Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Will Famine Be The Global Warming Trigger?

Those who accept the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming have always known, with some alarm, that time was on their side, not on the side of the denialists.   Global warming denial is a short to mid-range delaying tactic.  It's a "make hay while the sun shines" sort of idea, tactical not strategic.

Just as climate change is believed to have a number of "tipping points," so too does the acceptance of the reality of global warming.   Month after month, week after week, research keeps pouring in and it's enormously corroborative of the fact of global warming.

But there's more than research into tree rings or ice cores.   Climate change is happening before our eyes.  We can ignore that for a while but not forever.  The hens will come home to roost and one day we'll notice that the hen house is full.

I had suspected that the theory of global warming would be generally accepted, even by the denialists, when the bills began pouring in.   I figured that would arrive via the insurance industry.   Insurance is risk assessment, risk management.  Insurers keep their shareholders happy by foreseeing what's coming.   They have to keep revenues from policy holders coming in faster than they pay out claims to policy holders.

Evidently I was wrong.

The insurance industry does indeed get the reality of global warming.  It's why they're narrowing their risk exposure.   Just try getting hurricane insurance if you live anywhere along America's Atlantic or Gulf coasts.   Sorry, no chance.  The insurance industry has done its due diligence.  It has looked at the available science.  It understands the probability of severe storm events of increasing frequency and severity.   They've run those costs through their computers and said "no thanks."

But the insurance and other industries haven't driven global warming policy among the industrialized world where it most needs to be changed.  Ten, twenty years from now it might be a much different story but not yet.  But there's another global warming impact that might just be the first tipping point - hunger.

A globalized economy is dependent on certain levels of global stability.   Years ago I read a story about Dell computers.   Its machines were built from components manufactured in scores of countries.   Dell didn't have one exec who had actually visited all of those nations.   The point was that Dell was dependent on the ability and willingness of several states to keep providing it with critical components.  If even one of the key countries went down, Dell could be out of business for some time.

Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have shown how food shortages and food price increases can contribute to destabilize governments.   Sure there were pro-democracy and anti-corruption forces spearheading the uprisings but behind them stood a lot more people worried about feeding themselves and their kids.  Even the oil rich Kuwati regime understands this.   It's why they wasted no time in unveiling a 15-month plan whereby the state will issue a $3,800 a head food relief payment to its citizens and provide certain foodstuffs free of charge.

Tunisia and Egypt were first but they won't be the last.   Many other countries are facing serious food crises.  Even India is forecast to lose 30% of its wheat production by 2020.   By 2030 fully two thirds of the world's nations are expected to be vulnerable to food shortages.

There are some voices, such as sustainability expert Les Brown of the Earth Policy Institute, who predict that rising food prices may be the climate change call to action.

With cash-rich China likely to enter world wheat and other grain markets as a major buyer for the first time in 2011, and with world grain stocks already at low levels, food prices are poised to surge, leading to hikes in the number of the world’s hungry, greater poverty, huge new demand on food aid organizations, growing unrest and potentially even an increase in failed states , predicts Lester Brown,  head of the Washington-based non-profit Earth Policy Institute,  in a new book, "  World on the Edge." 

"  I think food is the weak link. The economic indicator that will tell us more about our future than anything else is grain prices,” argues Brown.

Americans may be in for a particular wakeup call, he said, as China – which holds a hefty share of the United States’ large debt burden – begins buying a growing share of U.S. grain production.

It’s a nightmare for American consumers, the prospect of a billion Chinese with rapidly rising incomes competing with us for our grain harvest,” he said in a telephone interview. “And we can’t restrict exports to China because they are our banker.


doconnor said...

I doubt it will be food that triggers belief in global warming in the United States. Americans can absorb food price increases (most pay only a small amount of their income for food and only a small amount of that is based on world food prices) and other people staving isn't won't impact them enough to make a difference.

I think it will be a massive heat wave, like Europe has had from time to time, that will kill some old people and cause crop failure.

The Mound of Sound said...

Hi DO. I agree that its unlikely the US will be particularly moved by the food shortages of themselves. It's the political and economic instability they trigger that the US won't be able to ignore.

The United States has backed a number of governments/regimes that are at risk from these sort of problems and, as we've seen in Egypt, it's awkward for the US to credibly shift support from the regime to the revolution leaders.

Washington is already seeing American influence dislodged by China in Africa, by China and Russia in the Middle East/South Asia, and even by China in South America. There are real, long-term consequences to this and, right now, those nations first and hardest hit by climate change impacts are pointing their fingers at the United States.

doconnor said...

I think, in the long run, the US would benefit no longer supporting dictators. Once the dictators are removed the people will stop blaming the US for all their problems and do what we do, blame the government we elect.

Empire isn't always worth the money needed to maintain it.

saskboy said...

We keep noticing trends in the world news at the same time. I was about to write an article a bit like this one, so yours will make an excellent reference link.

The Mound of Sound said...

@DO. Empire, as we've historically known it, has given way to political and economic hegemony. I don't know that it will retain intact its relevance through this century.

Change is upon us, change we've never dealt with before, change for which our industrial, fiscal and political models are not designed to handle.

My guess is that globalization will break down into regional relationships or blocs. Northern nations, in particular, will be drawn together through their common or shared circumstances and advantages.

@Saskboy. You're right. By all means help yourself. Cheers