Reports: Egyptian and Tunisian riots were driven in part by the spike in global food prices

Food prices were driven up by extreme weather and high oil prices

UPDATE: See “Expert consensus grows on contribution of record high food prices to Middle East unrest” and my ongoing series on “food insecurity.” Get daily updates on climate and energy by clicking here.

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.

That’s from the NPR story today, “Rising Food Prices Can Topple Governments, Too.”

This summer’s extreme global weather raised fears of a “Coming Food Crisis,” as CAP’s John D. Podesta and Jake Caldwell warned in Foreign Policy: “Global food security is stretched to the breaking point, and Russia’s fires and Pakistan’s floods are making a bad situation worse.” Earlier this month I discussed how, in fact, “Extreme weather events helped drive food prices to record highs.” Back then, experts were worried about food riots. Now they are happening.

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UPDATE: The anti-science, pro-pollution crowd are going flat-earth over this post because I point out that leading political experts say the Middle East rioting is driven in part by the dramatic rise in food prices, which the agricultural experts say is driven in large part by oil prices and the extreme weather we’ve seen in the last few months. Of course, the climate science experts have been saying for a while now that the extreme weather is driven in large part by human emissions — see Terrific ABC News story: “Raging Waters In Australia and Brazil Product of Global Warming” and Munich Re: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change.” See also 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.” — NYT: “Russia Bans Grain Exports After Drought Shrivels Crop” I have some more comments on this at the end, but the analysis as written here stands.

The Washington Post reported on the connection between food prices and Tunisian violence in mid-January, in a piece headlined, “Spike in global food prices contributes to Tunisian violence”:

The state of emergency in Tunisia has economists worried that we may be seeing the beginnings of a second wave of global food riots. Battered by bad weather and increasing demand from the developing world, the global food supply system is buckling under the strain.

This month, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) reported that its food price index jumped 32 percent in the second half of 2010 — surpassing the previous record, set in the early summer of 2008, when deadly clashes over food broke out around the world, from Haiti to Somalia….

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.

Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on Thursday vowed to reduce the price of staples such as sugar, milk and bread ,but the pledge wasn’t enough to placate the thousands of protesters who mobbed the capital, Tunis, on Friday to demand his ouster. The country’s prime minister, Mohammed Ghannouchi, has appeared on state TV to announce he is assuming power.

See also the 1–15–11 Guardian story, “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.”

And then we have Egypt.

Robin Niblett, director of the Chatham House, was interviewed at Davos (click here) and said the Egyptian riots “were driven partly of course by the rise of food prices.”

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NPR had a long story on the subject today, “Rising Food Prices Can Topple Governments, Too” (quoted at the top), which 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.”

And, the Davos experts warn, higher prices could hurt consumers and derail the economic recoveries under way in wealthier countries.

In large part, the food-price crisis reflects the simple law of supply and demand. The supply of food has been diminished by bad weather in many crucial crop-growing areas of the world. Russia, Ukraine and Argentina have had severe droughts, while Pakistan and Australia have had massive flooding.At the same time, demand for food has been rising as people in fast-developing countries, such as India and China, have been buying more groceries.

In addition, production and transportation costs have been driven up by the rising price of oil.

Energy insecurity and climate instability have now become key factors in food insecurity, which in turn has become a key factor in toppling governments. And that’s without even considering the impact of the nation and the world’s wildly counterproductive strategy of growing crop-based biofuels (see “Are biofuels a core climate solution?” and “Let them eat biofuels!” and “”The Fuel on the Hill “” The Corn Supremacy”).

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It’s hard to see how oil prices won’t keep rising, absent another deep global economic downturn (see World’s top energy economist warns: “We have to leave oil before oil leaves us and German military study warns of peak oil crisis and Peak oil production coming sooner than expected).

And the extreme weather we are seeing is only going to get worse. The country’s top climatologist, NASA’s James Hansen, recently explained:

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.

It’s likely half the years this decade will be hotter and more extreme than 2010 “” and most of the years in the next decade.

“Bread and Circuses” (panem et circenses) is the Roman phrase denoting the superficial effort of maintaining public approval through cheap food and entertainment. When the food isn’t cheap, though, the strategy collapses, perhaps along with the entire global Ponzi scheme.

Those who think that the serious impacts of climate change — and our inane energy policies — on the world economy and U.S. national security are decades away are simply not paying attention.

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UPDATE: The climate ostriches at NewsBusters — and anti-science extremist Michelle Malkin — have actually attacked this post for daring to suggest that climate change plays any role whatsoever in the higher food prices that numerous experts say are contributing to the unrest. The point, of course, is not that global warming is causing the unrest or that there aren’t major underlying causes.

The question is why specifically now have the Egyptians and Tunisians rioted after decades of anti-democratic rule? Certainly one can ignore the experts and say that it is a complete coincidence that the rioting occurred as food prices hit record levels — in spite of the fact that the last time there was this kind of rioting globally food prices were at record levels, which is precisely why experts were predicting that record hide food prices would lead to riots. Now the question is, why are food prices are at record levels? Again, reality pretty much speaks for itself here. Extreme weather is a major contributing factor — and our top climate scientists say global warming has contributed.

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“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.”