Climate change stunts opportunities for next generation — of us
Authorities including the World Health Organization and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have long posited that climate change will leave more children around the world vulnerable to hunger. That’s a reminder that our own species is just another kind of animal, and despite all our tools and technologies we, too, remain at the mercy of the weather.
It’s a logical claim, but the evidence behind it has not been rigorously assessed until now. So a team of researchers from Germany and the UK combed through research databases for both peer-reviewed studies and “gray literature” – scientific reports put out by governments and NGOs – addressing the effects of climate on undernutrition, especially stunting.
Stunting is defined as the suppression of a child’s height due to lack of food, but it doesn’t just affect stature. Stunting also increases children’s risk of dying from infectious diseases, delays them in reaching developmental milestones, and dampens their intellectual achievement.
Several aspects of the relationship between climate and nutrition are relatively well understood. Climate variability, changes in average climate, and extreme weather events influence crop yields – especially floods and droughts that can cause crop failures. Global climate change is likely to decrease agricultural production, especially in developing countries that are already food insecure. And for subsistence farmers, crop yields determine the food available to feed a family. Yet few studies fully connect these dots.
But while the literature in this area is spotty, most of it points in the same direction, the researchers reported yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. They identified 15 studies documenting an intersection of climate and undernutrition among children under age 5. The studies covered 16 countries, most of them in Africa but also including Bangladesh, India, Mexico, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea.
Of these studies, eighty percent – or 12 out of 15 – found that weather and climate variables significantly affect the risk of stunting in children. Rainfall patterns, such as a severe drought occurring early in a child’s life, are the most commonly implicated factor.
Past research has shown that, not surprisingly, extreme weather events like floods and droughts are connected to acute malnutrition in children. The new study suggests that these events can also influence chronic malnutrition, as reflected by stunting.
But the matter isn’t settled yet, the researchers caution. Most of the studies in the new analysis used data originally collected by other researchers or agencies for different purposes. Only 5 of the studies were based on data collected specifically to investigate the relationship between climate and undernutrition. And the studies mostly assessed children at a single time, rather than following their health and development over the long term.
Because direct primary data are scarce and long-term studies have not been conducted, scientists can only say that climate factors are associated with stunting – they can’t yet be certain that there is a causal relationship at work.
Other questions remain as well, such as how climate influences vitamin and other micronutrient deficiencies – not just the broad lack-of-calories undernourishment represented by stunting – and how these variables affect the urban poor, who buy their food rather than growing it.
Nevertheless, the worrisome results come on the heels of chatter last week (and a scientific study earlier this year) about the possibility that climate change played a role in igniting the Syrian civil war. Other studies have identified increased risks of infectious diseases due to climate change. War, pestilence, famine: all this suggests that climate change is not just a Horseman of the Apocalypse but something worse – it may be a driver of all the horses. – Sarah DeWeerdt | 28 July 2015
Phalkey, R.K. et al. 2015 Systematic review of current efforts to quantify the impacts of climate change on undernutrition. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1409769112
Header image: A woman in Mozambique waters her onion field, the beneficiary of an irrigation project designed to help subsistence farmers adapt to climate change. Credit: UK Department for International Development via Flickr.
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