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Latest climate change evidence confirms what farmers told Oxfam

New research has confirmed Oxfam's findings of many years, climate change is making life harder for farmers around the world. John Magrath, Programme Researcher, reflects on what we know and reaffirms the need for climate action.

A huge study published recently in the journal Nature Climate Change confirms findings from Oxfam research that asked farmers in a dozen countries how their climate was changing.

We published what farmers and rural workers told Oxfam in a series of reports from 2008 onwards. In Uganda farmers said the rainy seasons were shorter, rainfall timings had shifted, and there were more crop pests. In Malawi people described how the winds had changed direction and become more powerful and damaging. In Nepal people said monsoons were delayed, temperatures had risen to uncomfortable levels and rain had replaced snow. In Vietnam, higher temperatures caused drought; the flow of the Mekong River had been reduced so that sea water was advancing inland and ruining crops.

Observations came from Bolivia, Tajikistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, the Philippines and elsewhere. Women in rural areas particularly emphasised how such climatic changes were cutting crop yields, reducing water supplies and adding to pressures for family members to migrate, especially husbands and sons.

In 2009 we pulled together the observations from these and other reports and published What happened to the seasons?. In this report we argue that across the globe, seasons as they were known are becoming increasingly disrupted. Winters are disappearing; summers becoming even hotter; rain is becoming more intense but rainy seasons are becoming more erratic.

This is making life much more difficult for poor people to grow crops and make decent livelihoods. Yet because these 'everyday' changes did not necessarily constitute extreme events, or capture the news headlines, they were going 'under the radar' and under-reported.

Almost everywhere the weather is getting more unpredictable.  Now a group of Canadian researchers have conducted a 'meta-analysis' of studies that comprise 10,660 observations from 2,230 localities in 137 countries. Their paper Observations of climate change among subsistence-oriented communities around the world (subscription required for the full article) 'provide(s) first-hand and detailed descriptions of the complex interactions among the physical and biological components of the environment under climate change stresses, often in places where few or no instrumental data are available'.

So what do people observe? First and foremost, they experience changes in rainfall; not necessarily any less rain in total but shifts in the initiation and/or termination of rains, increasing unpredictability, atypical interruptions and dry spells during rainy seasons and increased intensity of rainfall over short periods. Droughts last longer and occur more frequently. People report experiencing warmer temperatures but also increased variability.

Almost everywhere the weather is getting more unpredictable.

Fresh water supplies are under great stress, due to a combination of climate change and socio-economic pressures such as growing populations and over-use.

The social impacts are very worrying. 'Fine scale environmental changes have enormous consequences for local communities' the report states. 'People are migrating more, eating less and walking longer distances to get water or reach pastures for their herds (while facing risks such as conflicts and violence)'.

Climatic changes can increase the divide between rich and poor farmers, 'as the latter have few options for adaptation other than praying for rain'. The changes are causing a decrease in crop production and an increase in crop pests and diseases with local, and potentially global, consequences for food security. The social impacts are very worrying. 'Fine scale environmental changes have enormous consequences for local communities'

Another recent study highlights how the record high temperatures that affected Southern Africa late last year and into 2016 are likely to get more frequent until such unprecedented heat waves become regular events, probably within 25 years.  At the same time yields of major cereals in some regions of the world have become more unstable due to temperatures exceeding the optimal range for yield formation.  

The implications are worrying. Scientific studies keep mounting up that show that like the proverbial frog, we are already sitting in a pan of hot water - and it is getting hotter. Yet on the global stage there is more talk than action.

I wish I could say that I felt more optimistic about the big picture, but faced with this dismaying new evidence one thing is clear. It has never been more important that we keep the dangers of climate change on the global agenda and continue to provide practical support to vulnerable communities faced with the challenge of adapting to a changing climate.