Displacement, Food Insecurity, and Poverty: Examining the Social Effects of Climate Change in Latin America
By Maiara Folly

Displacement, Food Insecurity, and Poverty: Examining the Social Effects of Climate Change in Latin America

Feb. 23, 2024  |     |  0 comments

What are the social implications of climate change? The social effects of climate-linked events, such as heat waves, flooding, droughts, landslides, and rising sea levels are numerous. They significantly exacerbate socioeconomic and gender inequalities, amplify and create new health vulnerabilities, and aggravate food insecurity. These represent just a few of the many social disruptions provoked by climate change. It's also well-documented that these impacts are disproportionately felt by the world's poorest, especially but not exclusively in the global south.

But how do these dynamics translate into numbers? Let’s start with one of the most visible effects of climate change: human mobility and forced displacement. More specifically, according to the International Displacement Monitoring Center in 2022 alone, disasters displaced 8.7 million people. The World Bank estimates that without the implementation of necessary climate and development action policies, climate change will force more than 216 million people to migrate within their borders by 2050. Almost 8%, or 17 million, of these individuals would be in Latin America. People will migrate due to a combination of sudden events like heat waves and extreme weather events, as well as slow onset climate impacts such as occasional water scarcity and decreased crop productivity.

Among the tangible social effects of climate change, food security demands special attention. In Latin America, almost 90% of agricultural production depends on rainfall, it is only natural that the increasing frequency and unpredictability of rain patterns are already contributing to productivity losses in several parts of the region. While Africans are projected to see a 10% decrease in productivity, the methodological challenges in forecasting future patterns make precise predictions difficult. Nevertheless, the Inter-American Development Bank has projected that by 2050, agricultural production growth in Latin America could be 5% lower than it would have been without climate change. Other projections from different institutions estimate this decrease in productivity at 9 to 12%. The future of the region, to a large extent, depends on the fate of the Amazon, the world’s largest tropical rainforest and the most biodiverse region on Earth. Scientists have warned that the Amazon is nearing a tipping point, beyond which it could transform into a savannah, with certain areas already emitting more greenhouse gasses than they absorb.

What we have seen in the Amazon, particularly in the last four years, can be described as a vicious cycle. The growing international demand for commodities, especially soybeans and beef, has significantly contributed to an increase in the invasion of public lands and the deforestation of forested areas to expand agriculture and ranching. This dynamic not only contributes to climate change through direct emissions from deforestation and implemented activities but also by undermining the carbon sink effect of the forest. Consequently, small-scale farmers and producers are disproportionately affected. They often become targets of threats and violence by large corporations and environmental criminals, leading to their displacement. Moreover, their production, which relies less on fertilizers and irrigation, is often the first to suffer from the altered patterns of rainfall and temperature associated with climate change.

By diminishing the agricultural output of smaller farmers – who, in the case of Brazil, actually produce the vast majority of the food consumed by Brazilian families – we are reducing supply while increasing prices. Consequently, this threatens food security, particularly among the poor and most vulnerable groups who find themselves increasingly unable to afford food. Thus, climate change, by disproportionately affecting smaller farmers, perpetuates a cycle that prioritizes commodity production. This cycle is driven by significant socioeconomic and environmental impacts that fuel climate change. It does so at the expense of locally oriented, sustainable Brazilian food production systems, perpetuating a continuous cycle of disadvantage.

Having the issues of displacement and food security, let’s briefly touch upon the third effect of climate change that merits our attention: poverty. The World Bank estimates that the consequences of climate change could push more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. Climate-related events already pose significant obstacles to poverty reduction efforts. An insightful study by the World Bank, titled “Shock Waves,” provides clear examples illustrating how climate disasters contribute to the kind of shocks that can plunge families into poverty or prevent their escape from it. First, natural disasters like floods and landslides can lead to the loss of property and assets, thereby fuelling poverty. Second, health shocks, including the spread of transmissible diseases that may be exacerbated by climate factors can lead to health increased health expenditures or losses in labor income, further entrenching poverty. Third, losses in crops and consequent rise in food prices can threaten families’ ability to afford food. These dynamics already present in Latin America, are potent forces driving poverty in the region.

The region grapples with inadequate housing, with a significant portion of the population residing in areas prone to climate hazards. For example, the favelas in Brazil, are highly vulnerable to climate-related events due to their geographical locations. Additionally, some countries in Latin America are battling high instances of tropical diseases, such as malaria, dengue, and Zika. Research indicates that health challenges could intensify as consequences of climate change, a critical issue in a region where approximately 200 million people, or 32% of the population, live in poverty where 130 million individuals are unable to afford a healthy diet. This exacerbation of existing vulnerabilities highlights the urgent need for targeted interventions to mitigate the impacts of climate change and safeguard the well-being of the region's most at-risk populations.

These pressing issues — displacement, food insecurity, and poverty— are dire when considered individually. However, the situation becomes even more alarming when we take into consideration the current global context of slow economic growth, escalating debt levels among developing nations, rising food prices, and a cost of living crisis affecting many parts of the world, including Europe. This is all unfolding against the background of a weakened multilateral system, where global governing institutions have shown, a marked inefficiency in addressing the profound social implications of climate change. It's no secret we are witnessing significant cutbacks in climate financing and development assistance from developed countries, a trend exacerbated by, but not limited to, the impacts of the war in Ukraine. Moreover, older, more structural challenges persist, such as the enduring influence of global power politics on key institutions, including critical components of the UN system. This influence contributes to a fragmented landscape where specialized agencies often operate in silos, complicating efforts to deliver a coordinated response that enables countries to both mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change while advancing policies to promote social equality.

How can we navigate these challenges? A crucial first step is to enhance the connectivity within the existing multilateral framework, including the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. The G20 could serve as a pivotal forum for initiating efforts that ensure countries are not only committed to the Paris Agreement and its emission reduction targets but also to investing in adaptation. Such investments would enable food production systems, housing, health, and transport infrastructure to adapt and build resilience against the impacts of climate change. This alignment is necessary for combating hunger, poverty, and social inequalities effectively. Bridging these gaps requires a concerted effort to mitigate climate change and a robust commitment to advancing policies that promote social equity and sustainability.