"High food prices are contributing to MidEast unrest"
And, yes, extreme weather and high oil prices are major contributors to those price hikes
Leading experts, reported in the media, have made the case that high food prices are one of the triggers of MidEast unrest. Bizarrely, people who were once full-time professional journalists now dismiss the serious reporting of their fellow journalists — and are apparently completely unable to distinguish between underlying causes and triggering events.
- Washington Post headline (1/14): “Spike in global food prices contributes to Tunisian violence“
- Guardian headline (1/15): “Jordanians protest against soaring food prices: Protesters angry over high food costs and unemployment call for the prime minister to step down, in an echo of Tunisian demonstrations”
- NPR story (1/30): “Rising Food Prices Can Topple Governments, Too: Political unrest has broken out in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and other Arab countries. Social media and governmental policies are getting most of the credit for spurring the turmoil, but there’s another factor at play. Many of the people protesting are also angry about dramatic price hikes for basic foodstuffs, such as rice, cereals, cooking oil and sugar.”
I quoted all that in my Sunday piece, as well as Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House, who was interviewed at Davos (click here) and said the Egyptian riots “were driven partly of course by the rise of food prices.” Similarly, NPR notes:
Rising prices are “leading to riots, demonstrations and political instability,” New York University economics professor Nouriel Roubini said during a panel discussion. “It’s really something that can topple regimes, as we have seen in the Middle East.”
That high food prices are historically a major driver of political unrest is pretty much an uncontroversial historical fact. Indeed, there is actually recent research on this very subject:
Economists at the University of Adelaide, for instance, recently examined the impact that food prices have on civil conflict in 120 countries in the past 40 years. “Our main finding is that in low-income countries increases in the international food prices lead to a significant deterioration of democratic institutions and a significant increase in the incidence of anti-government demonstrations, riots, and civil conflict,” the researchers note. The same finding does not hold true in high-income countries, where citizens can better afford food.
That’s from a long analysis in Slate on how higher food prices are helping to fuel unrest in Egypt, “Protesting on an Empty Stomach,” which explains:
The price of oils, sugar, and cereals have all recently hit new peaks””and those latter prices are especially troubling for Egypt, as the world’s biggest importer of wheat.
Egyptians are particularly vulnerable to increases in food prices because they spend an unusually high proportion of their income on food, according to a recent Credit Suisse survey. “Food inflation is a specific issue” in the country, the report notes, “having reached over 20 percent””amongst the highest rates globally.” Egyptians spent more on food than respondents in any other emerging economy surveyed in the report””about 40 percent of their monthly income, versus about 17 percent for Brazilians and about 20 percent for Chinese and Saudi Arabians, for instance.
The Egyptian government does subsidize bread and other staples for poorer Egyptians, ameliorating the price increase somewhat. But most Egyptians purchase bread beyond what the subsidy allows. And the threat of instability has already pushed food costs higher in the Egyptian capital and elsewhere. Plus, rising food prices have a long history of causing social unrest in the country. In 1977, the state cut subsidies of basic staples, leading to deadly riots. In 2008, when food prices hit their first peak, Egyptians again took to the streets.
Now the question remains, why did food prices run up this time? Here again, there just doesn’t seem to be much dispute about the major contributing factors, starting with extreme weather. Last month, Scientific American reported, “world food prices hit a record high in December thanks to crop failures from a series of extreme weather events around the world“:
FAO attributes the upswing in prices to factors including the crop failures caused by a string of extreme weather events and high crop demands from an ever-increased global population….
Wheat, for example, bludgeoned by Russia’s wildfires, the heat waves in Australia and flooding in Pakistan, saw massive price surges last fall.
In its Tunisia piece the Washington Post noted:
The price of grains began to rise last fall after fires in Russia wiped out hundreds of thousands of acres of grains and heavy rain destroyed much of Canada’s wheat crop. The problems were followed by hot, dry weather in Argentina that devastated the soybean crop of the key exporter. This month, floods in Australia destroyed much of the country’s wheat crop.
The NYT itself explained last year, “wheat prices have “increased about 90 percent since June because of the drought in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and parts of the European Union, and floods in Canada.”
If there is any one out there who seriously disputes that extreme weather events were a major contributor to the run-up in food prices, please raise your hand so we can ignore your all of your analyses in the future.
The only serious debate is over the question of whether global warming played a role in the extreme events, particularly the Russian heat-wave/drought/fires and the floods elsewhere.
Scientific American notes that “Many experts have linked the series of floods and fires with climate change.” ABC news talked to 10 scientists for its stories on the subject, which concluded “Raging Waters In Australia and Brazil Product of Global Warming” and that global warming is playing a role in the extreme winter weather.
Russia of course famously banned wheat exports through the 2011 growing season thanks to an event so extreme that even the formerly skeptic Russian leadership made the link to climate — see Russian President Medvedev: “What is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past.” More extreme heat waves are one of the most basic predictions of climate science. Tamino calculated (at length) that global warming made the Moscow heat wave roughly eight times more likely: “Without global warming, this once-in-a-century-or-two event would have been closer to a once-in-a-millenium event.”
The deluge/flooding link is equally strong. Dr. Richard Somerville, a coordinating lead author on the IPCC’s 2007 review of climate science, explained to ABC bluntly:
This is no longer something that’s theory or conjecture or something that comes out of computer models. We’re observing the climate changing. It’s real. It’s happening. It’s scientific fact….
“Because the whole water cycle speeds up in a warming world, there’s more water in the atmosphere today than there was a few years ago on average, and you’re seeing a lot of that in the heavy rains and floods for example in Australia,” Sommervile said.
NOAA found that 2010 was both the hottest year on record and the wettest.
Derek Arndt, chief of NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch in the National Climate Data Center, said 2010 was “an exclamation point on several decades of warming.”
He said NOAA is tracking disasters like the floods in Brazil and Australia. “We are measuring certain types of extreme events that we would expect to see more often in a warming world, and these are indeed increasing,” Arndt said.
In an Exclusive interview with ClimateProgress earlier this year, Kevin Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section, explained a key connection between human-caused global warming and superstorms:
“I find it systematically tends to get underplayed and it often gets underplayed by my fellow scientists. Because one of the opening statements, which I’m sure you’ve probably heard is “Well you can’t attribute a single event to climate change.” But there is a systematic influence on all of these weather events now-a-days because of the fact that there is this extra water vapor lurking around in the atmosphere than there used to be say 30 years ago. It’s about a 4% extra amount, it invigorates the storms, it provides plenty of moisture for these storms and it’s unfortunate that the public is not associating these with the fact that this is one manifestation of climate change. And the prospects are that these kinds of things will only get bigger and worse in the future.”
Back in August, Trenberth told the NY Times, “It’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.” Trenberth explainedon NPR, that “some [weather events] we’ve had this year it’s clear- even though the research has not been done in detail yet -that the odds have changed, and we can probably say some of these would not have happened without global warming, without the human influence on climate.”
Meteorologist and former NOAA Hurricane hunter Dr. Jeff Masters of Weather Underground did an analysis of the big recent floods, which I reposted:
If we look at the departure of temperature from average for the moisture source regions of the globe’s four most extreme flooding disasters over the past 12 months, we find that these ocean temperatures ranked 2nd or 3rd warmest, going back through 111 years of history:
- January 2011 Brazilian floods: 2nd warmest SSTs on record, +1.05°C (20S to 25S, 45W to 40W)
- November 2010 Colombia floods: 3rd warmest SSTs on record, +0.65°C (10N to 0N, 80W to 75W)
- December 2010 Australian floods: 3rd warmest SSTs on record, +1.05°C (10S to 25S, 145E to 155E)
- July 2010 Pakistani floods: 2nd warmest SSTs on record, +0.95°C (Bay of Bengal, 10N to 20N, 80E to 95E)
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology’s “Annual Australian Climate Statement 2010,” explained, “very warm sea surface temperatures contributed to the record rainfall and very high humidity across eastern Australia during winter and spring. The most recent decade (2001ˆ’2010) was also the warmest decade on record for sea surface temperatures following the pattern observed over land.”
Masters himself told me:
In my thirty years as a meteorologist, I’ve never seen global weather patterns as strange as those we had in 2010. The stunning extremes we witnessed gives me concern that our climate is showing the early signs of instability. Natural variability probably did play a significant role in the wild weather of 2010, and 2011 will likely not be nearly as extreme. However, I suspect that crazy weather years like 2010 will become the norm a decade from now, as the climate continues to adjust to the steady build-up of heat-trapping gases we are pumping into the air. Forty years from now, the crazy weather of 2010 will seem pretty tame. We’ve bequeathed to our children a future with a radically changed climate that will regularly bring unprecedented weather events-many of them extremely destructive-to every corner of the globe. This year’s wild ride was just the beginning.
The nation’s top climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen has also recently written on the subject: Would recent extreme “events have occurred if atmospheric carbon dioxide had remained at its pre-industrial level of 280 ppm?” The “appropriate answer” is “almost certainly not”:
“Given the association of extreme weather and climate events with rising global temperature, the expectation of new record high temperatures in 2012 also suggests that the frequency and magnitude of extreme events could reach a high level in 2012. Extreme events include not only high temperatures, but also indirect effects of a warming atmosphere including the impact of higher temperature on extreme rainfall and droughts. The greater water vapor content of a warmer atmosphere allows larger rainfall anomalies and provides the fuel for stronger storms driven by latent heat.”
Munich Re, one of the world’s leading reinsurers, issued a news release in late September, “large number of weather extremes as strong indication of climate change,” which noted:
Floods in central Europe, wildfires in Russia, widespread flooding in Pakistan. The number and scale of weather-related natural catastrophe losses in the first nine months of 2010 was exceptionally high”¦. Munich Re emphasises the probability of a link between the increasing number of weather extremes and climate change….
Munich Re’s natural catastrophe database, the most comprehensive of its kind in the world, shows a marked increase in the number of weather-related events. For instance, globally there has been a more than threefold increase in loss-related floods since 1980 and more than double the number of windstorm natural catastrophes, with particularly heavy losses as a result of Atlantic hurricanes.
The rise in natural catastrophe losses is primarily due to socio-economic factors. In many countries, populations are rising, and more and more people moving into exposed areas. At the same time, greater prosperity is leading to higher property values. Nevertheless, it would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge as set out in the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report.
I fully understand why the anti-science crowd wants to shout down any discussion of the link between climate change and extreme weather, but it is baffling that people who were once full-time professional journalists want to dismiss any discussion of what may be the single most widespread impact of climate change on most of humanity, with dismissive tweets like “Everyone is finding his/her agenda reflected in Egypt uprising – even climate change” and opinion posts saying:
“The environmental community”? How about “the international community” and “major media outlets” and “leading food organizations”? And it isn’t that they “tried to finger high food prices.” It is widely understood that high food prices contribute to unrest generally — and in the MidEast right now specifically. And again, extreme weather clearly helped drive up the food prices.
One can try to make the case that extreme weather was just coincidental to record warming — but then one would have try to make the case, rather than simply dismiss it, when many of the world’s foremost authorities on the subject, quoted above, have explained the link clearly.
One last point. The argument that climate change contributed to high food prices now doesn’t mean that every single run up in the past must have been caused by climate change. But Miles Grant notes in a post today, “Yes, Global Warming Has Helped Trigger Past African Unrest” that Wikipedia explains:
In 2005, a series of climate modeling studies performed at NOAA / Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory indicated that the late 20th century Sahel drought was likely a climatic response to changing sea surface temperature patterns, and that it could be viewed as a combination of natural variability superimposed upon an anthropogenically forced regional drying trend.Using GFDL CM2.X, these climate model simulations indicated that the general late 20th century Sahel drying trend was attributable to human-induced factors; largely due to an increase in greenhouse gases and partly due to an increase in atmospheric aerosols. In IPCC future scenario A2 (CO2 value of ‰ˆ860 ppm) Sahel rainfall could be reduced by up to 25% by year 2100, according to climate models.
In any case, major historical events have multiple causes. Some are underlying causes, and some are precipitating or triggering causes. Those who believe they understand the underlying causes are only revealing their ignorance if they shout down or dismiss those who are trying to explore some of the precipitating or triggering causes.
The fact is we are on track to warm more than 5 times as much this century as last. So whatever we’re seeing now is going to get much, much worse — and be happening in the world with another 2 billion or more people. We need to have a discussion of what human emissions are doing now and what they are likely to do in the future on our current path of unrestricted emissions. It’s the only way we can make rational decisions about mitigation policies — while preparing for the ‘adaptation’ and misery we are imposing on our children and grandchildren if we fail to act swiftly (see Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery).
- The Coming Food Crisis: Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia’s fires and Pakistan’s floods are making a bad situation worse; Podesta, Caldwell: “Lasting gains in agricultural productivity will require … action to confront climate change.”
- Scientific American asks “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”
- Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path
- M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F
- Lonnie Thompson on why climatologists are speaking out: “Virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization”