Global instability on the horizon
by David Atkins
Sometimes even diamonds can be found in the rough. Similarly, Tom Friedman can be worth reading as more than simply an emetic from time to time. This is one of those times.
Friedman has become more and more interested in climate change of late. His worst tendencies lead him to equate the climate challenge and the deficit issue. But when he avoids doing that, his climate material can actually be insightful and decent.
In this case he points out that climate change has led to increased food insecurity in Middle East nations, which has in turn led to the instability that creating the Arab Spring. With that insecurity still present, it may be more difficult than previously hoped to establish secure and democratic futures in those nations:
Jointly produced by the Center for American Progress, the Stimson Center and the Center for Climate and Security, this collection of essays opens with the Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg, who demonstrates how in 2010-11, in tandem with the Arab awakenings, “a once-in-a-century winter drought in China” — combined, at the same time, with record-breaking heat waves or floods in other key wheat-growing countries (Ukraine, Russia, Canada and Australia) — “contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices” in wheat-importing states, most of which are in the Arab world.The world isn't just getting flatter (an observation that isn't so much wrong as mundane.) It's getting hotter.
Only a small fraction — 6 percent to 18 percent — of annual global wheat production is traded across borders, explained Sternberg, “so any decrease in world supply contributes to a sharp rise in wheat prices and has a serious economic impact in countries such as Egypt, the largest wheat importer in the world.”
The numbers tell the story: “Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food,” notes Sternberg. “The doubling of global wheat prices — from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011 — thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.” Global food prices peaked at an all-time high in March 2011, shortly after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in Egypt.
Consider this: The world’s top nine wheat-importers are in the Middle East: “Seven had political protests resulting in civilian deaths in 2011,” said Sternberg. “Households in the countries that experience political unrest spend, on average, more than 35 percent of their income on food supplies,” compared with less than 10 percent in developed countries.
Everything is linked: Chinese drought and Russian bushfires produced wheat shortages leading to higher bread prices fueling protests in Tahrir Square. Sternberg calls it the globalization of “hazard.”
Ditto in Syria and Libya. In their essay, the study’s co-editors, Francesco Femia and Caitlin Werrell, note that from 2006 to 2011, up to 60 percent of Syria’s land experienced the worst drought ever recorded there — at a time when Syria’s population was exploding and its corrupt and inefficient regime was proving incapable of managing the stress.
That in turn is creating regional instability that threatens to become global instability. And keep in mind that this is just the beginning of the impacts of climate change. As we approach a series of carbon tipping points and exponential effects, it won't just be desert nations that experience revolutionary shock. The impacts will be felt nearly everywhere, all at once.
Our little battles over budgets, austerity, discrimination and income inequality will seem to have been insignificant by contrast.