Data revolution tested by African growth riddle

The most embarrassing development data cock-up of the last decade was quietly laid to rest in the back pages of The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013, published on Tuesday by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Spooked by the exponential rise in food commodity prices in 2007/08, the FAO declared in 2009 that 80 million people would be added to the 925 million already unable to access sufficient food. Writers on development issues, myself included, couldn’t resist generous use of the “billion” word, now that the count of global hunger was reputedly in that vicinity.

In 2011 the FAO took a sabbatical from publishing its annual headline statistic, such was the absence of verifying evidence for its food crisis figures. Sure enough, in last week’s report, the charted trend for global hunger shows not even the slightest blip in its steady downward path over those notorious years of food price security progress to MDGsThe FAO’s text shrinks from conducting a post mortem on this debacle. In a section entitled: “What was the impact of price volatility observed over recent years?” we learn that:

recent data on global and regional food consumer price indices suggest that price hikes in primary food markets had a limited effect on consumer prices

Such a conclusion is too broad, typical of the oblique discussion in the report. Many of the world’s poorest households did experience real hardship from rising prices, to the extent that there were food riots in many countries.

However, in the spirit of an evident desire to move on, the important question now is whether future global hunger statistics will be more reliable if price volatility returns to haunt us.

The FAO would doubtless point to its improved understanding of the economics of price transmission. But there’s no substitute for hard data, in particular the challenge of overcoming the inordinate delay in gathering household data in the world’s poorest countries.

In Dignity For All, the UN Secretary-General’s report on the post-2015 agenda debated at the General Assembly last month, he refers to the “opportunity for a data revolution” driven by the forces of new technology. Positive stories of collating real-time data on living standards are emerging across Africa, invariably enabled by mobile phone technology.

There’s an immediate test for this embryonic revolution. Is Africa the continent driving global economic growth, as conventional GDP figures suggest? Or do these growth figures merely chart the booming demand for natural resources, the GDP froth incapable of penetrating chronic poverty?

Figures published in The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013 question this “Africa Rising” narrative.  With hunger falling everywhere else, the numbers in Africa continue to edge upwards:food security Africa SOFA13Also published last week was the Afrobarometer, a survey compiled from over 50,000 household interviews across 34 countries. It concludes: “we find little evidence for systematic reduction of lived poverty despite average GDP growth rates of 4.8% per year.”

The relationship between GDP growth and poverty reduction is too important to wait five years for the machinery of household data collection to grind out an answer. Prizes await the organization that can successfully combine technology with the traditional skills of development intervention to solve this nagging riddle of development economics.


all charts are sourced from The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2013

So how many of the world’s people are hungry – From Poverty to Power

Food Security Tread Softly briefings

Loss of old certainties hobbles IPCC

I’ve just blown a large quantity of dust from my copy of the very first Assessment Report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990. I see that it cost me £19.95, yet I’m not aggrieved to observe signs that 336 of the 337 pages of scientific prognosis have never seen the light of day.

Sir John Houghton ©C3W

Sir John Houghton ©C3W

That single page Executive Summary played a small part in settling the compass of my life, which at the time was in search of direction. Presumably written by the redoubtable Working Group chair, Dr John Houghton, the Summary’s opening words – “We are certain” – conveyed what I expected from a report endorsed by “most of the active scientists working in the field.”

Two more confident sub-headings frame the Summary: “We calculate with confidence” and: “Based on current model results, we predict”

In just 300 words, policymakers preparing for the 1992 Earth Summit could appraise the causes of climate change, the projected rise in temperature and sea level, and the range of uncertainty. The frightening speed of what was happening in relation to natural planetary cycles was enough for me, then as now, to conclude that we have an existential problem on our hands.

Scientists working in 2013 on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report must look at Houghton’s text rather as the safety design team at Jaguar Land Rover might view the E-Type. The Physical Science Basis Summary published for policymakers last Friday contains no such helpful phrases: “we are certain” or “we predict”. Instead, the opening page introduces the topic of “probabilistic estimates of quantified measures of uncertainty.”

The text is weighed down with introspective statements validating the core concept of anthropogenic global warming by reference to observed change. Whereas the First Assessment Report allocated just one of its eleven sections to the question: “Has man already begun to change the global climate”, its successor devotes the first 11 of 19 headline messages to self-justifying evidence that the climate system is already behaving unnaturally.

I’m not sure that my 1990s self would have made it as far as page 14 where the section on Future Climate Change finally begins. Its opening headline offers the underwhelming news that “continued emissions of greenhouse gases will cause further warming.”

I’ve no doubt that the structured communication of uncertainty developed by the IPCC since 1990 represents an improvement in the scientific method. But the imposition of formulaic degrees of confidence in findings and likelihood of projections has been disproportionate to the overwhelming scale of the problem.

It’s one of the great paradoxes of our time that the precautionary principle in ecosystem management has been imposed so rigorously on the scientific method and so negligently on the unfortunate planet, for whose benefit it was adopted by politicians in the Rio Declaration of 1992.

The irony is that the sloppy science and clunky computers of the First Assessment Report produced results which have stood the test of time. Each of the confident predictions for 2100 in that 1990 Executive Summary would not look out of place in the Fifth Assessment projections; the temperatures are a little high and the sea level rise a little low. There’s even a prescient aside in the text warning that “the rise (in temperature) will not be steady because of the influence of other factors.”

The science of climate change is therefore marking time, in contrast to its cause. We all know what’s gone wrong – the failure of the political process in the so-called great democracy of the United States to counter the power of fossil fuel interests.

The IPCC agenda is now driven, not by contemporary anxiety about a sustainable planet, but by media campaigns of dubious partiality. Friday’s publication even analyses periods beginning with the infamous hot year of 1998, reducing the IPCC to the level of its critics. Many of the projections are suspiciously tepid, like a tray of hot canapés that has been hawked around a large room.

We can’t go on like this. The IPCC scientists have done a heroic job in standing their ground against the attack dogs, proving that their work and their methods are sound. But it’s time for the UN to take a careful look at the role of the IPCC, in the context of broader global environmental change – and of its milestone decision last week to pull together disparate programmes into a set of Sustainable Development Goals to take effect from 2015.

Summary for Policymakers from Fifth Assessment Report

Summary for Policymakers from First Assessment Report

Climate Justice Tread Softly briefings

Confined to barracks, consoled by Oscar Wilde

I’ve been laid low by a severe bout of blogger’s block, otherwise known as a surge in the demands of my real job. And there’s little prospect of remission.



This is an incurable malady of our times. If Oscar Wilde had been born a hundred years later, he would surely have set aside the demon drink and written instead that work is the curse of the blogging classes.

The worst of it is not so much the denial of my right to write, as the chronic narrowing of the arteries that govern my intake of happenings in the world at large. Most jobs compel us to be specialists in very small things.

The trouble with working in the NGO sector is that we are prone to small-mindedness; it’s generally possible to ply our trade without engaging with people who don’t think the way we think. The value of taking plenty of time out is to acquire a smattering of the cosmology of that parallel human universe.

Bill McKibben's Do The Math tour in Australia ©Canberra Times

Bill McKibben’s Do The Math tour in Australia ©Canberra Times

The gap seems to me to be getting wider, just at the moment when a common vision for the way we live may have become imperative. This is most easily understood in the context of fossil fuels. Those who hail the technology of blasting oil and gas out of rocks as our economic saviour appear quite unaware of those who plead to leave the stuff where it is.

These parallel universes exist in other dimensions, even if harder to locate. Recent weeks have seen a flurry of promises to end global poverty and hunger, led by the report of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Yet the same rich governments who boast of their commitment to this worthy cause allowed the last fortnight of negotiations in Bonn to pass without a single meaningful gesture towards the goals of the UN Convention on Climate Change. If we don’t protect crops from rising temperatures or shell-forming species from ocean acidification, the prospects for hunger in 2030 bear little resemblance to the promises of the Panel.

Last week Mayor Bloomberg was widely praised for his foresight in launching a $19.5 billion programme for “A Stronger, More Resilient New York.” A wide range of defences will protect New York City from the combined threat of rising sea level and more intense hurricanes.

Compare this investment for a single city with the US government contribution to the climate finance needs of all of the world’s poorest countries. On the most generous interpretation of the figures, the US contributed $7.5 billion over the three years 2010-2012. No further specific commitments are on the table, despite the treaty obligation on those countries most responsible for global warming.

I could go on – the divide between those who crave and those appalled at the idea of pricing biodiversity; between those behind agribusiness and those with faith in 500 million smallholders – but the sand falls too fast through my hourglass.

Oscar Wilde was right, once again: most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.


Scientists scour planet for attentive audience

I often wonder how future historians will marshal their evidence of our generation’s perplexing deafness to the warnings of environmental science. What symbolic folly will they sift from the shipwreck of contemporary culture?

I recently stumbled across an apt if somewhat frivolous example. It should first be said that last week was anything but frivolous on the prognosis for the planet. On three successive days, earth scientists bombarded us with reminders that their work is not being taken seriously.

©Cheng (Lily) Li

©Cheng (Lily) Li

The Governor of California was presented with a Consensus Statement signed by 500 global scientists warning that “human quality of life will suffer substantial degradation by the year 2050.” The Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security concluded that, in a similar timeframe, more than half of the world’s population “will be living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water.” The State of Nature report brings the distressing news that over 30% of UK wildlife species have “declined strongly” in a period shorter than my lifetime.

There’s nothing new about these set piece broadsides but the language is becoming more explicit, as though despairing in advance of the poor media coverage that invariably ensues. The science community is not a happy bunny in the Anthropocene.

Yet, as Professor Jeffrey Sachs told the UN General Assembly a couple of weeks ago, in an uncharacteristic mixed metaphor: “in 41 years since the Stockholm Conference (on the Human Environment) we have not changed the needle, even an iota.”

It was another speech at this General Assembly thematic debate on sustainable development and climate change that offered me a little wry amusement. Professor Johan Rockstrom, Director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and one of the world’s most persuasive voices on the threat to “planetary boundaries”, had been summoned to speak.

The static camera position in the UN chamber can sometimes capture the antics of unsuspecting platform members alongside the speaker. The first two minutes of Rockstrom’s speech juxtaposed his apocalyptic language on the fate of humanity with the inability of a hapless official from the General Assembly Secretariat to concentrate. Here in microcosm was the failure of global governance to listen to its own chosen experts.

Rockstrom: I speak not for the sake of the planet but for the sake of the future of the world as we know it
UN official: beckons to unseen aide

Rockstrom:  we are hitting the ceiling of ecological capacity of the planet to support the world
UN official: conducts genial chat with aide

Rockstrom: we are in the 6th great extinction of biodiversity on the planet
UN official: scrutinises and replies to cellphone messages

Sure, it’s unfair to pick on unguarded moments, but that future historian will have no scruples in selecting material.

I too was feeling a little unscrupulous as, in response to the New York summons, Rockstrom cancelled a lecture that I had hoped to attend. The STEPS research centre in Brighton has been probing the heart of the dilemma in the current post-2015 debate.

Many scientists say that a stable environment is a prerequisite for hopes of ending world poverty. The world’s poorest countries say that poverty reduction comes first.

Rockstrom is known to be fully engaged with this challenge which remains far from resolved in all the current discussion about a new set of Sustainable Development Goals.

I wonder whether he regrets his switch of venue. Everyone at STEPS would have listened to what he had to say.


Consensus Statement from Global Scientists

State of Nature

Bonn Declaration on Global Water Security

UN General Assembly thematic debate (Sachs starts at 25.00, Rockstrom at 1:57.45)

Sustainable Development Goals – Tread Softly briefings

Red line in Red List of Ecosystems

A week ago today a group of earth scientists published their paper on the Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. This important step towards competent management of our planet attracted little notice in the media.

Last week also saw the 400 parts per million landmark for atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide disappear into the rear view mirror. Having no more than symbolic significance, this event nevertheless prompted yards of commentary by all and sundry.

Groundwater dependent ecosystems support livelihoods in Vietnam ©IUCN Vietnam

Groundwater dependent ecosystems support livelihoods in Vietnam ©IUCN Vietnam

My initial reaction was to blame the IUCN communications people for missing such an obvious hook to promote their pet project. We’ve been warned constantly about the potentially terminal effect of rising temperature on vital ecosystems – notably the Amazon rainforest and the coral reefs.

Surely the looming 400ppm threshold could have been exploited to stress the urgency (and the need for funding) of the Red List initiative? By 2025 it aspires to classify the world’s threatened ecosystems – terrestrial, marine, large and small – as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, labels familiar from the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

This blind spot seemed to be just another example of silo thinking within our environmental advocacy establishment. Then I took a closer look at the 25-page scientific paper, the 45-slide presentation by Ed Barrow, Head of IUCN’s Global Ecosystem Management Programme, together with the latest media material and new website.

To my surprise, the impact of climate change is barely mentioned – just a fleeting reference to the role of stable ecosystems in creating resilience.

The scientists may argue that they have chosen to focus on biodiversity loss as the primary risk factor in ecosystem collapse, drawing a red line against broader ecological changes that might be linked more readily with global warming.

However, last week also saw the publication of new research led by the University of East Anglia which casts some doubt on the wisdom of the IUCN approach.

This research focused on the how the habitats of plants and animals will be affected by climate change. Dr Rachel Warren from the University of East Anglia told the BBC that “climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world.”

I can’t for a moment challenge the science of the IUCN paper. But I continue to be worried that two major UN Conventions – on climate change and on biological diversity – are beating their separate paths. It’s understandable that scientists and campaigners whose careers are inextricably linked with one tend to lose sight of the other. Perhaps those of us working in communications and education need to strive harder to make the connections.


New study shows importance of IUCN’s Red List of Ecosystems from IUCN

‘Dramatic decline’ warning for plants and animals from BBC

Climate Change and Biodiversity – Tread Softly briefing


Switch to our mobile site