23 February 2011 – The weather is turning bad, with disastrous consequences for food supplies, prices and political stability. Russia, Brazil and most worryingly China, are facing food shortages and soaring prices.
Writing powerfully on this topic in recent times has been Paul Krugman in the New York Time, Paul Gilding in Climate Spectator, Andrew Leonard in Salon.com
Below are excerpts
Droughts, Floods and Food
By PAUL KRUGMAN in The New York Times
We’re in the midst of a global food crisis — the second in three years. World food prices hit a record in January, driven by huge increases in the prices of wheat, corn, sugar and oils. These soaring prices have had only a modest effect on U.S. inflation, which is still low by historical standards, but they’re having a brutal impact on the world’s poor, who spend much if not most of their income on basic foodstuffs.
The consequences of this food crisis go far beyond economics. After all, the big question about uprisings against corrupt and oppressive regimes in the Middle East isn’t so much why they’re happening as why they’re happening now. And there’s little question that sky-high food prices have been an important trigger for popular rage.
So what’s behind the price spike? American right-wingers (and the Chinese) blame easy-money policies at the Federal
Reserve, with at least one commentator declaring that there is “blood on Bernanke’s hands.” Meanwhile, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France blames speculators, accusing them of “extortion and pillaging.”
But the evidence tells a different, much more ominous story. While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.
Now, to some extent soaring food prices are part of a general commodity boom: the prices of many raw materials, running the gamut from aluminum to zinc, have been rising rapidly since early 2009, mainly thanks to rapid industrial growth in emerging markets.
But the link between industrial growth and demand is a lot clearer for, say, copper than it is for food. Except in very poor countries, rising incomes don’t have much effect on how much people eat.
It’s true that growth in emerging nations like China leads to rising meat consumption, and hence rising demand for animal feed. It’s also true that agricultural raw materials, especially cotton, compete for land and other resources with food crops — as does the subsidized production of ethanol, which consumes a lot of corn. So both economic growth and bad energy policy have played some role in the food price surge.
Still, food prices lagged behind the prices of other commodities until last summer. Then the weather struck.
Consider the case of wheat, whose price has almost doubled since the summer. The immediate cause of the wheat price spike is obvious: world production is down sharply. The bulk of that production decline, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, reflects a sharp plunge in the former Soviet Union. And we know what that’s about: a record heat wave and drought, which pushed Moscow temperatures above 100 degrees for the first time ever.
The Russian heat wave was only one of many recent extreme weather events, from dry weather in Brazil to biblical-proportion flooding in Australia, that have damaged world food production.
The question then becomes, what’s behind all this extreme weather?
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Armageddon time again, already?
From Egypt to China: If global warming leads to revolution, the rest of the 21st century will be a rough ride
By Andrew Leonard in Salon.com
China, again, is exhibit A. On Tuesday, China’s government announced its third interest rate hike since October — as clear proof as anyone might need of social concern about the possibility of runaway inflation — a phenomenon most obvious in rapidly rising prices for basic food items. In a bad case of synchronicity, the U.N. also issued an alert on Tuesday “warning that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.”
“China’s grain situation is critical to the rest of the world — if they are forced to go out on the market to procure adequate supplies for their population, it could send huge shock waves through the world’s grain markets,” said Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines.
The state-run news media in China warned Monday that the country’s major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years. On Tuesday the state news agency Xinhua said that Shandong Province, a cornerstone of Chinese grain production, was bracing for its worst drought in 200 years unless substantial precipitation came by the end of this month.
In 2010 China imported 1.3 million metric tons of corn, the most since the disastrous harvest year of 1995-1996. But one industry group, the U.S. Grain Council, is already predicting that 2011 imports could jump as high as an astounding 9 million tons. China also imported a record 54.8 billion tons of soybeans in 2010.
In my visit to China last fall, the sharp rise in the cost of food came up in nearly every conversation. At the same time it was impossible to miss, in cities big and small, a display of conspicuous consumption at restaurants on a scale likely unmatched anywhere else in the world. It’s the globe in hyper-accelerated microcosm: Demand is exploding, at the same time that disastrous weather conditions are crushing supply. And while we can’t say definitively that the current Chinese drought is a direct consequence of rising temperatures, the correlation between China’s changing diet, rapid economic growth, and surging emissions of greenhouse gases is hard to miss. The faster China grows and the more high-protein pork and beef and chicken the Chinese eat, the worse it’s going to get.
Never mind the rest of the world — how the drama plays out in China might be all we need to watch to see whether the globe as a whole can successfully confront the challenge of balancing economic growth with access to affordable food and water and energy while ensuring that climate disruptions don’t completely upset the apple cart. Whether or not the Republicans in the U.S. Congress succeed in hobbling the EPA’s rudimentary stabs at limiting greenhouse gas emissions in the United States suddenly seems like an immaterial sideshow. If the past year is prologue, push is coming to shove in Asia, this year.
So no wonder China is censoring references to the Egyptian protests from the Chinese Net. Chinese citizens may not be on the verge of massing on Tiananmen Square to protest the rising price of peanut oil, but a clear revolution of rising expectations is well underway, and there is no good mechanism for the public to express its dissatisfaction if the government fails to navigate the rapids ahead.
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The Great Disruption
By Paul Gilding in Climate Spectator
The Great Disruption has arrived.
Why didn’t more of us see it coming? After all, the signals have been clear enough – signals that the ecological system that supports human society is hitting its limits, groaning under the strain of an economy simply too big for the planet. But we didn’t and, as a result, the time to act preventatively has past.
Now we must brace for impact. Now comes The Great Disruption.
It is true that the coming years won’t be pleasant, as our society and economy hits the wall and then realigns around what was always an obvious reality: You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Not ‘should not’, or ‘better not’, but cannot.
We can, however, get through what’s ahead – if we prepare. I wrote my forthcoming book, The Great Disruption, to help us do that. My conclusion in writing it was, not only can we make it through, we can come out the other side in better shape.
First, though, back to the present. There are countless analyses and metrics that clearly describe and record what is happening – our children will surely look back at what we can see now and ask, “What were you thinking?” One is oil prices, again on the way up, driven by surging demand in the developing world. Peak oil, long considered a fringe theory, is now widely acknowledged as inevitable, if not underway.
Leaked US diplomatic cables have revealed evidence that oil reserves have been overstated, along with German military reports framing the connected security threat and comments by the UK energy secretary that the risk is real. No surprises here. Consumption has been outstripping the discovery of new reserves for a long time and, as production peaks, prices will rise – probably dramatically – with major economic consequences. Obvious to those who look.
An even more obvious concern is food. More than anything else, I believe food will come to define our entry into this period. Food prices, after hovering around long-term highs for several years, are now passing the extreme peaks of 2008 as climate chaos takes hold.
With our population growing and our diets moving to more energy- and grain-intensive meat production, supply was already tight. So, when record heat waves and drought hit Russia, crashing their wheat harvest and leading to an export ban, the global price response was rapid.
Next was Brazil. Did you hear about the so-called “one in one hundred-year” drought in 2005 in the Amazon? Well there was another one in 2010, but this time worse. It appears that the Amazon, last year, was a dramatic net emitter of greenhouse gases rather than an absorber. Strange days indeed.
But actually not that strange, and certainly not surprising – you increase the thickness of the earth’s blanket and it gets warmer. Despite the wishful thinking of some, the global climate is behaving as the climate models forecast it would – a bit worse than expected but broadly in line. Indeed, 2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record and, by year’s end, the sea temperature off Australia was the warmest ever recorded.
With warm oceans releasing more water vapour, we saw floods of biblical proportions hit the agricultural regions of Queensland, killing 22 people and impacting an area larger than France and Germany. The floods were quickly followed by the most intense cyclone ever to hit Australia. Not good for food supplies, so expect prices to keep rising, especially considering that this was not a localised problem. Climate chaos is now worldwide, with an unprecedented 19 countries breaking temperature records in 2010.
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