Could climate change force migration and limit agriculture?

Two new climate-related studies point to the drastic effects of climate change in the coming decades, including a drop in global food availability and the potential for certain regions to become uninhabitable.

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune/AP/File
Steam rises from and around the Dave Johnston Power Plant in Glenrock, Wyo.

Separate studies analyzing the future impacts of climate change suggest that people around the world will be directly affected by adverse environmental shifts within the coming decades.

The first study, published in The Lancet, finds that climate change could significantly affect agricultural production around the world, leading to serious health and dietary problems. Food will be less available by a predicted rate of 3.2 percent on a per-person basis, and the consumption of necessary dietary items such as fruits and vegetables will drop by around 4 percent, according to Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food researchers.

The second study, released this week in Environmental Research Letters, shows that the nations believed to be most liable for recent global warming may cause major changes in regions less responsible for emissions and warming effects. The Columbia University Earth Institute paper points to areas like the tropics and Middle East as being especially vulnerable to the predicted coming changes, with hotter summers, more intense droughts, and the possibility of flooding and heat waves all more likely despite “a striking incongruity between locations of largest climate change and responsibility for fossil fuel emissions.”

“The overall message that climate science delivers to society, policymakers, and the public alike is this: We have a global emergency,” Earth Institute Director James Hansen and Senior Staff Associate Makiko Sato wrote in a companion blog to their paper.

The two studies focus on different aspects of climate change, but both predict similar scenarios: Without present-day transitions, large numbers of people will be negatively affected by fallout from climate change in the near future.

The Oxford paper estimates that the coming agricultural changes could lead to more than 520,000 climate-related deaths globally by 2050. And the Columbia researchers found that higher temperatures may lead to regions in low latitudes around the equator becoming uninhabitable due to extreme heat and rising sea levels, leading to forced “forced migration and economic disruption.” Places affected by intense heat could see a rise in “interpersonal violence and human conflict” as well as a disruption of “patterns of disease” related to mosquitoes and ticks.

“Climate change is likely to have a substantial negative impact on future mortality, even under optimistic scenarios,” Oxford researcher Marco Springmann said.

Despite the grim outlook, researchers note, people around the world are already working to adjust to the changing climate and to help avoid or at least abate these harsh potential outcomes. For example, in the face of increasing droughts as identified by the Columbia researchers, some farmers in less developed places are already working around the growing problem by cultivating their crops in different ways than those practiced by modern Western agriculture. And the Oxford study posits that adopting “climate-stabilisation pathways” could reduce the climate- and health-related deaths by 29 to 71 percent.

With the Earth Institute study pointing to carbon dioxide emissions as the main issue in the warming trend, resulting in extremely hot summers and higher average temperatures, the scientists’ suggestions of the rapid reduction of CO2 emissions and “international cooperation in generating more affordable carbon-free energies” could prove to be beneficial solutions.

The researchers added that the measure of introducing a carbon tax should be adopted soon. Many companies and countries are already working to eliminate carbon in their systems, and the ideas of carbon taxes and caps are supported worldwide. While the effectiveness of these efforts remains to be seen, many nations are already aware of the potential dangers related to climate change and have agreed to address the problem.

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