FAO also warns floods and heavy rains in Southern Afria “threaten food security”
The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization issued an alert Tuesday that a severe drought was threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and was even resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.
The state-run news media in China warned Monday that the country’s major agricultural regions were facing their worst drought in 60 years and said Tuesday 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.
World wheat prices are already surging and have been widely cited as one reason for protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
As Craig Fugate, who heads the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, put it in December, “The term ‘100-year event’ really lost its meaning this year.”
The climate impact deniers are having a field day. With record-smashing extreme weather around the globe destroying crops and helping to run up food prices, there are more and more opportunities to deny that human-caused climate change is actually having any impacts that one would ever have to adapt to (see Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change“).
While some quote irrelevant decades-old data, the world is suffering from the fact that we are beyond the carrying capacity of the planet in many arenas — and close to the edge on others — according to scientists. That means when we have the hottest and wettest year on record — and multiple extreme events — the global food system will be pushed to the breaking point.
As agricultural economist Lester Brown said yesterday, “I think we are seeing some of the early effects of climate change on food security.” In the same story, retired vice admiral Dennis McGinn, a member of the military board of advisors of the Center for Naval Analysis, said “The adverse effects of bad weather caused by climate change act as a threat multiplier for instability in critical parts of the world.”
The FAO also warned yesterday, “rising waters threaten food security“:
Thousands of hectares of agricultural land and crops have been damaged by floods and heavy rains in parts of southern Africa, and more damage may occur in the coming weeks if above normal rains persist.
This is raising concern about the food security of the affected population in the poorer parts of the sub-region over the coming months.
With the rainy season still only half way through, and with the cyclone season due to peak in February, several agricultural areas along the rivers in southern African countries remain at high risk of flooding, including portions of Botswana, Lesotho Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Food insecurity already critical
“Food insecurity levels are already critical in the affected areas of some of these countries and floods will only further worsen the ability of poor farmers to cope and feed their families in the coming months,” said Cindy Holleman, FAO Regional Emergency Coordinator for Southern Africa. FAO is working with regional and national early warning systems to monitor the evolution in major river basins and to assess the impact on food crops.
Meanwhile, much of the media seems unable to draw any fine distinctions whatsoever. If you point out that global warming is contributing to extreme weather events that are helping to drive up food prices, which in turn are one factor in MidEast protests, then even if you are Nobel-prize winning economist, you end up with this headline in The Atlantic:
Meanwhile, over at DotEarth, where I’m interviewed, we get a similar reductio ad absurdum in a piece titled, “Egypt, Inkblots, Agendas and Feeding 9 Billion.” The word “inkblot” is meant to suggest that in fact it’s impossible to have any idea what’s really going on, so one person’s interpretation is the same as any other. Silly stuff.
It’s just a debate between “techno-cornucopians convinced that innovation and efficiency will feed 9 billion prospering people and enviro-calamatists convinced the cliff is nigh, or we’re already over it.” Not even the mildest distinction is allowed, that the issue isn’t whether the “cliff [undefined] is nigh [undefined], or we’re already over it” — the issue is whether failure to act aggressively this decade — and even more aggressively in the next one — to reduce emissions makes it all but impossible to plausibly stop catastrophic climate impacts.
And then, in the comments, we get this highlighted humdinger by Revkin himself:
While talking about the state of the world, and human affairs, with Brad Allenby at Arizona State last week, I made the following statement, which applies here:
Why is it that there always seems to be an inverse relationship between the definitiveness of an assertion and its credibility?
Huh? Did a former science reporter actually write that? And use the word “always”?
It is the whole point of science to allow us to make credible assertions as definitively as possible. Let’s not even discuss the basic laws of physics, which are quite definitive and credible. Even on climate science, we have the U.S. National Academy of Sciences:
A strong, credible body of scientific evidence shows that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems”¦.
Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.
Sounds like a very definitive assertion to me. And highly credible.
That doesn’t mean every credible scientific statement is definitive. In the arena of climate change making recent weather more extreme, I’m not certain I’d use the word ‘definitive’, but I ran through the many leading scientist who have made the case in this post. Here’s a pretty definitive and credible assertion, from Kevin Trenberth, head of NCAR’s Climate Analysis Section:
“… 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.”
So let’s move beyond the straw men and reductio ad absurdum.
There is a good story in PRI on this subject, “Egyptian protests, climate change, and global food prices” (with audio), which notes:
The throngs of protestors in the streets of Cairo this week have a host of grievances. There are the decades of authoritarian rule of course, and the lack of political expression or economic opportunity. But the uprising grew in part out of protests against high food prices.
Food price inflation in Egypt was over 20 percent last year. In particular, there’s been a big squeeze from the rising global price of wheat. New York global investment manager Vincent Truglia says depending on how you measure it, the price of wheat went up between 50 and 70 percent in 2010.
“This has just devastated Egyptian budgets,” says Truglia, who is managing director of global economic research at Granite Springs Asset Management.
Egypt is among the world’s largest importers of wheat, and the global wheat market received a number of nasty shocks recently. The worst came last summer, when Russia was hit by an unprecedented drought and heat wave that destroyed 40 percent of its wheat harvest.
Russia abruptly banned exports, and Egypt, which had just signed a big wheat deal with Russia, was left scrambling….
“I think we are seeing some of the early effects of climate change on food security,” says veteran environmental analyst Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute. In particular, Brown says the heat wave that led to the collapse of Russia’s wheat harvest was no ordinary weather event.
“If someone had told me that there was likely to be a heat wave in Russia in which the average temperature would be 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm — that’s pushing the envelope. I mean FOUR degrees would be a lot.”
Brown and many others say the Russian heat wave only one of several recent events effecting global food supply that likely were linked to climate change. And he believes that the stresses these events are putting on food supplies are contributing to unrest around the world.
“You can’t prove that link,” Brown says. “But you can say it is highly likely that that is the case.”
… Brown has some surprising compatriots.
Among them is retired vice admiral Dennis McGinn. McGinn is a member of the military board of advisors of the Center for Naval Analysis, which wrote an influential 2007 report on the security implications of climate change.*
“The adverse effects of bad weather caused by climate change act as a threat multiplier for instability in critical parts of the world,” admiral McGinn says.
Like Brown, McGinn says you can rarely draw a straight line of causation between climate change and political upheaval. There are usually many underlying causes, he says, but climate change may well be one of them.
“If you have long term droughts and crop failures, and in other parts of the world too much water in the form of flooding, you have added pressure to the already existing fault lines in fragile societies with fragile governments,” McGinn says. “And certainly Egypt would fall under that category.”
I’ll discuss the implications of China importing a significant amount of wheat in a later post, but these facts in the NYT story are noteworthy:
With $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, nearly three times that of Japan, the country with the second-largest reserves, China has ample buying power to prevent any serious food shortages.
“They can buy whatever they need to buy, and they can outbid anyone,” Mr. Zeigler said. China’s self-sufficiency in grain prevented world food prices from moving even higher when they spiked three years ago, he said.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said Tuesday that 12.75 million acres of China’s 35 million acres of wheat fields had been affected by the drought. It said that 2.57 million people and 2.79 million head of livestock faced shortages of drinking water.
Chinese state news media are describing the drought in increasingly dire terms. “Minimal rainfall or snow this winter has crippled China’s major agricultural regions, leaving many of them parched,” Xinhua reported. “Crop production has fallen sharply, as the worst drought in six decades shows no sign of letting up.”
If this turns into another once in a century drought, China obviously pay what ever it needs to to feed its people and avoid food riots.
- 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?”
- 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.”
- 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.