanes are all expected to become either more frequent or more intense as the planet warms.

  • So we've got thirst, famine, disease, floods, droughts, and storms - all some pretty Biblical stuff with millions of human lives caught in the cross hairs.

    I don't write all of this to depress us - the good news is that much of this is still avoidable, including the worst affects of climate change, if we act now.

    I write this to remind us that the face of climate change is a very human face indeed. Literally billions of humans will be negatively affected by the climate crisis, with those in poorer, developing countries feeling the brunt of the warming world's effects.

    So next time you think about climate change, don't just think about the loss of countless species, some even as cute and cuddly as penguins and polar bears. Their loss is a tragedy, one that climate change activist and economist Eban Goodstein eloquently argues will impoverish our economy, our lives and our very spirit. Massive species extinction presents a clear moral imperative and a primary motivation for tackling the climate change.

    But remember that their is also another, very human face to the climate crisis. If left unchecked, climate change will takes its toll on billions of our fellow humans, devastating the lives of many millions.

    I fast today to remember this human face of the climate crisis and to urge our leaders to take this crisis as seriously as I do, to take action now, and to rise to the challenge and seize the tremendous opportunity the climate crisis presents.

    The dark future described in the IPCC report hangs over us, but another future is possible, a brighter future where the climate crisis is the catalyst for a sustainable, just energy future. It is up to each one of us to decide which future we want to live in, and make that future a reality.

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