Climate Change, the Olympics and Hunger: What's the link?
This guest post from Tim Gore (right), Oxfam’s climate change policy adviser, explores the parallels between climate change and the Olympics, ahead of tomorrow’s UK-hosted ‘hunger summit’
‘Faster, higher, stronger’ is not just the motto of athletes competing at the London games, it’s also a pretty accurate description of our weather over the past 12 months. And the similarities don’t end there.
In June, the US Government reported that sea ice in the Arctic has melted faster this year than ever recorded before. June also saw another 2 records topple, the highest global average land surface temperature was reached at 1.07°C (1.93°F) above average, alongside the highest Northern Hemisphere land and ocean average surface temperature ever recorded, at 1.3°C (2.34°F) above average.
Meanwhile, the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season, which officially began on 1 June and ends on 30 November, has seen for the first time ever four tropical storms forming before July – one of which – Tropical Storm Beryl – came ashore in South Florida on 28 May, as the strongest pre-June tropical cyclone to make landfall in the United States.
It’s been a huge record-breaking year for the US overall, and not just in the Olympic swimming pool. The US has won gold for July 2012, as the nation’s hottest month on record, contributing the warmest 12 month period experienced in the country since records began. Not to be outdone in the medal table, the UK has won gold for the heaviest ever rainfall from April to June, while claiming another record for the highest ever maximum temperature last October and a silver for the second warmest November in 100 years. Throughout the year and around the world, more new records have been set for extreme weather this year than in the London Olympic stadium.
Is this just a coincidence – natural variability – or is it evidence of man-made climate change? Just as the relative performance of athletes will be pored over by their coaches in the coming weeks and months, scientists are now working on analyses that can help answer that question.
Last month, a collection of studies was published which showed that some individual extreme weather events are more likely to have occurred due to greenhouse emissions. For example, they found that the probability of a drought occurring in Texas of the same severity as the state experienced in 2011 has increased twenty times as a result of climate change.
That’s not to say all extreme weather events are made more likely by climate change. New research commissioned by Oxfam into the UK’s record-breaking weather year confirms that the odds of the heavy rainfall of 2012 have not changed under our warmer climate. Although some of the same scientists found that greenhouse gas emissions increased the risk of the destructive UK floods of autumn 2000 substantially, and the chance of a November in the UK as warm as last year’s by around 62 times.
What this means is that greenhouse gas emissions are to our climate what steroids are to an Olympic athlete – they don’t guarantee records will be broken, but they make it much more likely. Just as the doped-up athlete has a better chance of winning an Olympic medal (providing she or he isn’t caught), pumping greenhouse gasses into our atmosphere increases the likelihood of extreme weather.
But that’s where the comparison ends. Because while we celebrate our Olympic successes and hope they inspire a generation, the litany of extreme weather leaves nothing but devastation in its wake, hitting the poorest and most vulnerable amongst us hardest.
Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the impact of the current US drought – the worst since the 1950s – on world food prices. As US farmers struggle with crop losses of more than 16%, prices of staples like maize and wheat have rocketed, which is the worst news possible for people in poor countries that spend up to 75% of their incomes on food.
The most vulnerable live in countries reliant on food imports, or that have suffered their own weak harvests. In Yemen, which imports 90% of its wheat, 10 million people are already hungry and 267 000 children at risk of death from malnutrition. An increase in extreme weather, compounded by a flawed global food system, means extreme food prices and rising hunger.
So it is perhaps fitting and very welcome that tomorrow, as the heat and light of the Olympic flame dies down, David Cameron will host a hunger summit for world leaders in London, with Olympic greats Haile Gebrselassie and Mo Farah in attendance. It’s vital they act to reverse decades of under-investment in smallholder farmers, end biofuel programmes that put 40% of US corn into cars not mouths, and redouble efforts to fight climate change. For the close to 1 billion people who will go to bed hungry tonight, what they decide could be the real legacy of London 2012.
You can follow the hunger summit on twitter (#globalhunger) or watch 131 years of global climate change in 26 seconds [h/t Ricardo Fuentes]