Try sleeping after a one-hour conversation with Kanayo Nwanze. The president of the U.N.’s International Fund for Agriculture Development is a perfectly affable guy, but his take on how climate change will lead to a fast-increasing number of violent uprisings and refugee crises that will dwarf Syria’s always leaves me decidedly unsettled.
“It’s clear if we don’t recognize the signs earlier, if we don’t make those crucial links, then poverty, migration, hunger and conflict will continue to make headlines,” Nwanze said in Paris last weekend. With major climate change talks taking place in Paris, he’s calling for “policies and investments that can pre-empt future crises.”
We’re talking mammoth problems. While estimates vary, the population of environmental migrants could hit 1 billion by 2050. Already, millions are on the move as rising world temperatures lead to out-of-whack climate patterns from droughts to floods to the frequency of storms. A Group of Seven report calls climate change the “ultimate threat multiplier” to the national security of nations big and small. Today’s Syrian refugee surge overwhelming Europe is the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
Yet world leaders and investors alike still tend to view climate and refugees as completely separate issues — ones that will sort themselves out over time. As we consider what accounts for this mass complacency, we in the media need to look in the mirror. That’s the finding of a new report commissioned by Nwanze’s agency, popularly known as IFAD.
“Food, Migration and Climate Change: The Untold Story” makes for disturbing reading. It more than confirms criticism that the media are failing to connect dots that before long will wreak havoc with global economic trends, stock values and interest rates. What’s more, the report finds, “those on the front lines directly impacted by climate change rarely have a voice or are mentioned” in news coverage.
This problem is directly related to what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman calls “climate denial denial.” The media must stop making a false equivalency between the views of politicians in Washington and Canberra who dismiss climate science with those of the lives hanging in the balance.
How seriously, after all, do we take the leaders of Maldives or Tuvalu when they warn their land is being swallowed by the seas? Or the pleadings of flood-ravaged cities like Jakarta, Manila and Mumbai? Writing for the Brookings Institution, Omer Karasapan calls out the global elite’s selective focus: “Given the all-consuming focus in Europe and beyond on the refugee issue, one would have expected the COP21 meetings and its media coverage to focus more on displacement as a result of climate change. The numbers are beyond alarming, though not in the immediate, and perhaps therein lies the shortsightedness.”
Investors and policymakers alike will regret the “short-termism” they’re applying to bets on the future. Urbanization, understandably, is captivating today’s decisions and priorities. Great riches are to be made as most of the world’s 7.3 billion people move to cities, starting businesses, buying properties and consuming. But even more attention must be paid to what economists call “the other 3 billion” who live in rural areas that provide the food consumed by that mass of humanity flocking to urban centers.
Asia is home to a critical mass of those living on $2 a day, or less. That’s hundreds of millions of people in the world’s most promising economic region, one that executives from New York to Sydney are relying on for profits. Asia’s foundations are weakened by the risk hunger, food-price spikes and pressure to migrate will intensify with changes in climate. The food-cost riots of 2007 and 2008 that affected 40 cities around the world and contributed to the Arab Spring movement that toppled entire governments was merely a wake-up call. The social instability that could course through cities in China, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and elsewhere will bring the problem much closer to Wall Street and London trading pits.
The Asian Development Bank warns that climate change could lower Southeast Asian growth by as much as 11 percent by 2100. While Asia is on the front lines, Nwanze is at the forefront of efforts to reduce the social and economic dislocations. To do big things, IFAD is thinking very small. I’ve interviewed Nwanze on a few occasions since 2012 (and, full disclosure, my brother Tom works for IFAD in Washington).Based in Rome, Nwanze’s focus is on more than 500 million small farms that constitute the backbone of the global economy — they’re responsible for nearly of 80 percent of production in some regions. Climate change is a fast-rising threat to those tending to plots measuring less than 2 hectares, roughly 85 percent of farm holdings globally. The plot thickens when you consider estimates that the Earth’s farmers will be feeding a further 3 billion by 2050.
“Agriculture has always been a risky business,” Nwanze explains. “Today it’s even more so.” The key, he says, is “building the resilience of smallholders, not because they are victims, but because they are a key part of the solution to the climate change puzzle.” They, too, must be reducing their carbon footprint along with boosting productivity.
In a broader sense, though, the world must do more to address the conditions that both trap people in rural poverty and force them to flee homes — hunger, conflict, inequality, weak governance and a general lack of opportunity. And climate change is the threat multiplier linking all of this, before long, to a stock exchange near you.
William Pesek is executive editor of Barron’s Asia. www.barronsasia.com