Climate change-driven famine poses global security threat

UNITED NATIONS -- The emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations is warning of the worst famine since the world organization was founded in 1945. It is putting an estimated 20 million lives immediately at risk, and while war is exacerbating the disaster in places like South Sudan, Stephen O’Brien says the primary culprit is climate change.

Drought and acidification of the oceans is at a crisis point. Drinking water is sparse, animals are dying, and populations are on the move, desperate to find food.

As the U.N. warns the window is fast closing to avert a massive human tragedy, the Trump Administration is rolling out its new energy independence order to change the U.S. approach to climate change and reverse some of the previous administration’s climate regulations.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said the agencies rushing to help people staring down starvation need to raise $4.4 million by the end of this month for the four countries at highest risk; Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen.

“By 2040, 1 in 4 children -- 600 million children -- will live in areas of extremely high water stress,” Anthony Lake, Executive Director of U.N. children’s agency UNICEF says in a new report, “Thirsting for a Future.”

“The effects of climate change reduce the quantity and quality of water, causing rising temperatures, help bacteria and other pathogens to flourish, and disappearing glaciers leave land dry and arid,” Lake says.

The effects of climate change -- and drought in particular -- are already affecting 1.4 million children who face imminent risk of death from severe acute malnutrition as the famine spreads. In Ethiopia alone, the UNICEF report says, “we anticipate that more than 9 million people will be without safe drinking water in 2017.”

At the beginning of June, the U.N. will host the Ocean Conference at U.N. Headquarters in New York to try to mobilize scientists to address famine caused by climate change.

Security matter

U.N. Climate Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa and Melanne Vereer, Executive Director of Georgetown’s Women, Peace and Security program, wrote this week that “climate change is a security threat and a vulnerability multiplier.”

They argue that the danger is most present in a handful of North African nations where the inability to find water for subsistence farmers is leading many into a poverty trap.

Michael Sandler, U.S. Fund for UNICEF’s content director, says climate change and famine are intertwined not only in the four countries already experiencing or threatened by mass-hunger, but in places like Kenya and Uganda, where refugees fleeing drought are pouring in. 

In Senegal this week, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed explained why helping the victims -- particularly the younger victims -- of climate change-induced famine is not just a matter of charity, but security.

“A disengaged population of youth is prone to large-scale migration and susceptible to radicalization,” she said.

  • Pamela Falk

    Pamela Falk is CBS News Foreign Affairs Analyst and an international lawyer, based at the United Nations.