Climate change is causing the world’s temperatures and seas levels to rise but this isn’t a steady process. Instead we see more frequent and more extreme weather events. The record-busting heatwave in the US and floods in Russia are examples. So, a few people die of heat stroke and some others drown – so what, eh? Actually, the big problem is not the direct effects of these weather events on people but what they do to our production of food and other vital goods.
It’s a little acknowledged fact that the US is the world’s largest food exporter, supplying vast quantities of grains and soy in particular to the rest of the world.
The drought and heatwave is wreaking havoc.
Production from this year’s US corn crop is set to fall by 15%. short of forecast. This will be the third year in a row that heat has damaged the US’s corn crop. Along with other droughts and the ever-increasing demand from 70 million more humans per year, are the reasons that world corn reserves are at the lowest level since 1974 (which might be the lowest level on record, the article isn’t clear), with just a 8 week buffer. Corn is the world’s primary staple food.
The US has lost its position as the world’s largest exporter of wheat, the world’s second staple food, tom France (and prices jumped 18% in the second half of June as the extent of the US drought became clear.
The world’s soy supply is in even deeper trouble. Drought in South America has seen the world’s second and third largest exporters – Brazil and Argentina – record poor harvests this year and the US, the world’s largest soy exporter, is on the same track with just 40% of the crop rated in good or excellent condition during the vital growing period. World soy production won’t meet demand this year. Soy is the world’s number 6 staple food and a major source of animal feed.
That’s one country’s extreme weather event in one year. Now multiply that around the world, and over many years, with increasing frequency.
The talk about ‘food price inflation’ or ‘food price spikes’ (that one sounds nice and temporary) misses the fundamental point: the price is going up because demand is up and supply isn’t keeping up because growing conditions are being more regularly interrupted by severe weather (not to mention soil exhaustion, water contamination etc).
The only way to solve that problem is decrease the amount of food going into some mouths, or use the food we have more efficiently (as a direct human food source, not a feedstock for animals for example) – and the way we do that in our economic system is by pricing some people out of the market.
The question is who can pay more: the farmers who buy these staples as animal feed to produce meat for western tables, or the third world poor, who buy them to eat directly. Obviously, the most efficient answer in terms of getting the most calories into human mouths is a bit different from the result the market produces.
But, this is what climate change looks like. This is what we’ve brought on ourselves. It’s not a gradual, steady increase in temperatures that don’t become ‘serious’ until runaway heating starts. It comes earlier and more unpredictably than that. It’s more extreme climate events (new research has conclusively linked individual events to climate change for the first time), leading to shocks in our climate-dependent systems, most notably food production. This leads to higher food prices, shortages, and, as we saw with the food riots in 2008 and the Arab Spring that began in many countries with protests over food prices, social unrest. With the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather events, we have less time to recover and rebuild our buffers each time.
The shame of is that the first major climate change related disasters, like Katrina, could have been a wake-up call before things got too bad. But our leaders ignored them, and the vested interests denied them to maintain their short-term privilege.
[PS. Other new research suggests that the biosphere is absorbing more carbon dioxide as a result of climate change than thought. It has long been known that rising levels of carbon dioxide (to a point) would promote plant growth and so would a slight rise in temperatures, and this would see more carbon sequestered in soils. But the research shows the increase is enough to offset 10% of our carbon emissions, which is a lot more than previously thought. Before the deniers going popping any corks, however, the other 90% is more than enough to wreck the climate]
[PPS. btw, you know the relatively mild and sunny winter we’re having – that’s a weather event with negative consequences too: the hydro-lake levels are at 77% of average for this time of year and inflows have been well below average all year – an industry source told me that the government would usually be talking about conservation measures with the lakes dipping below 2,000 GW/hr of storage, as they did in the last dry year – 2008 – but the government doesn’t want to talk about insecurity of supply while trying to hock off power companies]