When National Climate Disasters Go Global: On Drought, Food, And Global Insecurity

by Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, via The Center For Climate and Security

The national Drought Monitor recently declared [abnormally dry conditions or] a drought for almost 80% of the contiguous United States, ranging in intensity [up] to “drought-exceptional.”

Five days ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture followed by declaring disasters in 26 U.S. states. This is the largest national disaster area ever declared.

But while the drought is obviously a serious concern for the U.S. (historically, droughts are the nation’s most costly natural disaster), it also has worrying implications for other countries that are tied to the U.S. through the global food market. Coupled with other recent extreme weather events across the globe, the U.S. drought could have a globally destabilizing influence. And while it is too early to tell exactly why these events are happening, in the way that they are happening, recent reports show that climatic changes are a part of the story.

Record-breaking droughts, and an uncertain climate future

The conditions of this drought are abnormal. The drought happened suddenly – what is called a “flash drought” – because it has occurred over a matter of months, rather than seasons or years. It is associated with record-breaking temperatures, and has been labeled among the worst droughts in U.S. history.

Climate change projections are set to make matters worse. According to NOAA and the Met Office, last year’s drought in Texas was 20 times more likely because of climate change. Furthermore, as temperatures are set to continue increasing, these conditions will become more frequent.

Impact on the global food market

In lieu of the recent drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adjusted its prediction for corn yields, the country’s largest export crop, down by 12%. This, and any subsequent adjustments, will likely impact global corn prices, but also meat and dairy prices, as corn is used for animal feed. Meanwhile, beef prices are still high from last year’s drought in Texas.

As a leading exporter of corn and soy, the U.S. is intricately linked to the global food market. Drought and crop failure in the U.S. could spike world food prices and have serious implications for places like Mexico, China, Central America and India, who rely heavily on imports of these crops, as well as animal feed. But this is not the first time that droughts have caused a spike in world food prices.  If this drought does lead to a price spike, it will be the fifth such spike in six years.

The security implications of food price spikes

What we’ve also seen is that spikes in world food prices have increased the likelihood of instability and riots. In some instances, crop failure in one part of the world associated with instability halfway around the globe, can contribute to serious diplomatic crises between the U.S. and its allies, as occurred with Egypt, and could conceivably result in U.S. military involvement.

This is part of a larger phenomenon Dr. Troy Sternberg calls “the globalization of hazards,” where natural hazards in one region can have a significant impact on regions halfway across the globe. This is not to say that the current U.S. drought will necessarily lead to unrest. However, it is not unprecedented for droughts, and other climatic events that damage crop production, to do so.

Collective impact of crop failure across the globe

It is also important to consider that the drought and crop failures in the U.S. are not happening in isolation.  In recent years, extreme hot and dry weather has forced Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan to reduce their harvest forecasts (and two studies explicitly link the devastating Russian heat wave of 2010 to climate change). European Union wheat yields this year will be smaller, in part, because Spain is suffering from the second worst drought in fifty years. North and South Korea are facing the worst drought in a century. Shifts in glacial melt and rainfall are threatening crops in Pakistan. The proliferation of locusts throughout West Africa is threatening household food security. Recent floods in Japan, India and Bangladesh are threatening rice crops. Argentina’s soy crops were severely depleted because of a shortage of rain. And in Mali, drought combined with other factorsled to a major humanitarian disaster in the region. The list goes on.

Many of these conditions are record-setting, or the worst of their kind in decades and sometimes centuries. And climate projections threaten to make matters worse. What this means is that it is possible that the global food market is about to witness an unusual amount of stress. It is not entirely clear if the market is prepared for it, or even if nations have the capacity to adequately respond.

Impact on U.S. assistance and diplomacy

Food, for better or worse, is also used as a form of diplomacy. For example, the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Food for Peace program has sent 106 million metric tons to the hungry of the world, feeding billions of people and saving countless lives. The program depends on the unparalleled productivity of American farmers and the American agricultural system. Without this vast system there would be no Food for Peace program, or any of the other food assistance programs either run by the U.S. government, or heavily supported by the U.S. such as the UN’s World Food Program.

On average, American food aid provides 60 percent of the world’s food aid, feeding millions of desperately hungry people every year. This means that in addition to facing an increasing risk from lower crop and animal stock yields and global food market shocks, the U.S. may also be limiting its ability to respond rapidly to global disasters, including global food crises. This is bad news for the global poor, and for U.S. diplomacy.

Climate insecurity is a global security threat

In short, climate insecurity is a global security threat. Unprecedented droughts in the U.S., which according to many climate projections are expected to occur more and more often in the future, threaten both national health and global food security, which could lead to significant instability in key strategic regions of the world. The pattern of extreme weather events across the globe compound the problem. The worrying thing is that these conditions could be the new normal.

Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell write for The center For Climate and Security. This piece was originally published at The Center For Climate and Security and was reprinted with permission.

21 Responses to When National Climate Disasters Go Global: On Drought, Food, And Global Insecurity

  1. M Tucker says:

    Yep, AGW caused climate insecurity begets food, water, and power insecurity. It brings all forms of weather extremes and wildfires. It causes biodiversity loss at alarming rates. It acidifies our oceans. This is the new world we have created. The only way out is to end fossil fuel use.

  2. wili says:

    Add to the list of global disasters–Norway.
    “Biblical flooding hits northern Norway”

    ““The level of destruction is immense in certain places,” said Helene Rognli, council chief in Målselv, one of four municipalities hit by flooding after 60 millimetres of rain fell in the area on Saturday. “We now face a major challenge. Farmers have lost their crops, and roads and bridges have been destroyed,” she said.

  3. Gillian King says:

    “In lieu of the recent drought, the U.S. Department of Agriculture adjusted its prediction for corn yields, the country’s largest export crop, down by 12%.”

    I think you mean “In LIGHT of the … ”

    “In lieu” = “instead”.

  4. D. R. Tucker says:

    A just-launched initiative to promote climate change solutions to conservative voters is the focus of our first segment. Republican Representative Bob Inglis, defeated by a Tea Partier after serving six terms in South Carolina, will talk about his conversion from denier to believer on global warming, and why he thinks ignoring scientific realities is a losing proposition for conservatives. Next, the head of a national effort to get the youth vote organized around climate and energy issues joins me. Whit Jones, Campaign Director of the Energy Action Coalition, weighs in on their recent launch.

    Read more:
    Under Creative Commons License: Attribution

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That old promise, from His Loftiness, ‘ more water, the fire next time’, seems to have been a bit of a leg-pull. The derangement of the hydrological cycle, with unprecedented floods and deep and dire drought alternating, will stuff up agriculture quite quickly, and then ‘ will be on for young and old’ as the old-timers once muttered.

  6. Merrelyn Emery says:

    “And while it is too early to tell exactly why these events are happening…”.

    Please just stop these mealy mouthed, ‘I’m getting myself off the hook here’ statements. It’s far too late for that nonsense, ME

  7. Paul Magnus says:

    No way global civilization is going to get to even To 2C…

  8. Greg says:

    There are real problems with the world’s food supply, but articles such as this one are actively unhelpful in perpetuating myths and misperceptions. I’m sorry to have to say this, because I support the aims of Climate Progress in particular and ThinkProgress in general.

    This piece overstates the security implications and also overstates the extent of the impact on the world’s poor of this year’s maize production problems. Wheat and rice stocks are ample; poor people eat little to no meat.

    The ABCs of the United States’s food aid and “food diplomacy” are that it primarily benefits the ABC of food cartels: Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Cargill. It’s yet another corporate subsidy courtesy of the US taxpayer. See for more on this.

    The US policy of “donating” food is ineffective at preventing malnutrition and saving lives. It merely prevents smallholder farmers in Asia and Africa from being able to invest enough to mitigate risks and become profitable, and removes the incentive for their governments to do anything about that. It worsens food security and global health rather than improving them.

    Joe, or whoever is running Climate Progress these days: please use some critical thinking before accepting guest pieces.

  9. Merrelyn Emery says:

    You may be right Paul. We should have known that eventually she would act to stop this destructive behaviour, swiftly and decisively.

    If that sounds anthropocentric consider that we would also have at least suspected it if our scientists had been practicing systems science instead of reductionism, ME

  10. Merrelyn Emery says:

    -morphic, ME

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The denialism of refusing to face facts, just another niche market. Moral cowardice may come into it, too.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    US ‘food aid’ is often used as a deliberate tool of destabilisation. The dumping of subsidised rice in Haiti, which led to mass impoverishment of farmers and a rush to the slums, where hundreds of thousands were obliterated by the earthquake, is one of the most infamous. The use of food as a method of coercion is time-honoured US ‘realpolitik’, recommended by none other than Mr Kissinger as most efficacious.

  13. Peter Kidd says:

    I live in Wales, Britain in a town called Aberystwyth, I am vice chairman of a community farm and have two green houses of my own. This years summer so far has been three days of sun with cloud and the rest dark cloudy days of rain mixed with over cast skys. The crops have basically failed or been eatten by slugs, we have had two days this year with over a months rain in a 24 hour period and it is the wettest ever may june and july ever in the UK, and there has been damage to homes and caravan sites in Aberystwyth and other flooding all over the UK. If Global Warming is not leading to new Global patterns of weather then we are really quiet unlucky. Peter Kidd BSc hons

  14. BillD says:

    Update–northern Indiana is under a flood watch today, due to strong thunderstorms. Where I live we’ve gotten 2 2/2 inches of rain but have missed the violent storms. However, local corn yields will only be 25-35% of normal/expected even if the drought breaks. Yes, the US drought will mainly affect farmers and poor people in this country and around the world.

  15. Timeslayer says:

    You’re absolutely right Merrelyn. I was happy to see that someone had already posted just what I was thinking when I read that flagrantly misleading clause you quoted.


  16. John C. Wilson says:

    Wheat is trading at $9.18/bu this morning. Rice is $15.70/cwt. Those are not “ample supply” prices. Those are some people not gonna eat prices.

  17. It’s nice how people on this blog mostly support each other, build on each other’s ideas, correct, rather than attack each other’s mistakes and misunderstandings. It’s truly a place to learn and share as we wrestle with the global warming beast.

  18. M Tucker says:

    Some of the specifics of this report are not entirely accurate but in general it speaks to the dire nature of trying to supply 7 billion people with affordable food while the world struggles with global climate disruption.

    Some issues not covered in this report are increasing market prices on all commodities regardless of actual supply. Wheat and rice are reported to be strong this year and some annalists are talking about shorting the market on those.

    It suggested that India is a major importer of grain but that does not seem to match the historical facts.

    “LONDON, June 7 (Reuters) – China will import more corn and soybeans next season to keep pace with growing domestic demand, while fellow emerging giant India is trying to export more of its record wheat and rice crops to reduce its surplus, officials said on Thursday.”

    Then this “stunning” revelation:
    “This is part of a larger phenomenon Dr. Troy Sternberg calls “the globalization of hazards,” where natural hazards in one region can have a significant impact on regions halfway across the globe. This is not to say that the current U.S. drought will necessarily lead to unrest. However, it is not unprecedented for droughts, and other climatic events that damage crop production, to do so.”

    No-s$%t-Sherlock! So you should be watching the desert countries that import most of their grain and basket-case counties that struggle to supply simple needs like water and power as-well-as food, like Egypt and Pakistan. Bread is an important staple for many of the poor in those countries (India too but their wheat crop seems to be fine) and Egypt is right on the edge due to a destroyed economy…Pakistan is just a massive dysfunctional mess.

    Then they bring up Mali. Mali and drought…Mali, in the middle of the largest desert on earth, has only one season – Drought! But Mali has had bigger issues than persistent drought. Al Qaeda has been operating there and kidnapping Westerners since 2003.

    AP report from today: “Northern Mali has become a magnet for Islamist radicals since Ansar Dine and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters drove out separatist Tuareg rebels who had seized northern Mali in late March. The Islamists want to impose Shariah law in the region.” BTW, the Tuareg rebels took control of the northern part of Mali demanding a separate nation be created.

    So those would be some of the “other factors” mentioned in this report. Always hard to help nations in the middle of a civil war. I wonder how the economy and food situation in Syria will turn out by the end of this year.

  19. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    And some people (speculator parasites and rent-seekers) are going to make lottsa lovely moolah out of other people starving. Ain’t capitalism divine?

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    As the ‘Invisible Hand’ prefers it.