The Economist: “The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt.”

Nobelist Krugman: “It sure looks like climate change is a major culprit” in the extreme weather that has run up food prices

The expert consensus on the key role that high food prices have played in MidEast protests continues to grow (see my multi-part series on food insecurity).  Indeed, governments in the region themselves are so concerned about the threat of food insecurity to their stability, they are starting to stockpile grain, which, ironically, will further drive up prices, as The Economist explains in their February 3rd edition.

Nobel Prize economist Paul Krugman also weighs in with a major NYT column, “Droughts, Floods and Food” (excerpted below), which also makes the connection I have been focusing on between extreme weather (driven in part by climate change) and food prices.

UPDATE:  And don’t miss the UK Guardian‘s new piece today, “Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn.”

First though, the Wall Street Journal provided us some more insight into the role extreme weather is playing in the food-price run-up in their article last week, “When Will Russia Resume Grain Exports Again?”

Russia stopped grain exports last summer after the worst drought to hit the country in over a century ravaged the country’s harvest and cut production by nearly 40%. The ban sent shockwaves through international markets and propelled wheat prices to highs not seen since the 2007-08 food crisis.

That impact is, I think, well understood — 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.” But now it’s clear that the unprecedented heat wave and drought didn’t just devastate the country’s harvest at the time — it has hurt their current harvest:

Acreage for 2011 winter grains fell nearly 3 million hectares short of forecasts after the drought made the ground too hard to plant. In the Volga and South Ural regions, which account for around 20% of the total area seeded, the problems were particularly acute and plantings may need to be replaced in spring.

“Farmers are facing a huge problem to get their grain in the ground and have a decent crop for 2011,” said Peter Biermann, general manager of grain export operations at Swiss grain trader ASTON FFI.

The extraordinary devastation wrought by Russia’s drought should be especially worrisome to anyone concern about the future impacts of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions.  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.”

On our current emissions path, Russia’s grain-export-ending heat wave and drought could become a once-every-decade event “” or even more frequent.  And many other agricultural regions of the planet face even more devastating extended droughts that ultimately become permanent Dust Bowls:

The WSJ takes it for granted that high food prices played a role in the MidEast unrest — and they are skeptical as a result that Russia will end its export ban anytime soon:

And with the possibility of an election in 2012 and food security rising up the global agenda as riots spread across North Africa, allowing precious grain out of the country could be political suicide….

Hussein Allidina, head of commodities research at Morgan Stanley, said that with disappointing domestic production, limited import availability from the European Union and low government stocks, exports look unlikely this year.

Our balances suggest that Russia is increasingly likely to extend its export ban at least through the end of 2011 and perhaps longer,” he said.

The Economist‘s analysis takes similar view:

High food-price inflation has cut spending power across emerging economies … where keeping bellies full accounts for a much larger share of income than in rich countries. The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. The price of bread has shot up since last summer when a drought in Russia, one of the world’s largest wheat suppliers, hit harvests and prompted an export ban.

Analysts at Goldman Sachs point out that countries in the region may feel the need to head off political instability by spending to stockpile grain. Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Jordan have all stepped up efforts to build stockpiles. This could raise the pressure on other countries to hoard wheat, pushing prices even higher.

This vicious cycle is something that Lester Brown discussed with me in mid-January (see Washington Post, Lester Brown explain how extreme weather, climate change drive record food prices).  During a food crisis, having food for your populace becomes a top priority, and that causes hoarding, which in turn runs up food prices.  In the short term, of course, someone could have a great harvest that temporarily alleviates the problem, but the longer term trends, including climate change, make food crises more and more inevitable.

And that brings us to Krugman’s article today on the “global food crisis”:

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.”

… 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.

… 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?

To some extent we’re seeing the results of a natural phenomenon, La Ni±a “” a periodic event in which water in the equatorial Pacific becomes cooler than normal. And La Ni±a events have historically been associated with global food crises, including the crisis of 2007-8.

But that’s not the whole story. Don’t let the snow fool you: globally, 2010 was tied with 2005 for warmest year on record, even though we were at a solar minimum and La Ni±a was a cooling factor in the second half of the year. Temperature records were set not just in Russia but in no fewer than 19 countries, covering a fifth of the world’s land area. And both droughts and floods are natural consequences of a warming world: droughts because it’s hotter, floods because warm oceans release more water vapor.

As always, you can’t attribute any one weather event to greenhouse gases. But the pattern we’re seeing, with extreme highs and extreme weather in general becoming much more common, is just what you’d expect from climate change.

The usual suspects will, of course, go wild over suggestions that global warming has something to do with the food crisis; those who insist that Ben Bernanke has blood on his hands tend to be more or less the same people who insist that the scientific consensus on climate reflects a vast leftist conspiracy.

But the evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.

Yes, the usual suspects have gone wild over suggestions that global warming has anything to do with the food crisis.  Ironically, these tend to be the same people who say that the best strategy for dealing with global warming is adaptation — but then they deny that there actually any serious impacts we need to adapt to, making adaptation a purely rhetorical strategy for dealing with global warming (see “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery:  Rhetorical adaptation, however, is a political winner. Too bad it means preventable suffering for billions”).

My favorite line of Krugman’s is from his blog post:

Obligatory disclaimer: no one event can be definitively assigned to climate change, just as you can’t necessarily claim that any one of the fender-benders taking place right now in central New Jersey was caused by the sheet of black ice currently coating our roads. But it sure looks like climate change is a major culprit. And it’s not just the FSU: extreme weather elsewhere, which again is the sort of thing you should expect from climate change, has played a role in bad harvest around the world.

The crucial bottom line remains:  “Given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.”  If we don’t act soon we will see 5 to 10 times as much warming this century as we did last century.  And that is likely to make food insecurity a permanent proposition for billions of people.

UPDATE:  The UK Guardian‘s piece today has some expert analysis on where we are and where we’re headed:

World leaders are ignoring potentially disastrous shortages of key crops, and their failures are fuelling political instability in key regions, food experts have warned.

The crises in those countries have served as a stark example of what can happen when food prices spiral out of control and add to existing political problems, said Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute. “It’s easy to see how the food supply can translate directly into political unrest,” he said.

Richard Ferguson, global head of agriculture at Renaissance Capital, an investment bank specialising in emerging markets, said the problems were likely to spread. “Food prices are absolutely core to a lot of these disturbances. If you are 25 years old, with no access to education, no income and live in a politically repressed environment, you are going to be pretty angry when the price of food goes up the way it is.”

He said sharply rising food prices acted “as a catalyst” to foment political unrest, when added to other concerns such as a lack of democracy.

Brown warned that the longer term outlook was also bleak. Many arid countries have managed to boost their agricultural production by using underground water sources, but these are rapidly drying up. He cited Saudi Arabia, which has been self-sufficient in wheat for decades but whose wheat production is collapsing as the aquifer that fed the farms is depleted.

Water scarcity, combined with soil erosion, climate change, the diversion of food crops to make biofuels, and a growing population, were all putting unprecedented pressure on the world’s ability to feed itself, according to Brown. This would fuel political instability and could lead to unrest or conflicts, he said. “We have an entirely new situation in the world. We need to recognise this.”

Rising food prices in the next few months could trigger a wave of reactions from governments that would exacerbate the current problem, argued Maximo Torero, of the International Food Policy Research Institute. “The big danger is that you get political pressure on countries to put in place restrictions on food, such as export bans on grains. We need to be very careful, as the situation is very tight and any additional pressure could take us to a very similar position to the one we had in 2007 and 2008.”

There were widespread food riots in 2008 in Africa, Latin America and some Asian countries, as soaring grain prices put staple foods out of reach of millions of poor people.

Camilla Toulmin, director of the International Institute for Environment and Development, urged politicians to begin to tackle some of the root causes of food insecurity. “It’s not surprising that you are seeing people coming out on to the street to protest, given the price rises. You are going to see a lot more of this unless governments start addressing the fundamentals, such as climate change, water scarcity and dependence on oil. We need to create more resilient systems of agriculture for the future.”

The problem could not be more urgent, added Brown, who warned that politicians around the world had ignored food security and water scarcity for years. “We are quite literally on the edge of chaos. Whether we can draw back from the edge, and create food price stability – I don’t know.”

41 Responses to The Economist: “The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt.”

  1. Prokaryotes says:

    According to Krugman, his interest in economics began with Isaac Asimov’s Foundation novels, in which the social scientists of the future use “psychohistory” to attempt to save civilization. Since “psychohistory” in Asimov’s sense of the word does not exist, Krugman turned to economics, which he considered the next best thing.

    Krugman earned his B.A. in economics from Yale University in 1974 and his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1977. While at MIT he was part of a small group of MIT students sent to work for the Central Bank of Portugal for three months in summer 1976, in the chaotic aftermath of the Carnation Revolution.[20] From 1982 to 1983, he spent a year working at the Reagan White House as a staff member of the Council of Economic Advisers. He taught at Yale University, MIT, UC Berkeley, the London School of Economics, and Stanford University before joining Princeton University in 2000 as professor of economics and international affairs. He is also currently a centenary professor at the London School of Economics, and a member of the Group of Thirty international economic body. He has been a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research since 1979

    Hard to find someone with more credibility, maybe his message helps to avert some of the worst case scenarios, which we are about to approach with accelerating speed.

  2. Scrooge says:

    Keep the news flowing. Facts will prevail over talking dittoheads. Deniers are a fact of life. It doesn’t matter why they deny, we can’t let their problem become our problem. We will get to the point where we can just ignore the idiots.

  3. Peter M says:

    It will be much worse- ask me here in Connecticut- with the disaster we have gone through- what will it be like by 2020? When still nothing concrete will be done.

  4. When the impact is felt globally, the press takes notice…

    But you aren’t seeing these stories getting much press:

    Oxfam is currently helping nearly 1.9 million people affected by the disaster, but this is dwarfed by the number of people who are in need. Swathes of land remain underwater, food prices are sky-rocketing and malnutrition is a serious concern in the south of the country. Across the nation, some one million people are facing Pakistan’s harsh winter without adequate shelter.

    Pakistan flood hunger rising

    A severe drought is causing increasing hunger across the Eastern Sahel in west Africa, affecting 10 million people in four countries, aid agencies warned today. In Niger, the worst-affected country, 7.1 million are hungry, with nearly half considered highly food insecure because of the loss of livestock and crops coupled with a surge in prices. In Chad, 2 million require food aid. The eastern parts of Mali and northern Cameroon have also been badly affected by the failed rains, says the UN World Food Programme, which described the situation as critical. The Sahel, a largely arid belt of land that stretches across Senegal to Sudan and separates the Sahara desert in the north from the savannah regions further south, is one of the poorest regions in the world. The WFP, which plans to assist 3.6 million people in the coming months, has described the humanitarian situation in the four affected countries as “critical”, and says the hunger season is expected to last at least until the next harvest in September.

    Severe drought causes hunger for 10 million in west Africa

  5. Douglas says:

    Nice to see Krugman call out Mish. That guy is a major anti-environment, anti-labor, libertarian nutcase — with a disturbingly large following.

  6. paulm says:

    Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn
    Soaring prices for staples is thought to have been one of the factors contributing to unrest in Egypt and Tunisia

    The problem could not be more urgent, added Brown, who warned that politicians around the world had ignored food security and water scarcity for years. “We are quite literally on the edge of chaos. Whether we can draw back from the edge, and create food price stability – I don’t know.”

  7. Prokaryotes says:

    Failure to act on crop shortages fuelling political instability, experts warn
    Soaring prices for staples is thought to have been one of the factors contributing to unrest in Egypt and Tunisia

  8. Prokaryotes says:

    Brown warned that the longer term outlook was also bleak. Many arid countries have managed to boost their agricultural production by using underground water sources, but these are rapidly drying up. He cited Saudi Arabia, which has been self-sufficient in wheat for decades but whose wheat production is collapsing as the aquifer that fed the farms is depleted.

    Water scarcity, combined with soil erosion, climate change, the diversion of food crops to make biofuels, and a growing population, were all putting unprecedented pressure on the world’s ability to feed itsel

  9. Prokaryotes says:

    paulm was faster :eek:

  10. Heraclitus says:

    Pielke JR has a post up about Krugman’s article and I may be being completely obtuse (and so apparently then is ‘Sam’ in the comments section) but he seems to have entirely missed the argument. Pielke repeatedly points to the long term drop in food price as evidence that there is no link, other than possibly a positive one, between rising temperatures and food price. But it’s the short term impacts of extreme weather events and the volatility in food prices that Krugman is pointing to and this increase in extreme events is already detectable in the global records and likely to become much more so in the next few decades.

    I’ve only occasionally visited Pielke JR’s site before and I’ve tried to have an open mind on him, but this does little to encourage either in the future.

    [JR: There is a group that may best be called the “climate impact deniers” — it claims to accept climate science, says that out best strategy is adaptation, but then spends all their time explaining how there aren’t actually any climate impacts we need to worry about.

    As you say, Pielke utterly misrepresents Krugman’s position — and ignoring these scores of leading experts who agree with Krugman.]

  11. Colorado Bob says:

    On the supply side, forecasts this week talked of further freezing temperatures for US hard red winter wheat seedlings which are, in many cases, protected by only a thin snow blanket.

    “No significant precipitation and more subzero cold this week, [with wheat] under limited protective snowcover will continue to stress the wheat crop,” Mike Palmerino, a forecaster with Telvent DTN, said adding that “further declines in crop ratings” were on the cards.–954.html

  12. Colorado Bob says:

    Southern Africa May Face Worst Flooding in Decades

    FAO Senior Emergency Officer Jean Alexander Scaglia says parts of Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Madagascar are affected.

    “We are just right in the middle of the cropping season in many of these countries. So the impact of the flood damage can be very high in terms of the future harvest,” he says. It’s possible, he adds, that the entire season’s harvest could be lost.

  13. Colorado Bob says:

    ROME — Floods and heavy rain across southern Africa have damaged thousands of hectares (acres) of farmland and more may be hit in coming weeks, raising fears for food supplies, the UN food agency said Monday.

  14. Prokaryotes says:

    Hunger and food security: Is Africa selling the farm?
    By Scott Baldauf | Published Mon, Feb 7 2011 8:14 am
    ANTANANARIVO, Madagascar — In March 2009, civilian protesters led by a baby-faced former disc jockey swarmed through the streets of this hilly capital city. They were calling for the ouster of then-President Marc Ravalomanana for what they saw as literally giving away the farm, selling out his impoverished nation.
    The anger was about food. Mr. Ravalomanana reportedly had leased 3.2 million acres – nearly half the island nation’s arable land – to a South Korean conglomerate, Daewoo, for 99 years. In theory, it should have been a win-win deal: Daewoo would pay Madagascar $6 billion to grow corn and oil palm, helping South Korea meet both its food-security and bio-fuels needs, while providing Madagascar with revenues and desperately needed jobs.
    But the protests, ultimately backed by the military, showed that the Madagascan people – 70 percent of whom live in rural areas and nearly 50 percent of whom suffer chronic malnutrition – saw the deal as a “land grab” and a threat to their country’s survival. Ravalomanana fled the country within days, and a military-backed junta led by the young DJ, Andry Rajoelina, took control. The Daewoo deal was promptly scuttled.

    Africa is drawing dozens of corporate giants like Daewoo and even governments of such nations as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Brazil, Japan, and even India (which is food self-sufficient) to grow the food and biofuel crops they need back home. The coup in Madagascar and food riots in Mozambique last August – which followed news of a similar food and biofuels deal with the European Union and Brazil – are a warning sign of the volatility of the global balance of wealth and poverty that foreign investors and African leaders face.
    By all rights, Africa could be a breadbasket for the world. Its fertile land, lengthy rivers, and farm labor tempt investors from around the globe.
    But the continent continues to import the bulk of its staple food items, including corn, wheat, and rice from richer countries. On paper, foreign investment in African agriculture should correct that trade imbalance and help Africa become food self-sufficient. With global food prices skyrocketing (see story, page 8), the demand for biofuels increasing, and the amount of arable land static, Africa is well situated to capitalize on global demand. And with its vast rural populations living on less than $1 a day, it would seem hungry for such deals.

  15. Prokaryotes says:

    Hunger and food security: One way to create an African breadbasket
    Foreign investment in a Zambian farming firm may be a business model for Africa’s hunger and food security problems.

    Mkushi, Zambia
    The rolling hills of this part of Zambia were long known for the copper that brought mining companies from the United States, Britain, and China to compete for contracts here. And, in turn, it was known as a jobs mecca for laborers from miles around.

    The unpredictable cycles of boom and bust, supply and demand, ensured that today’s success story would soon be tomorrow’s padlocked factory gate.

    But the food crisis of 2007, when food prices skyrocketed because of growing demand for biofuels, has attracted a very different kind of foreign investor. Where mining executives look at maps and calculate the riches they can extract from shafts 300 feet deep in the ground, the new foreign investors are calculating wealth above ground, in rows of corn and wheat; and their plans envision the creation of tens of thousands of steady jobs and a revival of a rural economy that contributes more to the local community than mining ever did.

  16. PurpleOzone says:

    Heraclitus — on account of your post I went to Pielke’s website. Thanks so much. My mind was torqued around in his maze.

    I now have to reboot my head.

  17. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #10: To the surprise of probably no one, Revkin stenographizes Pielke Jr.’s shoddy analysis, looks to Kloor(!) for further support (is this circle journalism?), and utterly fails to examine the underlying question of what if anything long-term trends in food price and supply have to do with the immediate crisis. The paper Pielke cited provides no help for Revkin’s view, being largely an analysis of the prior (non-weather-related) 2007/8 price spike and its historical context. To cap it all off he sticks Joe’s further response way down at the end of the very long post, where many readers won’t even see it.

    On the plus side, Krugman’s column readership is vastly greater than Revkin’s, although I would not be surprised if many other journalists will want to follow Revkin’s lead out of a misguided sense of professional loyalty.

    [JR: Bloggers are but a grain of sand in the hourglass of time compared to a print columnist. And yes, it continues to amaze me which long-debunked people he cites….]

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    In Australia we have just had Ross Garnaut, who works for the Government on climate change note, in accord with the global scientific community, that there is a very high likelihood that our recurrent weather disasters are caused or at least exacerbated by anthropogenic climate disruption. The MSM and Rightwing politicians reacted with fury, as ever. Denialism is an innate feature of the type nowadays, driven by ideological zealotry. It’s a bit like cancer, when you think of it. Smoke for years and get lung cancer, but there is no way, other than to balance the probabilities, to prove ‘conclusively’ that it was tobacco smoking, and not just some ‘anarchistic gamete’ that decided to do you in.
    The food crisis has hit with savage intensity, and, while I pray that I am wrong, I see it getting worse, very quickly, and proving devastatingly destabilising. Of course climate disruption and crop failure is, in my opinion at least, the prime cause, but we must not neglect other elements. Commodity speculation does have an exacerbating role, as ‘Helicopter’ Ben Bernanke’s trillions in dollars conjured out of thin air slosh around the global markets, looking, as ever, for the quickest and greatest speculative return on offer. It’s just another example of the really existing Invisible Hand of the Market, just that this time its throttling the poor..again! Then there is the madness of ethanol for fuel, of destroying rainforest for bio-diesel and the growth of meat consumption. Toss in GE crops and the ‘superweeds’ they are causing to proliferate, peak oil and peak phosphate, topsoil and groundwater depletion, loss of glacial water flows and growing population and, let’s face it, we are deep, deep, in it.And vast billions are already existing on a knife-edge, decades of ruthlessly imposed ‘market solutions’ having impoverished billions and left them living hand to mouth. Egypt is a perfect example, a loyal stooge of the US and Israel, where the kleptocrat in chief, whose family has made off with 70 billion, presided over IMF and World Bank ordered privatisations and marketisations that resulted, as everywhere else they were imposed, in a tiny parasitic elite controlling the economy, unions busted, workers immiserated and political opposition ruthlessly crushed by terror and torture. It’s the ‘Washington Consensus’ in its starkest form, a globalised neo-feudalism with humanity reduced to serfdom and debt bondage, while a tiny, avaricious, parasitic elite parties on.

  19. Prokaryotes says:

    And Australians so called climate commitment is about astounding 5% emission reductions. And per capita emission ranks top, a shame for Australia and a shame for the entire human race.

  20. Aaron Lewis says:

    Considering our lack of experience with the practical effects of AGW, I do not see that Russia, or any other country has any idea what next year’s crop will be. Last March, Russia was expecting a normal wheat harvest, followed by normal planting for the 2011 crop. Then, a small change in the jet stream and all hell broke lose.

    Given the recent and ongoing odd behavior of the polar vortex, we have not been this uncertain about what the weather next season will be since the days of Torricelli.

    Consider the winter storms that have hit the US this winter. Most consider them an excursion from the recent climate. I think those storms may be driven by changes in polar vortex/jet stream, and that as the Arctic Sea ice melts, we will see more and more extreme weather in winter and in summer. Certainly, recent behavior of the Arctic sea does not hint at its recovery, and more changes in the polar vortex.

    Welcome to 0.8C degree of AGW.

  21. Rick says:

    Sorry Paul is a dinosaur. What’s really going on is this:

    PS – I’m a Peak Oil person and AGW is real, but right now the above link is what’s really going on.

  22. Mark Shapiro says:

    Mulga! Another high-octane, must-read comment.

    Things don’t have to get worse very quickly, though. We expect weather, and thus harvests, to get worse over time, but not linearly. Things will bounce around. And we should remember that markets do make people adjust. As water and food become scarce, prices rise, so people waste less, grow more, and eat lower down on the food chain.

    The wildcard: unrest. People can’t be counted on to starve quietly. And we know how easy it is to sell fear and hatred (you note: “the MSM and Rightwing politicians reacted with fury . . . ” and you have a big dose of Murdoch down under).

    It might be time to dust off Thomas Homer-Dixon’s book “the Upside of Down”. How do people react to system failures? Can we make our societies more resilient? It’s worth a solar-powered try!

  23. David B. Benson says:

    Heraclitus @10 — Just ignore RPJr and preserve your sanity.

  24. William P says:

    For anyone seeking an advanced course in climate denier tactics, see Dylan Ratigan’s show segment claiming food shortages are all the fault of the Fed buying government securities to pump money into the economy (often referred to as “printing money”).

    Mr. Ratigan is not a dumb man, so one wonders why he used this obtuse, true red herring of an argument.

    Is Ben Bernake causing Arctic sea ice to disappear? Is the Fed behind the massive drying out of the Amazon’s massive rain forest? Did Ben cause the 25% loss of Russia’s wheat crop and all time extreme temperatures there this last summer.

    Of course we must never underestimate the ignorance of our media leaders. Isn’t Bill O’Riely struggling with facts on how earth tides operate in reference to the moon?

    Such disinformation as Ratigan is putting out is welcomed with open arms by Climate Deniers. Climate Progress readers should not hesitate to tell Mr. Ratigan at MSNBC that his red herring attempt did not go unnoticed.

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Krugman did well today in his TNYT op-ed.

  26. Colorado Bob says:

    A food argument from another thread with a denier –

    This is the salad bowl for west Australia. Sun Dec 19, 2010
    The Western Australia town of Carnarvon has been cut off from the rest of the country after the worst flooding there in decades.

    The rainfall has been equal to the amount that would normally fall over 2-years – 400mm of rain has fallen in the region, 900km north of Perth, in the past week. Western-Australia-suffers-record-flooding/ tabid/ 417/ articleID/ 191659/ Default.aspx
    15.75 inches

    TOOWOOMBA got what was left of the salad bowl in Queensland on Jan 12, 2011 :

    To the west, a deluge of up to 6 inches (150 millimeters) in a half-hour fell over a concentrated area Monday, sending a 26-foot (eight-meter), fast-moving torrent crashing through Toowoomba and smaller towns. The flash flood dropped as quickly as it came, leaving debris and cars piled together.

    That blow to the Victorians salad bowl :

    “VICTORIANS face spiralling grocery bills, with everything from asparagus, to potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli all likely to rise after Victoria’s floods. ” – Herald Sun
    It rained nearly 8 inches in 2 hours folks.
    That front ”ingested” the moisture, causing huge cloudbursts that dumped rainfall of up to 200 millimetres in just two hours over Melbourne and regional Victoria.

    Jack would have one believe that 15 inches in 6 days, 6 inches in 1/2 an hour, followed 8 inches in 2 hours, is something we’ve all grown up with. It is not . It is part of this new world we are so busy building.

    The last 50 days have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres in just these three places, each thousands of miles from one another.
    All of it driving higher food prices in Australia.

  27. David B. Benson says:

    Colorado Bob — Now consider Pakistan.

  28. Deborah Stark says:

    Re: Scrooge | Post #2

    “…..Keep the news flowing. Facts will prevail over talking dittoheads. Deniers are a fact of life. It doesn’t matter why they deny, we can’t let their problem become our problem. We will get to the point where we can just ignore the idiots…..”

    Well stated.

  29. Gary Peters says:

    Krugman and the Guardian both ignore important facts that would shed more light in current food price trends and their possible future.

    First, if you look at the UN graph of the food price index it is apparent that that index, spikes aside, has been rising steadily since about 2000. Since 2000 the world’s population has grown by more than 800 million–that’s a hell of a lot more mouths to feed. UN projects a population of nine billion or so by 2050.

    Second, food prices are affected by oil prices because oil is critical to the production, processing, and distribution of food. Oil prices of late have been in the $85-95 per barrel range, high by historical standards. EIA projects three different scenarios for future oil prices, with the middle projection taking oil well above current prices.

    Though extreme weather events will continue to have an effect on food production and prices, those events remain unpredictable as to both their locations and dimensions. Population and oil price trends are much more likely to affect world food prices on a regular basis.

    [JR: Again, major events have underlying causes and triggering causes. Yes, there are obviously ongoing pressures that are making food markets tighter and tighter, more susceptible to triggering events. But this time around the role of extreme weather is hard to deny.]

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Mark Shapiro#23, I believe that, in normal times, you would indeed be correct. Markets and the laws of supply and demand plus the human capacity for co-operation in times of distress would, indeed, see us muddle through. Unfortunately the tendency for things to go awry is always there, as we saw in India when English imposed ‘market rules’ led to tens of millions of famine deaths during droughts, even up to the mid-century Bengali Holocaust of the 1940s.
    My bitter conclusion, however, one that I’ve come to over recent years, is that we no longer live in normal times. Not only is anthropogenic climate disruption further advanced and proceeding more rapidly than even the most pessimistic forecasts of a few years ago, but we are also amidst a staggering series of ecological crises, all completely unaddressed, all with deadly synergies, and more seem to raise their ugly heads every day. I mean the loss of montane glaciers in Bolivia means big trouble there, soon, but now we are told that it will also destabilise mountains, making avalanches and landslides more frequent and devastating. Ocean acidification was a blip on the consciousness of a few ten years ago, now it is about to cause a planktonic mass extinction, wiping out food chains and a CO2 sink in one fell blow. ‘Frack’ for shale gas and pollute groundwater and cause earthquakes. Melt ice-caps and cause earthquakes. Less than one degree of warming and the Amazon begins to turn to savannah, giving off huge quantities of CO2. What’s even more ominous is that there is apparently a growing and frightening change in consciousness amongst the rich consumers of the West, and global elites generally, who are rebelling against the message that they must live more frugally, consume less and share more, in a world of finite resources and seven billion people. I think that this is nowhere more bitterly apparent than in commodities markets, where shortages are being exacerbated by speculators bidding up prices in search of windfall profits from new assets bubbles. Their profits are other peoples’ hunger, but they remain utterly unconcerned.
    I hope desperately that you are correct and we have more time, although I suspect the Bosses would waste that, too, but I fear that I’m closer to the money, and that we are already in the Age of Collapse.

  31. Steve Bloom says:

    Revkin in the comments at his blog: “Why is it that there always seems to be an inverse relationship between the definitiveness of an assertion and its credibility?”

    It’s good to know that the NYT has repealed Okrent’s Law, there being nothing more definitive than the truth.

    Re #29: Mulga, that was entirely too Pollyanna-like. I take it you haven’t read Hansen’s latest.

  32. Arran Frood says:

    For those interested in the commodities trading angle, this is a great article about the effect of food price speculation on global food prices.

    The Case of the Great Food Bubble, by Julian Oram.

  33. Peter M says:

    C02 as measured by the NOAA at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii for January -preliminary estimates at 391.19ppm (Keeling Curve)

  34. Ed Hummel says:

    It’s good to see that Krugman is slowly coming around to a more realistic appraisal of what the human situation is, and that sets him miles apart from most other economists. Too bad he’s about 40 years too late in starting to recognize that our current civilization with its self-destructive ways and bloated population has already run its course. It’s just a shame that Nature’s settling of accounts will be so awful for most of humanity. Only the details remain to be worked out.

  35. Gary Peters says:


    I did not mean to deny the role of weather in creating the current spike in world food prices. Rather, I was arguing that underlying pressures on food prices are steadily increasing and prices have been moving upward since 2000. In turn those underlying pressures will make extreme weather events ever more crippling in the future.

    Right now a severe drought is affecting much of China and threatens its wheat crop. If the drought continues and the wheat crop in China falls short, we can expect China to enter the world wheat market in a big way and drive prices up considerably. We’ll see!

    [JR: OK. Yes, the long term trends are making us more vulnerable to short-term fluctuations. And I’ll do a China post soon.]

  36. Michael Tucker says:

    Lester Brown has an article in CSM today titled:
    “Brace yourself for the food-price bubble
    If the world has a poor harvest this year, food prices will rise to previously unimaginable levels. Food riots will multiply, political unrest will spread, and governments will fall.”

    He is basically echoing what he said in the SA article from April 2009 “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?” That article is still relevant and Brown does make a case for speculation being one of the important factors driving prices. To be sure, extreme weather events have caused shortages in supply but trading grain as a commodity like gold or oil is also pushing up the price.

  37. Nick says:

    Interesting discussion from Jan 7:

    Rising food prices + unemployment + Wikileaks…

  38. Steve Bloom says:

    Re #36: Just to clarify, the crisis in the Middle East is all about wheat specifically, which is the major staple food in the region. The longer-term situation Gary discusses is very much of concern, but is not the cause of the immediate problem. The standard Pielke Jr. dodge that Revkin fell for (IMHO he wanted to fall for it — he’s not that stupid) conflated the two. A further nuance (IIRC — please correct me if I don’t have this right, Gary) is that “agricultural commodities” includes plenty of things that aren’t food (cotton e.g.) and excludes some things that are (fresh vegetables e.g.). Similarly, it can be misleading to talk about overall food prices. Even narrowing the discussion to grains, corn e.g. (of which there would be a market glut were it not for ethanol production) is not easily substituted for wheat, at least not quickly. Further, as Krugman discussed in a post on his blog, wheat is quite price-inelastic, such that e.g. it takes a 25% price increase to result in a 1% decrease in consumption.

    I’m not sure whether Joe has posted separately on the ongoing drought centering on Syria and Iraq, but this recent NYT article paints a grim picture of extensive desertification (very likely climate change-induced) and millions of refugees. It seems we haven’t heard much about this due to Iraq’s other problems and Syria’s ban on press coverage.

    This same drought (maybe desertification trend is a better term) was responsible for much of the Israeli countryside going up in flames a few months ago. It seems that some pioneers of geo-engineering thought it would be a great idea to do extensive plantings of non-native pines, not realizing what pine mono-cultures like to do when they dry out.

  39. Prokaryotes says:

    Sri Lanka floods wash out thousands of acres of paddy

    “The havoc caused by two rounds of flooding in Sri Lanka in January and February have destroyed 576,121 acres of paddy land in all 25 districts in the country. The total paddy cultivated was in 1.82 million acres and the total acres that were destroyed were 31% of the staple rice crop,” the official government portal said on Wednesday.

    In the district of Matale alone, around 4336 farmers had possibly lost their source of livelihood, latest statistics with the Disaster Management Centre (DMC) revealed.

    Paddy and other field crops planted in Trincomalee and Batticaloa districts have completely been lost.

    Many of the flooded areas were barely recovering from the January floods when intense rain over three to four days, again inundated fields, washed away homes and roads, triggered landslides and forced lakhs of people to take shelter in makeshift camps.

    “In many places, a month’s rainfall fell in 10 days. Ampara and Batticaloa (eastern Sri Lanka) were worst affected. We have announced landslide alerts in Kandy and Badulla. The good news is the flooding seems to be easing off in most parts,” Brigadier (retd) Nimal B Weragama, director, operations, DMC told HT.

    He added that initially 1000 camps for the displaced were set up. “At least 172536 people are staying in the remaining 646 camps,” Weragama said.

    The Sri Lankan government has estimated that the recent round of floods has caused damage worth LKR 50 billion (around Rs 20 billion).

  40. stickman says:

    Joe and others,

    Krugman’s article reminded of something that gets surprisingly little treatment in the US: The “relative prices” argument for strong and swift action against climate change… In effect, accounting for the imperfect substitutability between environmental goods and man-made goods, and how this will affect our ability to generate future wealth.

    I have written a summary of the concept here, along with links to some insightful papers:

    However, here’s a relevant quote from one of the studies that I refer to:

    “[G]lobal agriculture is said to represent 24 percent of global GDP (Stern Review, p. 67). A 1-percent loss of agricultural output might be estimated to reduce global GDP by.24 percent. Basic logic, however, tells us that a 50-percent loss of agricultural production would reduce global GDP by much more than 12 percent, and a 100-percent loss would reduce GDP by more than 24 percent of GDP. The mechanism behind this would be escalating food prices: As food became more and more scarce, its relative price would rise so fast that the dwindling food supplies would crowd out everything else and approach 100 percent of total GDP.