A new study shows the vulnerability of the world’s poorest nations even without climate breakdown, its authors say.
- Madagascar is in the grip of a deadly famine. For months, international’s organizations have blamed the calamity on climate change.
- A new study rejects that assumption, finding instead that the main drivers of the famine are poverty, natural variations in weather, and poor infrastructure.
- Its authors say that the findings underscore the “moral imperative” to prepare vulnerable populations for extreme weather.
By Laura Gersony, Circle of Blue — December 6, 2021
After two below-average rainy seasons, Madagascar is in the grip of a deadly famine. Over one million people — half a million of them children — require emergency food aid, in what international leaders for months have been calling an emergency of enormous proportions.
International organizations had blamed the calamity on climate change, but a new study rejects that assumption. The study found that the main drivers of the famine are poverty, natural variations in weather, and poor infrastructure.
Although atmospheric warming has made severe droughts and heat waves more likely worldwide, the report found that the recent dry spell in Madagascar falls within the natural fluctuations of the country’s weather, which is highly variable. The finding aligns with conclusions in the U.N.’s recent state-of-the-science report, which noted that there was “limited evidence” that human influence has affected droughts in the region.
The new study corrects months of pronouncements by the World Food Programme and other U.N. agencies that the emergency was “the world’s first climate-induced famine.” Instead, the biggest factors contributing to widespread hunger are political and economic. Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, chronically battles food insecurity. Its malnutrition rate is the fourth-highest in the world. The COVID-19 pandemic has multiplied these risks. When crop yields plummeted this year, public health measures in the country prevented many from traveling to find alternative sources of income.
Friederike Otto, one of the study’s co-authors, said that the ongoing famine highlights the risks faced by vulnerable nations, even without climate breakdown.
“The drought strongly shows what a very narrow range of possible weather we are actually adapted to,” Otto, a climate scientist at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. “We are not even adapted to the present day. And so [climate change] will only make things more difficult for these regions in the world.”
The report is part of a growing scientific field known as “extreme event attribution,” which seeks to determine whether planetary warming made an individual weather event more likely to occur. Unlike heat waves, which are relatively straightforward to analyze, droughts are particularly complex cases to diagnose. They are affected by a wide range of factors, such as rainfall, temperatures, agricultural practices, and more.
To investigate the ongoing famine, the researchers compared what Madagascar’s weather patterns would look like with and without human-caused climate change. They found that climate change would make droughts significantly worse on the island only if global atmospheric warming were to exceed 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This might occur toward the end of this century, depending on how successfully countries implement promises to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Piotr Wolski, a co-author and climate scientist at the University of Cape Town, told the Guardian that the findings do not contradict global calls to prepare vulnerable populations for extreme weather.
“Adapting and reducing vulnerabilities to such events is a moral imperative that should not be frustrated by inherent uncertainties of climate change projections or statistical analyses,” Wolski said. “Even though we do not clearly see the role of anthropogenic climate change in this particular event, similar events will happen in the future, and will more likely be exacerbated rather than alleviated by climate change.”
The report was published by World Weather Attribution, an international research organization that aims to quickly assess the influence of climate change on extreme weather events. While it employs peer-reviewed methods, the study itself has not yet been peer reviewed.
The World Food Programme did not respond to Circle of Blue’s requests for comment.
Laura Gersony covers water policy, infrastructure, and energy for Circle of Blue. She also writes FRESH, Circle of Blue’s biweekly digest of Great Lakes policy news, and HotSpots H2O, a monthly column about the regions and populations most at-risk for water-related hazards and conflict. She is an Environmental Studies and Political Science major at the University of Chicago and an avid Lake Michigan swimmer.