Predicting the future under climate change: trouble or blue skies ahead

ID-10066027Several recent publications have explored how the world will transform under climate change, both physically and in terms of our society. And the picture is complex, not helped by the difficulties in trying to predict both global and local changes. Conflict over resources is predicted to intensify but this will be location-specific, for example some areas of the world will see an increase in the amount of land suitable for agriculture while others, often in poorer and more farming-dependent regions will see a decrease. A new global calculator and accompanying report, however, presents more positive findings – that we can be prosperous and combat climate change simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, we seem to have become more fixated on trying to predict the future since the words “global warming” were first uttered and such endeavours are becoming more critical to driving high-level negotiations and planning for a future that is difficult to imagine. Despite the science, projecting patterns and trends into the short- or long-term is open to significant assumptions and sensitive to a huge number of factors, meaning it is far from accurate. That said such efforts to predict the climate and its impact on farming, natural resources, energy use and society are incredibly valuable in opening our eyes to what the future may hold, what trade-offs we may have to make and why we need to act now.

A paper released late last year entitled “Global Agricultural Land Resources – A High Resolution Suitability Evaluation and Its Perspectives until 2100 under Climate Change Conditions” uses computer-based estimations of global agricultural suitability to grow 16 food and energy crops based on climatic, soil and topographic conditions. Authors compare land suitability for these crops between the periods 1981-2010 and 2071-2100 (under climate change scenario SRES A1B). Overall agriculturally suitable land increases by 4.8 million km2, when protected areas and dense rainforest are excluded, but the majority of this additional land is only marginally suitable. While cropland is estimated to increase in the northern hemisphere (in such countries as Russia, China and Canada), land suitability as well as number of cropping seasons is predicted to decline in tropical areas in the southern hemisphere. At present, Africa has the highest levels of land suitable for farming that is not currently under agriculture (some 20%) but much of this land is rainforest, grassland or savannah, and in the future reductions in the number of cropping seasons and declining land suitability will likely limit this potential expansion. Indeed the highest absolute net loss of suitable farming areas under this climate scenario is predicted to occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

This is particularly worrying in light of a different prediction: in a 2011 FAO publication, author Bruinsma estimated some 1.2 million km2 of land will need to be converted to agriculture by 2030 to meet demand, and this conversion will largely occur in South America and Sub Saharan Africa. If climate and other environmental conditions in these areas reduce the suitability of land to farming, this could not only re-shape global production patterns but would exacerbate hunger and food shortages in areas already suffering the highest burdens. [Read more…]

State of the world’s mothers 2014

SOWM_2014_COVEREvery year Save the Children publishes, in conjunction with Mother’s Day in the US, its report on the State of the World’s Mothers. In this, the 15th report, the focus is on the millions of women and children living in fragile communities beset by conflict and natural disasters, and the effective solutions and recommended policy changes needed to support mothers living in such precarious environments.

More than 60 million women and children are in need of humanitarian assistance this year and over half of maternal and child deaths worldwide occur in crisis-affected places. 800 women die every day because of preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth and 56% of maternal and child deaths take place in fragile settings. Worldwide, women and children are up to 14 times more likely than men to die in a disaster. During the course of a pregnancy, almost 225,000 women and over 5 million children will die.

To understand the geographic pattern of threats to women and children, Save the Children has, since 2000, published its annual Mothers’ Index, which shows those countries where mothers and children fare best, and where they face the greatest hardships, using data on health, education, economics and female political participation. Over the years it has become clear that armed conflict, political instability and natural disasters play a major role in undermining the well-being of mothers and children in the world’s poorest countries. The 10 toughest places to be a mother in this year’s Mothers’ Index all have a recent history of armed conflict and are considered to be fragile states. Six of the bottom 10 countries suffer from recurring natural disasters.


Violence and conflict have uprooted more families than at any time on record. By the end of 2012, more than 45 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution. In addition, natural disasters, displaced more than 32 million in 2012. Of the more than 80 million people projected to be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2014, over three-quarters are women and children. [Read more…]

World Water Day 2014

wwwd-logoBy 2025 1.8 billion people will be living in regions of absolute water scarcity. Global water use grew at more than twice the rate of human population increase in the last century. Of the world’s population without access to clean and safe water, 37% live in sub-Saharan Africa. These are just some of the shocking statistics that highlight the urgent need to ensure access to clean and safe water for people across the world.

Tomorrow is World Water Day 2014, a day that aims to increase global recognition of the water resource scarcity challenges we face. It seems that more and more we are hearing reports of water scarcity leading to transboundary conflict, particularly in regions that may already be politically unstable. For example, in 2006, Israel bombed irrigation canals that supplied water from the Litani River to 10,000 acres of farmland in Lebanon. And these conflicts are not new, the fight over the water of the Jordan River was one of the causes of the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Syria. In a 2012 report from the U.S. National Intelligence Council entitled, “Intelligence Community Assessment on Global Water Security,” North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia were identified as regions that are likely to face serious challenges managing water resources.

Water stresses have also led to cooperation though, and much more often than they have led to conflict. How this will change as water scarcity intensifies is unknown. Something like 3,600 agreements and treaties on water have been signed to date including the establishment of the 1957 Mekong River Commission between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, an ongoing partnership held up as being successful. The UNESCO–Green Cross International project entitled “From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential” (PCCP), launched in 2006 aims to help parties negotiate and prevent conflict over water.

In their 2006 International Herald Tribune article, “A global problem: How to avoid war over water“, Watkins and Berntell suggest a four-part solution based on:

1) Improving domestic water policies that support efficiency and conservation;

2) Negotiating with other nearby countries when planning such things as river alterations and shared groundwater usage;

3) Establishing intergovernmental river-basin institutions; and

4) Bringing together political leaders and technical experts to find solutions and promote cooperation.

Of course it isn’t just water scarcity that can pose a threat to national and international security. Conflict over energy is just as evident, if not more so in the media, and this year’s World Water Day has a theme of “Water and Energy”. The UN launched their World Water Development Report today. Key messages for this year’s report on water and energy include:

  • Water requires energy and energy requires water
  • Supplies of both are limited and demand is increasing
  • Saving energy is saving water. Saving water is saving energy
  • The “bottom billion” urgently needs access to both water and sanitation services, and electricity
  • Improving water and energy efficiency is imperative as are coordinated, coherent and concerted policies

World water day celebrations are taking place in Tokyo today and tomorrow. Information resources on water and energy can be found here.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Improving child nutrition. The achievable imperative for global progress, UNICEF

The World Needs Genetically Modified Foods, The Wall Street Journal

Grassroot-level innovations may hold the key to global challenges, The Guardian

World food prices rise 1 pct in March – FAO

Primary commodity prices and global food security. Why farmers still struggle when food prices rise, Thomas Lines, Green House

Millions face starvation as world warms, say scientists, The Guardian

Half a million Kenyans and Ethiopians face conflict, hunger due to dam – AlertNet

Biofuels: ‘Irrational’ and ‘worse than fossil fuels’, BBC News

World Bank: Africa’s economic growth to outpace average, BBC News [Read more…]