By Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Dr. Reba Goodman
Extreme weather hit 60 million people in 2018 and no part of the world was spared. According to the UN report, many of the weather events like floods, droughts, heat waves and hurricanes were record-breaking, costly and caused a lot of suffering. For example, 2018 was a record-breaking year when it came to wildfires in the United States. It was also the costliest on record. Damage associated with Hurricane Michael, which inundated the East Coast, is estimated to reach approximately $16 billion.
Aside from the financial cost of extreme weather events, there are serious human consequences related to health and the availability of food
Hunger: World hunger is increasing due to wars and climate change. Between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of undernourished people was cut in half. A recent UN report shows that after years of decline, hunger is on the rise again. Around the globe, approximately 900 million people (1in 9) went hungry in 2016.
More than half of hungry people live in countries with ongoing violence. At the same time, these regions are experiencing increasingly powerful storms, more frequent and persistent droughts and more variable rainfall associated with climate change. Small-scale farmers are some of the most vulnerable people on earth.
Many hungry people live in countries with food surpluses, not food shortages. The people who need food either don’t have the money or don’t have steady access to it. In the United States, which certainly has enough food, about 40 million people went hungry in 2017.
There is more food available per person than there was 30 years ago. Yet approximately 9 million people die of hunger and hunger-related diseases every year, more than lives taken by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Clearly, an outrageous situation.
Health: According to the World Health Organization, tackling climate change would save at least a million lives a year. Climate change affects clean air, safe drinking water and sufficient food. Climate change will cause many additional deaths per year from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress.
As the climate heats up and agricultural conditions shift, the yield of vegetables and legume crops will suffer. In addition, the rising concentration of carbon dioxide will adversely affect the nutritional quality of such cereal crops as rice and wheat, lowering their levels of protein and B vitamins.
Disease-spreading microbes and insects will proliferate as some of the planet’s hottest and wettest places grow hotter and wetter. Sea-level rise and coastal flooding will accelerate the spread of cholera, malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis.
Unchecked air pollution and rising heat will cause and exacerbate asthma, allergies and cardiovascular disease. Exposure to excessive heat will also aggravate health problems. In short, climate change is making us sicker and shortening our lives.
What can history teach us? During the 17th century, longer and colder winters and cooler summers disrupted growing seasons and destroyed harvests across Europe. The extreme weather events resulted in a series of droughts, floods and harvest failures. Millions died. There were also outbreaks of disease like smallpox. Climatologists call it the little Ice Age. Earth scientists think the causes were due to increased volcanic eruptions, more El Nino episodes (giving unusual warm ocean condition, similar to what we are now experiencing) and reduced solar output due to fewer sun spots. Human intervention can’t avert volcanic eruptions or do anything about sun spots. We can affect our current situation by seriously reducing the use of fossil fuels.
Some would like to ignore climate change. However, as British writer Aldous Huxley said: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld, IHEU representative to the UN, and Dr. Reba Goodman, are members of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.