Voices on the Road to COP 17: Food insecurity and the future

Kelly_OxfamInterview by: Elizabeth Hira, Human Rights Activist and Policy Unit Intern, CIVICUS

With: Kelly Dent, Senior Climate Change Policy Advisor for Oxfam International

Kelly Dent is Oxfam International’s resident expert on climate change. She is also the Economic Justice Manager for Oxfam Australia. Ms. Dent has been part of Oxfam International’s global policy team for the past three years, and is now using her expertise on food crises and climate justice to represent Oxfam’s mission during the planning for COP17. Ms. Dent’s current focus is to integrate Oxfam’s global efforts with South African efforts, particularly focusing on policy, lobbying, media, and building alliances that bring together a diverse range of players from both the global north and global south, to lead the call for climate justice at COP17. CIVICUS had the pleasure of speaking with her about the connection between Oxfam’s work and food security as it relates to poverty, and how all of these issues are intrinsically related to climate change and the urgent need for action.

What is Oxfam International’s stance on climate change?

Climate change is real, and it’s happening now. We believe the science, and in our own work, we see the impacts, across Africa, and across the world. I’m from Australia, and there we certainly see the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather. We’re seeing it here in Africa too with the floods and severe droughts in some areas. Human actions contribute significantly to climate change, and this needs to be fixed, for everybody, not just for poor people in developing countries, but for the global population.

Given Oxfam’s reputation as an organization working specifically on poverty and injustice, what is Oxfam’s stake in climate change? Why?

Obviously, Oxfam’s role is to help marginalized communities, predominantly in developing countries. Our focus is indeed on reducing poverty, but the link to climate change is clear. Climate change exacerbates poverty. It’s setting us back on even the modest gains we’ve made towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs); these goals can be used as benchmarks to see how far we’ve come and to set targets to alleviate poverty globally by 2015. All of these issues are interconnected: Oxfam’s climate work is particularly connected to food security; we look at the number of people in poverty who go hungry, and we see the connection to climate change. Climate change alters weather patterns and can increase the likelihood of natural disasters. This impacts food production and supply, which impacts price. On the ground, extreme weather might mean people have no crops to bring to market, or something as devastatingly simple as people having crops to sell, but no way to get them to market because the road is impassibly flooded.   
For instance, in Pakistan, floods wiped out the wheat crops, which had global and local effects: locally, wheat is central to staple foods like roti and naan, which hurts local people. Globally, though, the Pakistani floods, combined with the wildfires in Russia and the subsequent export ban on wheat, had a huge impact on the global price of wheat. We’re in trouble when people can’t afford bread. Another example, in the Pacific, we see the seal level rising, which we can attribute in part to climate change. This contaminates the soil, which in turn means that people can’t grow vegetables. Because of climate change, we need adaptive mechanisms to be put in place so people are able to do something as central as growing food. Right now, without those alternative adaptive mechanisms, without home-grown vegetables, we’re seeing an increased dependence on fatty food imports. Even these, though, are expensive, so people can’t afford much of them, and what they can afford is of very poor quality. Those who rely on food they grow can’t plant, because they don’t know when the rain or the frost will come, and this impacts the price of food for ordinary buyers who don’t grow their own food. A recent Oxfam report with the Institute of Development Studies noted that food prices will soon rise by some 70% to 90%. If you also account for climate change, we’re looking at a further 50% increase. This new report is part of our larger “Grow” campaign about food justice in a resource-constrained world. We began this campaign because the food system is broken and needs to be fixed. One in seven people on the planet go to bed hungry. Because climate change impacts food security, especially food security of the poor, Oxfam is involved.

Can you explain a bit more about the Grow campaign?

Oxfam has looked at climate change alongside food justice, but with the launch of Grow, we’ve integrated our approach. Food, health, and disaster risk reduction were always part of our climate work, but Grow brings us to a sharper focus on the change that is needed—that would make a difference to those in poverty. It’s striking to me that 2/3 of the people on this planet who go hungry are people who grow food themselves. We’re not saying that small farmers can feed the world, nor are we saying that industrial agricultural doesn’t have a role to play. We are just saying that if small scale farmers could feed themselves, and if industrial agriculture could moderate itself - and pay the true costs that it incurs in food production - we could go a long way to feeding the billion people going hungry every day.

What’s the direction we need to be going in to do something about this?

Well, we definitely need a fair, ambitious and legally binding agreement to reduce emissions. But, this alone is not enough. It’s a tool to drive down emissions nationally, and thus locally and globally. Because of what we’ve seen in our own work on the ground, we’re particularly focused on adaptation. What that means is, simply, how can people adapt to this changed reality of climate? How can people get food when contending with flood and drought, when soil is contaminated? How can women access water so they don’t have to walk farther and farther to supply their basic household needs? Are there traditional seeds that will grow in changed climatic conditions? To support the efforts of poor people to adapt, we need to see financing, and we need to see that that financing is going where it’s actually needed. Currently, 90% of funding is directed at mitigation - to reduce emissions. We support emissions reduction and know it’s needed. However, climate change is happening right now, and people need support immediately to adapt to that. Oxfam wants to see that 90% figure change to 50% and 50%, between mitigation and adaptation. This concern for adaptation, for food security, is just one vital perspective that’s an important contribution to the debate. Others can talk about biodiversity impacts or the need for renewable energy, and all of these perspectives are necessary. Oxfam’s view is that the impact of climate change on people in poverty will only get worse as climate change intensifies. Particularly if you’re poor, it’s cold comfort that emissions might be reduced in 10 or 15 years. Your interest is in feeding yourself and your family now. Poor people want some sustainable way of living in the short and long term. You need food and water in your bellies, and that should never be a daily struggle.

Oxfam International has been essentially involved in C17, the civil society coalition preparing for the Conference. What’s the value of such a coalition?

The C17 platform enables difference voices on climate change to be heard. All of these voices come together there. We don’t expect lots of people to necessarily look at it the way we at Oxfam do, but what it does accomplish is building one unified voice that tells people we need to take action, and now.

What are Oxfam International’s plans for COP17?

Because Oxfam has a presence both inside and outside of the COP17 negotiations, we’ve got a few different strategic efforts addressing different needs. We’re supporting the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA), who have activities across Africa planned which will culminate in bringing people who are actually experiencing climate change coming to Durban for the Conference. PACJA plans to travel and campaign through about six different countries on the continent, to gather a variety of African perspectives, and to raise awareness along the way about the impact of climate change on ordinary people. PACJA hopes to generate some political momentum to move towards change. We’ll also be active in the Global Day of Action, and we’ve been working closely with GCCA and others as part of the C17 process, bringing civil society together in preparation for the COP.

Do you have hopes that something concrete will come out of COP17?

We are definitely looking for something concrete to come out of this COP. The Conference isn’t everything, but it is a key part of the global process. National action, legislation, policy programmes and community based programmes are all really important. Multilateral action, even if it’s slow, plays the crucial role of bringing everyone together and is necessary in securing a global deal. That being said, we’re not likely to see a fair, ambitious and binding agreement from Durban, but concretely we can see that steps are taken to get there. We need implementation and operationalization of the Cancun Agreements. In particular, we need to see the Global Climate Fund (GCF) up and running with secure sources of financing. We don’t need an empty shell; we need money in that fund. GCF would be the fund where developing countries would have access to finances, and could attach that money to what they know is needed. To accomplish this, we need the fund to have equitable and transparent governance arrangements, ensure that policies are in place so that funding reaches the most vulnerable and marginalized in society, especially women, and that governments at a national level are accountable for the way funds are allocated. We must also be able to monitor these funds, so we can be sure that money is actually going where the most vulnerable people say it should be going—towards building resilient livelihoods for all people.
Regarding the sources of that funding, we need to make sure we see money from 2013 onwards, with developed countries contributing through assessed contributions. And we need to make sure that the money will keep coming in over the long term. In addition to contributions from developed country’s governments, we’d particularly like to see the funding happen through two important sources. One is the financial transaction tax, or the “Robin Hood tax,” which would be a tiny tax on big flows of finance between financial institutions. We also support an emissions trading scheme, or a levy on emissions, from shipping and aviation. In addition to bringing about much needed emissions reductions by these sectors there is also a huge potential for money raised from a levy or ETS to contribute towards tackling climate change in developing countries.
The other concrete thing we’d like to see result from the COP is a strong commitment to a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol.
Will all of this mean we’ll get a global agreement that will contribute significantly to a fair, ambitious and binding deal? It can. Again, these are all just steps towards where we need to be. The process isn’t the endpoint, but it’s important.

What do you think is the significance of the COP being in Africa?

When big meetings happen in Africa, good things come from them. One example is definitely the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS. More importantly, there are expectations that the legacy of Durban will be helping people across Africa adapt to climate change in real ways. Africa will be affected dramatically by any increase in temperature. Modelling is showing that a 2 degree increase in the rest of the world could be a 3.5 degree increase in Africa. This has huge implications, and figuring out how to adapt wouldn’t be everything, but it would be a huge contribution. I’m not a wild optimist, but I’m also not a pessimist either. You can’t not be an optimist and do this work.
Of course the greatest expectation of having South Africa host the COP is that African voices will be heard and listened to and acted on. We want to make sure that all civil society voices will be heard and able to participate. We have a lot to contribute, and if business can influence the negotiations, well, we have just as much to lend. If it can happen anywhere, it should and can happen in South Africa, given the history here of not only struggle, but of triumph. In Durban, we’ll see what South Africa can do for and with the rest of Africa.


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