Urgency lacking when it comes to climate change

The ‘interconnectedness’ of hunger, nutrition and climate justice really hit home at a recent conference in Dublin

Climate change is a worthy issue which most of us feel we should be deeply concerned about - but not just yet.

In the cosy Western World, there is a distinct lack of urgency about the problem. We wrongly feel the impact of climate change on us is still generations away. We mistakenly assume that, for now, its main effect is on ice caps in arctic regions, the forests in Central America and the plains of Africa.

But at the Hunger, Nutrition and Climate Justice conference at Dublin Castle last week, there was a tangible zeal and sense of immediacy about the endangerment of the planet.

Former US Vice President Al Gore warned against sleep walking towards the cliff. He cited the damage caused in New Jersey last year by Hurricane Sandy, floods in Pakistan which displaced 20 million people, downpours this year in Australia, and the Arctic icecape diminished by 50 per cent in the last four decades. He thundered about storm surges, rising seas, and the need to protect humankind.


Then Gore gave further illustrations about the effects of climate change. He recalled how many people died from heat stress in 2003, how increases in temperature cause crop production to decline, and how world food prices dramatically spiked following the Russian drought a few years ago. He said television images had been like 'a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.'

These are scary warnings, but the organisers of the conference weren't just concerned about climate change but also the 'interconnectedness' of hunger, nutrition and climate justice.

Another world-class speaker, former President of Ireland Mary Robinson shared Al Gore's sense of urgency about safeguarding humanity. Mrs Robinson, who now runs the Foundation for Climate Justice, co-hosted the conference with the Government. She said the key issue was about how to have a viable world in 2050 and that everyone should be super-champions for the cause.

As part of the search for a 'bold vision', 100 representatives from communities at the forefront of climate change recounted their experiences about food shortages and initiatives to the policymakers and delegates from 60 countries.

Ireland, too, has seen some change in weather patterns. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say it is now warmer here with fewer colder days. Parts of the country have more frequent, intense rainfall.

Globally, one person in eight does not have adequate food, one-third of children under five in developing countries won't reach their physical or mental potential because they are 'stunted', and world food production will have to increase by 60% by 2050 to meet projected demand. Climate change adds a new dimension to this by changing growing seasons and the frequency of droughts and floods.

I joined one of the workshops or Learning Circles where some of these community representatives laid out their stall. Farmers in countries like Tanzania and Columbia want more transparency about how donor money is spent. They want to be informed and involved in research. They want a greater say in decision making and implementation of Government policy - much like the social partnership that has operated in this country.

Modern technology and traditional expertise together can help overcome the fallout of climate change. Mobile phones, for example, are a great aid for farmers in developing countries in dealing with changing weather patterns. While, the majority of farmers don't have personal computers, many do have access to mobile phones which can provide written or aural weather and farming advice to help them plan agricultural activity

There was much focus on how farmers in various countries such as Ethiopia are experimenting with different crop varieties to help manage climate change and improve their incomes. Farmers in Nepal are changing from wood to biogas to save trees and reduce greenhouse gases, and fishermen in the Caribbean are advocating for policies that increase their livelihood and food security.

The empowerment of marginalised people, involving them in decision making and giving them bargaining rights, is seen is seen as important in giving them access to productive resources such as land, water and credit. This is especially true for women who are responsible for up to 80% of food production in developing countries and who rarely enjoy the rights and status of men.

There was some criticism at the Dublin conference about the lack of involvement of private business in the climate change debate. However, it was acknowledged by the President of Blum Capital, Dick Blum that billions of dollars could be diverted from the private sector to climate change and development if there was more engagement with it.

Despite the recession, the Irish Government has just signed a three year deal to provide €21m to the UN World Food Programme. While that is laudable, our day to day problems seem to obliterate any widespread concern about climate change, and there is scant evidence of a sense of urgency.

While farmers in many parts of the world are struggling with climate change, Agriculture is the main contributor to greenhouse gases in Ireland, 31.1%. However, overall emissions fell by 6.7% in 2011, and those from agriculture dropped 1.9%. The EPA will release figures for 2012 this week.

But how we can dramatically increase beef and dairy production under the Governments Harvest 2020 plans, and still keep emissions down? Clearly there are practical challenges here at home, but maybe there should also be more Irish super-champions involved in the global debate about the world's future.