Major public health organizations are drawing attention to climate change’s effects on health: the American Public Health Association has chosen “Climate Change: Our Health in the Balance” as the theme for National Public Health Week (April 7-13), and the World Health Organization used World Health Day (April 7th) to remind us that we’re already starting to see climate change’s effects on health, and it’s not pretty. We can expect to see more deadly weather events, like Hurricane Katrina and the 2003 European heat wave, as well as more widespread and severe outbreaks of Rift Valley fever, malaria, cholera, and other diseases influenced by climate and weather.
At yesterday’s Public Health Grand Rounds at the George Washington University School of Public Health, Dr. Kristie Ebi – a lead author for the human health chapter of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (PDF) – pointed out that pathogens may not even be the biggest health problem climate change brings (Kaisernetwork.org has a webcast of the event). Farming will become harder due to hotter, drier conditions in some places and sea-level rise in others, so we’ll probably see more widespread hunger and malnutrition. In fact, that seems to be the trend already.
In the Los Angeles Times, Edmund Sanders and Tracy Wilkinson explain why the United Nations’ World Food Program is struggling:
Meteoric food and fuel prices, a slumping dollar, the demand for biofuels and a string of poor harvests have combined to abruptly multiply WFP’s operating costs, even as needs increase. In other words, if the number of needy people stayed constant, it would take much more money to feed them. But the number of people needing help is surging dramatically. It is what WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran calls “a perfect storm” hitting the world’s hungry.
The agency last month issued an emergency appeal for money to cover a shortfall tallied at more than half a billion dollars and growing. It said it might have to reduce food rations or cut people off altogether.
The most vulnerable are people like those in Sudan, whom Joannes is struggling to feed and who rely heavily, perhaps exclusively, on the aid. But at least as alarming, WFP officials say, is the emerging community of newly needy.
These are the people who once ate three meals a day and could afford nominal healthcare or to send their children to school. They are more likely to live in urban areas and buy most of their food in a market.
They are the urban poor in Afghanistan, where the government has asked for urgent help. They are families in Central America, who have been getting by on remittances from relatives abroad, but who can no longer make ends meet as the price of corn and beans nearly doubles.
Paul Krugman notes that the growth of China and other emerging economies is a big factor in rising food prices; with more disposable income, these countries’ residents are eager to eat more meat (which is an inefficient use of grain when done CAFO-style) and drive more (which raises the price of oil used to farm and to transport food). This demand increase comes at a time when some major grain producers are facing terrible droughts – and these droughts, Krugman notes, are probably related to climate change. But he reserves his harshest criticism for the push to use crops for biofuel:
Where the effects of bad policy are clearest, however, is in the rise of demon ethanol and other biofuels.
The subsidized conversion of crops into fuel was supposed to promote energy independence and help limit global warming. But this promise was, as Time magazine bluntly put it, a “scam.”
This is especially true of corn ethanol: even on optimistic estimates, producing a gallon of ethanol from corn uses most of the energy the gallon contains. But it turns out that even seemingly “good” biofuel policies, like Brazil’s use of ethanol from sugar cane, accelerate the pace of climate change by promoting deforestation.
And meanwhile, land used to grow biofuel feedstock is land not available to grow food, so subsidies to biofuels are a major factor in the food crisis. You might put it this way: people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states.
The rush to embrace biofuels was a misguided response to climate change. We’d better put a lot more effort into some better responses, because there are lives on the line – not in ten or twenty years, but right now.