How the environmental crisis is already affecting us and who really bears the consequences

We are all concerned about our future and that of our planet. The many issues related to climate change are known to all of us, but we see them primarily as a problem of the future. We do not necessarily pay primary attention to the acute effects and profound emergencies that the climate crisis is already triggering.

The climate crisis is a very complex problem that is unlikely to be solved quickly. It is an issue that will affect us all. However, the current situation is highly unbalanced and unjust: Those who cause climate change and those who suffer the consequences are two different groups of people.

The Sahel: a major victim of climate change

The acute consequences of climate change are already being felt throughout Africa, especially in the Sahel.[1]In this region, more than 3.5 million people have already been forced to flee their homes due to flooding and desertification, and 24 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Due to temperature increases and changes in precipitation, deserts are forming and rivers are overflowing, forcing the local population to flee. These environmental changes are particularly drastic because the economy of these countries relies heavily natural resources. Climate change threatens agriculture, livestock, mining, but also tourism. These are all livelihoods for the resident population whose economic, social and existential security is now constantly threatened by the consequences of climate change. In addition, their status as developing countries complicates the situation. Access to funding, aid and research projects is severely limited and there is a risk of institutional failure due to additional local armed conflicts. The paradox is that Africa is currently experiencing the greatest effects of climate change yet has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions.

The Complexity of the concept of ‘Climate Refugees’

Not only in the Sahel, but also in South Asia and Latin America, people are suffering from the effects of climate change. For the population, migration is often the last and only option. These people are mistakenly referred to as ‘climate refugees’. This term is critical because there is no international agreement on the exact definition of it. There is widespread disagreement on who should be considered a climate refugee and how to resolve the crisis. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) favors the wording “persons displaced in the context of disasters and climate change.” The disagreement over the formal definition of ‘climate refugee’ is very problematic, as those who are forced to leave their home due to natural disasters are not officially considered refugees and thus are not protected under international law. International law does not protect them since they are not forced to flee because of their nationality, religion, or political beliefs. As climate change-affected states are often also developing countries who suffer from violent armed conflicts, several issues overlap and make this definition even more difficult. 

What is certain is that the number of climate refugees has risen sharply in recent years and already exceeds that of armed conflict refugees. At this time over 65 million people are affected, creating one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of this century. This issue requires global political coordination and the affected states cannot and should not bear the consequences alone. 

In fear of the impact of migration on Europe and North America, many financial resources are currently being invested in the migration crisis. This short-term solution may placate the problem, but it won’t solve it. In the long term, there is also a need to invest in concrete solutions to climate change and to comply with global agreements on the environment and greenhouse gas emissions. The UNHCR has an important role to play in being responsible for protecting climate refugees, promoting policy coherence in areas of climate change, research, and activities in the field.

An artistic appeal against climate change

In addition to the UNHCR’s commitment, the Coalition for Art and Sustainable Development (COAL) offers another interesting approach. Their goal is to make the acute problem of the climate crisis visible through art. They call on artists to address the issue of climate change and draw attention to it. Art has the unique potential of opening a personal perspective and addressing our feelings through a visual language. It can lead us to further our understanding of the abstract construct of climate change and strengthen our empathy for the fate of many of those affected. Annually, COAL awards a prize to contemporary artists working on environmental issues. In 2019, the prize was awarded to Lena Dobrowolska and Teo Ormond-Skeaping for their work “You never know, one day you too may become a refugee.” It addresses migration policies in Uganda. The country, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the world but has taken in over 1.3 million refugees is a model for climate refugee policy. In their artistic practice, the artists present a fictional reality of a white middle-class family forced to flee to Africa or South America. In their work, art makes itself apparent as a new tool for educating and raising awareness. They show how art can fight the environmental crisis in a sensitive and peaceful way.


[1] This affects parts of Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Sudan and Eritrea.

Why we need to change the way we think about food

Our world is host to an enormous disparity and contrast in food and nutrition security: At a global level, production of most food has increased faster than population growth and now exceeds the nutritional caloric average requirements. At the same time, there are devastating food shortage threats at local levels, especially in Africa, where many new food safety problems have emerged in Low-Income (LI) and Lower Middle-Income (LMI) countries. As of last year, more than 820 million people are suffering from hunger and sub-Saharan Africa is the sub-continent with the highest proportion of undernourished people.

How is it that in a globalized, interconnected world, food security is still such a challenging issue? 
First, we need to keep in mind that food insecurity is primarily a question of access rather than availability. Many components of the global food market are in fact controlled by a limited number of actors and in many areas, small farmers have little access to institutional, legal or financial support and therefore face big obstacles in entering global markets. Second, in several areas, agriculture is the main source of income for local communities and also one of the most vulnerable sectors to unexpected changes such as armed conflicts and environmental shocks. Furthermore, not only is the current system unequal and unjust to small farmers and producers, but it is also based on damaging agricultural practices (soil degradation, water contamination, atmospheric pollution), extremely wasteful, and responsible for an enormous amount of greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, it is socially, environmentally and globally unsustainable.  

In the future, we will be facing an increased population and demand for food. However, in many parts of the world, current agricultural systems will be unable to meet a growing food demand. The challenge of food security is therefore not only to produce enough food but to make it accessible to all, which means combatting poverty and inequality. If things are to change, the world needs to face a complex and intricate dilemma: producing high-quality food in sufficient quantities and at affordable prices, that is equally accessible and has a reduced environmental impact. The solution to this dilemma is a transition to more sustainable food systems. 

What is a sustainable food system? 

A food system includes the related resources, the inputs, production, transport, processing and manufacturing industries, retailing, and consumption of food as well as its impacts on the environment, health, and society. Food systems are strongly interconnected with human societies and, whilst it may be easy to ignore the consequences of our unsustainable food practices now, eventually, the whole world will be experiencing them one way or another.

The disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have further exposed the fragility of people’s access to goods and services and highlighted critical inequalities. Lockdowns and restrictions around the world have put enormous strains on local, regional and global supply chains and whilst developed countries struggled to cope with a sudden surge in demand and empty shelves, market closures across Africa, for example, have cut off vital access to provisions for local communities and sales outlets to farmers. Across the world, food system workers who already face insecurity and low wages are now the most at risk from economic disruption. Not to mention the millions of people who are living permanently on the cusp of hunger and extreme poverty, who are the most vulnerable to the effects of a global recession. 

A transition towards a more sustainable system would not only mean more equitable access to nutritional foods but it would also reduce food loss and waste, minimize the environmental impacts of production and increase the resilience of many food systems around the world. 
Such a transition could make a significant contribution to inclusive development, improve the quality of life of millions of people whilst also creating a viable environment for fighting climate change. In short, it would be a win-win for all.

How can we make this transition?

Food systems are central to the creation of a more sustainable and equitable world. However, each of us has a role to play in this transition. None of these issues is going to be solved merely through a top-down approach. We have a responsibility as a global community to act together across sectors and international borders to ensure a better quality of life worldwide.

On the governance side, concrete policies need to be enacted to ensure the quality of what we eat and the quality of life of all those who are involved in its production. This means allowing land access to new farmers as well as water rights and investing in risk prevention initiatives and social protection floors to safeguard all those involved in the production of food. It also means certifying supply chains and allowing equal access to resources and markets to small farmers to ensure the social and economic inclusion of civil society. 

The private sector needs to invest in new knowledge, technologies (such as hydroculture and vertical farming) and infrastructure which can lower environmental impacts and improve nutrition worldwide. It needs to cooperate with local communities to build a more resilient food system and invest in agroecology, a system that reconciles the economic, environmental, and social dimensions of sustainability. 

And lastly, we must not forget that there is much that can be done from an individual perspective. As consumers, we have the power to decide what choices we want to make, and we can no longer ignore the impact these choices have. Whether it’s reducing food waste, changing dietary and lifestyle habits or making more conscious decisions in our daily life, it is time for us to act now, to act together and to act differently.