Saturday, April 30, 2016

Food System Shock: Climate Change's Greatest Threat to Civilization

By: Jeff Masters , 4:00 PM GMT on April 29, 2016

The greatest threat of climate change to civilization over the next 40 years is likely to be climate change-amplified extreme droughts and floods hitting multiple major global grain-producing "breadbaskets" simultaneously. A "Food System Shock" report issued in 2015 by insurance giant Lloyd’s of London outlined a plausible extreme shock to global food production that could cause rioting, terrorist attacks, civil war, mass starvation and severe losses to the global economy. Their scenario, which Lloyd's gave uncomfortably high odds of occurring--significantly higher than 0.5% per year, which works out to at least an 18% chance of occurrence in the next 40 years--goes like this:


The extreme weather of the year 2010--which I speculated was Earth’s most extreme weather year since the famed “Year Without a Summer” in 1816-- showed us that multiple extreme weather events in major grain-producing areas can indeed cause dangerous shocks to the global food system. This was unexpected at the beginning of 2010, when in its January World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted higher global wheat production and lower prices for 2010 - 2011. But extreme weather began an dramatic assault on the world's grain-producing nations in the spring of 2010, ... [Read the full article at the link above for a list of conditions around the world that caused decreased food production.]


As a result of the global extreme weather during 2010, the price of wheat more than doubled from approximately $4 per bushel in July 2010 to $8.50 - $9 in February 2011. These price increases hit the nations of the Middle East and North Africa particularly hard, since they import more food per capita than any other region of the world, due to their scarce water supplies and lack of farmable land. According to a 2013 report, "The Arab Spring and Climate Change"--issued by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center, and The Center for Climate and Security--the top nine importers of wheat are all in the Middle East; seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011, and the food price increases were identified as a major contributing cause of the societal unrest.


Unfortunately, a serious shock to the global food system will grow increasingly likely in the next few decades. According to an independent 2015 food shock study by the UK-US Task Force on Extreme Weather and Global Food System Resilience, the odds of an extreme weather food shock capable of reducing the production of corn, soybean, wheat and rice by 5-7% will grow from 1% per year to over 3% per year by 2040. The increased vulnerability will occur due to climate change, population growth, decreasing water availability, the alarming reduction in plant-pollinating insects like bees, loss of topsoil and a shift towards more meat consumption globally. About 805 million people worldwide are undernourished, according to the United Nations, and this number will grow as the population increases from 7.3 billion now to a projected 9.6 billion by 2050--mostly in Africa and other developing regions.


If it seems like the weather in recent years has gotten crazier than you remember from 20+ years ago, you are right. As I discussed in a March 2013 post, "Are atmospheric flow patterns favorable for summer extreme weather increasing?", research published by scientists at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in German found that extreme summertime jet stream patterns had become twice as common during 2001 - 2012 compared to the previous 22 years. One of these extreme patterns occurred in the summer of 2010, leading to Russian drought that triggered the steep rise in food prices implicated in the “Arab Spring” uprisings. When the jet stream goes into one of these extreme configurations, it freezes in its tracks for weeks, resulting in an extended period of extreme heat or flooding, depending upon where the high-amplitude part of the jet stream lies. The scientists found that because human-caused global warming is causing the Arctic to heat up more than twice as rapidly as the rest of the planet, a unique resonance pattern capable of causing this behavior was resulting. This sort of jet stream behavior makes a serious extreme weather food shock event much more likely to occur, since extreme weather events affect multiple areas of the planet simultaneously for long periods of time.


There is hope that we will overcome, though. The global agriculture system has shown impressive resiliency in more than meeting the demands of a growing population over the last 50 years. The December 2015 Paris Accord--the commitment by the world's nations to de-carbonize our economies--should result in long-term changes to the global food system that should make the Lloyd's scenario less likely to occur. According to an October 2015 report by the World Bank, Future of Food: Shaping A Climate-Smart Global Food System, a growing and diverse spectrum of practices called "Climate Smart Agriculture" are showing it is possible to simultaneously deliver higher agricultural productivity, greater climate resilience, and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

tags: extreme weather

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