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Climate Changes Creating Hunger Ahead of Summit

Jeffrey Allen

Nepalese Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, seen here with students holding a banner on climate change. The first climate change talks between Himalayan nations ended with a call for international assistance for poor countries struggling to cope with the effects of global warming. (AFP/File/Prakash Mathema)

WASHINGTON - Changing weather patterns have decimated crops in several of the world's poorest countries this year, leaving millions in need of food aid and humanitarian workers warning about the dangerous effects of climate change.

What's the Story?

Farmers in Nepal have been able to produce only half their usual crop, said an Oxfam International report released last week. Livestock are dying of malnutrition in Yemen, according to the humanitarian news service IRIN. And the Red Cross is bracing for the effects of heavy rains across 16 West and Central African nations.

All three are the result of extended atypical weather events --
drought, rain, or untimely combinations of both -- in places where
subsistence farmers have long depended on predictability.

In Nepal, more than 3 million people -- about 10 percent of the
population -- will need food aid this year, said Oxfam. While farmers
used to grow enough food for their families to eat for three to six
months of the year, last year's crop only amounted to about one month's
worth of food for many families, said Oxfam.

The lack of food production has hit Nepali families with a double
whammy, not only reducing the amount available to eat, but also
diminishing their ability to buy surpluses at market, as costs have
increased and incomes decreased.

A combination of natural disasters, including one of the worst winter
droughts in the country's history, have levied the current burden on
the Himalayan Asian nation, where more than three in ten people live
below the poverty line even in good times.

While Oxfam notes that a single drought event can never be attributed to global climate change, the group blames Nepal's food shortage on the unpredictability of weather that scientists say is a direct result of the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere -- or "climate change."

In recent years, Nepal has experienced greater
extremes of temperature, more intense periods of rainfall, drier
winters, and delays in the summer monsoon rains. [Read more from Oxfam about climate change and food concerns in Nepal.]

Ice Melt Could Impact Food Supplies, Create Refugees

The mighty glaciers of the Himalayan mountain range
are also rapidly changing and could even be at risk of disappearing by
mid-century if global emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants
are not reduced, according to the world's most renowned climate
scientists. The people of Nepal and its Asian neighbors downstream are
extremely dependent on the rivers running off those glaciers to
irrigate croplands and provide drinking water.

"The world has never faced such a predictably
massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain
glaciers of Asia," says Lester Brown, one of the most respected researchers on how environmental factors impact humans worldwide.

China and India are the world's leading producers of wheat and rice --
humanity's food staples. Significant decreases in their ability to
produce those crops will send hunger shockwaves around the world, notes
Brown, who is president of the Washington, DC-based Earth Policy Institute.

"The glaciologists have given us a clear sense of how fast glaciers are
shrinking. The challenge now is to translate their findings into national energy policies
designed to save the glaciers," he says. "At issue is not just the
future of mountain glaciers, but the future of world grain harvests." [Read more from the Earth Policy Institute about the threat to food supplies.]

In addition to exacerbating food shortages, ice melt in Antarctica
and Greenland could force hundreds of millions of people worldwide to
seek refuge on higher ground. At the Earth's poles, snow is melting,
sea ice is breaking up, and temperatures are rising -- all at faster
rates than elsewhere on the planet -- raising the likelihood of severe sea level rise.

Some refugees would remain within their own countries, while many
others would flee to foreign countries, but both groups would impose
heightened burdens on the local communities and national governments
forced to support them as they build new lives from scratch. [Read more from the Earth Policy Institute about the potential refugee explosion.]

Least to Blame to Suffer Most

Oxfam, whose aid workers are active in scores of countries worldwide,
notes that poorer communities tend to be the least able to cope with
weather-related disasters and the other effects of climate change.

Ironically -- and many say unfairly -- they are also, by and large, the least responsible for causing climate change.

Nepal, for example, is one of the world's poorest countries and extremely vulnerable to climate change, yet it emits only 0.025 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. The United States, by comparison, is responsible for about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, though Americans only make up about 5 percent of the world's population.

Like many of the humanitarian groups working around the world, Oxfam
sees December's global climate summit in Copenhagen as a tremendous
opportunity to reverse course and provide a measure of succor to the
world's poor, who are already face to face with the disastrous effects
of climate change.

"Oxfam is calling on the world's richest countries, those most
responsible for global emissions, to do more to help poor countries
like Nepal better adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change when
they meet to discuss a global climate treaty in Copenhagen in
December," the group said last week in a statement.

All eyes will be on the U.S. delegation at those talks, which will be doing the bidding of the new administration of Barack Obama.
In previous years, U.S. officials working for the George W. Bush
administration have been accused of stalling any meaningful reform
initiatives, in efforts to promote the interests of relatively wealthy
Westerners over the billions of global poor who will bear the brunt of
the changing climate.

Living in 'The Age of Stupid'?

A new movie is launching in the United States Sep. 21 -- about six
weeks before the Copenhagen negotiations -- with the aim of raising
pressure on the Obama administration and its allies worldwide. The
filmmakers want world leaders to take an aggressive approach to
stemming greenhouse gas emissions and help poorer countries deal with
the inevitable impacts of climate change.

"The Age of Stupid"
follows the lives of six people -- an Indian businessman, a Nigerian
medical student/fisherwoman, a Shell employee in the United States, an
Iraqi refugee family, a British windfarm developer, and an 81-year-old
French mountain guide -- who are living with or trying to mitigate the
effects of climate change.

The movie launched earlier this year to serious praise in the UK, Australia, and several other countries.

The UK's Guardian newspaper called it "the first successful
dramatization of climate change to reach the big screen," and the
American actor Ed Begley, Jr. said: "'The Age Of Stupid' is the most
powerful, well-researched, and emotional film that I have seen in
recent memory."

The former president of the global environmental organization Friends of the Earth, Tony Juniper,
hopes the film will spur political action. "This wonderful film is like
a bucket of cold water," he said. "I hope it wakes people from their
slumber and helps galvanize real pressure on politicians to come up
with an effective deal at the Copenhagen climate change summit."

Judging by the response of the UK secretary of state for energy and climate change, Ed Miliband -- who will be at the summit representing the United States' closest ally -- it just might.

Said Miliband: "I thought 'The Age of Stupid' was an incredibly
powerful account of the effects of climate change, the urgency of
climate change, and the reasons we must act as quickly as possible."

But Obama administration officials have not yet indicated what tack
they will take in Copenhagen -- or if they've seen the movie.

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