Climate, ICTs, the FAO…

and the Fall of Rome

Dr Wulf Killmann

History provides us with excellent examples of how climate change dramatically affects agriculture and how this in turn affects the stability of society, even civilization itself. For my work with the FAO, I sit in an office in Rome. The sacking of Rome by our ancestors in the fifth century was actually a result of climate change: the weather in northern and central Europe during this period had become so inhospitable that the reduced crop yields forced the inhabitants to move southward, increasing pressures on the Roman Empire. The rest, as they say, is history. Society, agriculture and the climate are intricately interlinked.

Holistic approaches

No less interlinked are the various aspects of the ways in which climate change affects agriculture. This, naturally, necessitates an integrated approach to the problem. There are a number of issues, such as biodiversity, desertification and climate change that we at the FAO have to address individually, but also in an holistic way as they cut across our various departments, requiring us to make the best use of the resulting synergies to cope with these cross-sectoral challenges.

Beyond the internal dynamics of the FAO, the Interdepartmental Working Group on Climate Change collaborates with a number of multilateral organizations, including the climate change secretariat at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and individual member countries. The aim is to ensure that climate change issues are mainstreamed in all our daily work.

Climate change scenarios and the South

Several scenarios have been advanced of how climate change is likely to play out, according to what we know now. They diverge slightly in the magnitude of climate change that is anticipated and the dimensions of the temperature increase, but they all agree on one thing: the higher latitudes will be less affected. North America, northern Europe, northern Asia, but also Chile, Argentina, and Australia and New Zealand will have hardships, certainly, but the most severe problems will occur in the equatorial zone and sub-tropics.

Most developing countries, sadly, fall in this very zone. South Asia and sub- Saharan Africa will suffer considerably under climate change. For many other reasons beyond global warming, food security in these countries is already precarious enough. Today, 800m people around the world go hungry everyday. Most of them live in this central geographical belt and these numbers will only increase with the pressures from future climate changes.

Last November in Nairobi, the twelfth Conference of the Parties to the Climate Change Convention (COP 12) of the UNFCCC produced a five-year work plan - the Nairobi Work Programme on Impacts, Vulnerability and Adaptation to Climate Change. Until this point, we had focused on mitigating the effects of climate change. However, we must realize that climate change is already here: We can try to reduce its effects, but, frankly, we have no other choice but to help particularly vulnerable countries to adapt to this new situation - through different cropping patterns, crop varieties and so on.

Information gaps and digital divides

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is the first binding legal treaty on climate change. The Convention’s objective is “to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a low enough level to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” In other words, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so as to prevent global warming. Updates to the treaty, known as ‘protocols’, set mandatory emissions limits. The most important of these is the much publicized Kyoto Protocol.

For this to occur, a number of things need to be done. While action is needed at the political level, capacity building and the dissemination of information are also vitally important. Farmers, fishing and rural communities, have to be kept informed and supported in identifying methods of adaptation. The current information gap is perhaps our biggest problem. We can plan all kinds of things, but if these concepts, methods and examples are not formulated with the people most affected by climate change, then all our efforts are in vain.
To move forward, we naturally need expanded investment in information and communication technologies, otherwise, how else will such ideas be communicated?

The digital divide is unfortunately very acute in developing countries. Individuals and organizations with knowledge and experience with ICTs need to become more inventive and creative in applying their know-how to deal with this formidable threat, and to share their ICT awareness with others.
This, needless to say, is an enormous task.

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Dr Wulf Killmann is chair of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s (FAO) Interdepartmental Working Group on Climate Change.

15 February 2007

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