Climate’s Impact on Hunger Games

18 Sep

I’m writing this on a plane returning from a week of visiting with new and longstanding colleagues working on an exciting range of security-pertinent issues as the UN seeks policy clarity and sanity on climate health this week.  From peacekeeping reform and the abolition of capital punishment to strategies for healing victims of trauma in post-conflict settings and demonstration projects in the Mediterranean to promote climate health, the range of conversations was breathtaking.   There are many fine people, it seems, who are both looking for meaningful connection to global policy and interested in the degree to which their core missions impact – and are impacted by – broad peace and security concerns.

Writing while flying is surely not the best way to advertise a commitment to sustainable futures.   My office does much less flying than in the past, and we need to do still less going forward.  Indeed, at this critical time, all of our material commitments must be carefully scrutinized.   As heads of state and concerned citizens converge in New York this week for climate discussions, it is clear that too many of us who accept the logic of climate change still resist the urgent lifestyle reform which that logic would suggest.

This next week’s key climate deliberations will take place alongside another core UN commitment – to the endorsement and implementation of a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  While diplomats have been reluctant, in part for good reason, to resist a stand-alone peace goal, there is wide recognition within this SGD process that armed violence has a major negative impact on development, and certainly on the types of development that can enhance climate health rather than accelerate the opposite trend.

These two major UN engagements certainly have points of convergence, but perhaps none so much as with the alleviation of poverty.   This clearly is a core issue for SDGs though vast obstacles remain related to debt, speculative finance, unfair trade practices, lack of access to markets and security for rural workers, a lack of public participation in national policies that have poverty implications and much more.

But one of the obstacles to poverty eradication is the degeneration of our climate itself.   Climate change is held more and more responsible – rightly in our view – for increased human migrations, food insecurity, the lack of access to potable water, and many more complicating factors.   And all of these features of our contemporary social condition – and more where they came from – have security implications.   The search for water increases the physical vulnerabilities of the seekers, especially women.   The control of water and related resources creates cross-border tensions and limits essential access. Shifts in rainfall dramatically impact crop yields and threaten local food security, shift internal migration patterns and further imbalance global trade agreements.

On September 20, Global Action will participate in a workshop on “Poverty and Peacemaking” at Princeton University.   Our specific panel will deal with food security issues.   In my 12 years running a food pantry in Harlem and in our work at GAPW with women farmers in Cameroon and elsewhere, there are several important things to communicate to the Princeton audience, including:  the impact of an increasingly sick climate on agriculture; the core insight that human security is not possible without food security; and the perhaps too-obvious insight that food security itself is severely undermined by conflict and armed violence, including conflict motivated by conditions of a deteriorating climate.

Indeed, one can make the case, and I will seek to make it at Princeton, that food security and other dimensions of physical security are intertwined at several levels.   In neighborhoods defined by heavy narcotics use and even heavier gun fire, a full refrigerator is only one of the security reassurances needed for families to break out of poverty and participate more fully in building stable and sustainable communities.

Security, we hasten to add, is as much a feeling as a condition.   There are metrics of various competencies pertaining to gun violence, child abuse, narcotics use, rape, domestic violence, etc.   There are statistics to measure welfare levels, average income, educational attainment, and more. But in the end, it is how you feel about your life and community that has the most to do with levels of personal commitment and engagement.   We choose to participate in poverty alleviation or peacemaking based on how we feel about conditions, prospects for meaningful change, and options for participation; certainly more than on how our community is tracking statistically.

During my many years in a Harlem parish and food pantry, I was sometimes called to help clean out the apartment of a deceased neighbor when there were no family members able or willing to do the job.  Often we found evidence of great hoarding, including many cans of pantry food.   In some instances, the food was piled to the ceiling with apparently no plans for it to be consumed.   Those cans represented security of one sort, a sort that is indispensable to community life.   But food issues represent only a start towards development that is fully participatory, context and gender specific, and integrative of many security concerns.  Full spectrum security must be our peacemaking goal, not merely a slice of security.

Especially this week, we must be mindful of the ways in which the grind of poverty is directly influenced by climactic imbalances.  As our climate deteriorates, more fields will lie barren and more communities will embark on new and more desperate migrations.  No matter how comprehensive and well-intentioned our MDGs, climate sickness might well make poverty harder to alleviate than ever before.

What happens this week in New York is no game, no mere diplomatic exercise. It’s time to step up, to feel the desperate urgency that many millions of people around the world just can’t shake as their crops wither and weapons proliferate around them. Indeed, it’s quite a bit past time.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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