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It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

16 February 2014

It’s Abrupt Climate Change, Stupid

This is not how it was supposed to happen. The standard climate change predictions said that people in the tropics and the sub-tropics would be badly hurt by global warming long before the people living in the temperate zones, farther away from the equator, were feeling much pain at all.

That was unfair, because it was the people of the rich countries in the temperate zone – North America, Europe and Japan, mainly – who industrialised early and started burning large amounts of fossil fuel as long as two centuries ago. That’s how they got rich. Their emissions of carbon dioxide over the years account for 80 percent of the greenhouse gases of human origin that are now in the atmosphere, causing the warming, yet they get hurt least and last.

Well, what did you expect? The gods of climate are almost certainly sky gods, and sky gods are never fair. But they have always liked jokes, especially cruel ones, and they have come up with a great one this time. The people of the temperate zones are going to get hurt early after all, but not by gradual warming. Their weather is just going to get more and more extreme: heat waves, blizzards and flooding on an unprecedented scale.

“In 2012 we had the second wettest winter on record and this winter is a one-in-250-years event,” British opposition leader Ed Milliband told The Observer newspaper last Friday. “If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded. Something is going on.”

The “something” is abrupt climate change. In Britain, it’s an unprecedented series of great storms blowing in off the North Atlantic, dropping enormous amounts of rain and causing disastrous floods. In the United States and Canada, it’s huge blizzards, ice-storms and record low temperatures that last much longer and reach much further south than normal. Welcome to the “temperate” zone of the northern hemisphere.

There have been extremes in the “temperate” parts of the southern hemisphere, too. Australia has just had the hottest year ever, with record-breaking heat waves and severe bush-fires. Argentina had one of its worst-ever heat waves in December, and parts of Brazil had record rainfall, floods and landslides. But that is probably just the result of gradual, relentless warming. The abrupt changes seem to be mainly in the northern hemisphere.

Geography may explain the differences. There isn’t all that much land in the southern temperate zone, and the vast expanses of ocean that surround it moderate the land temperatures. Moreover, the polar jet stream in the southern hemisphere simply circles the Antarctic continent, and does not operate over land – whereas the northern polar jet stream flows right across North America and Europe. And it’s the jet stream that matters.

The extreme weather trend in North America and Europe is less than five years old, so the science that might explain exactly what is happening is still quite tentative. The first hypothesis that sounded plausible, published in 2012 in Geophysical Letters, blamed a slowing of the northern hemisphere’s polar jet stream.

The paper, entitled “Evidence linking Arctic amplification to extreme weather in mid-latitudes,” was written by Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University and Stephen Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The authors’ methodology has been challenged by other climate scientists, but I think that in the end Francis and Vavrus will turn out to be largely right. That is not good news.

They start with the fact that the Arctic has been warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, so the difference in temperature between the Arctic air mass and the air over the temperate zone has been shrinking. Since that difference in temperature is what drives the jet stream that flows along the boundary between the two air masses, a lower difference means a slower jet stream.

Now, a fast jet stream travels in a pretty straight line around the planet from west to east, just like a mountain stream goes pretty straight downhill. A slower jet stream, however, meanders like a river crossing a flood plain – and the big loops it makes extend much further south and north than when it was moving fast.

In a big southerly loop, you will have Arctic air much further south than usual, while there will be relatively warm air from the temperate air mass in a northerly loop that extends up into the Arctic. Moreover, the slower-moving jet stream tends to get “stuck”, so that a given kind of weather – snow, or rain, or heat – will stay longer over the same area.

Hence the “polar-vortex” winter in North America this year, the record snowfalls in Japan in 2012 and again this winter, the lethal heat waves in the eastern US in 2012 – and the floods in Britain this winter.

“They’ve been pummelled by storm after storm this winter (in Britain),” said Jennifer Francis at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Chicago last week. “It’s been amazing what’s going on, and it’s because the pattern this winter has been stuck in one place ever since early December.” There’s no particular reason to think that it will move on soon, either.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7.  (“There have…matters”)

The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry

15 August 2012

The Rich, the Poor and the Hungry

By Gwynne Dyer

Two months ago, the United States Department of Agriculture forecast the biggest maize (corn) harvest in history: 376 million tonnes. After two months of record heat and drought in the US Midwest, it has dropped its forecast to 274 million tonnes. So by early July it was predicting that the price per bushel of maize would exceed $8 for the first time in history, and it’s now forecasting $8.90.

The heat wave in Russia, while nowhere near as bad as the one in 2010, is also cutting deeply into Russian wheat production. There will still be enough for domestic consumption, but Andrei Sisov of the Moscow-based farming consultancy SovEcon said last week that he expected Russian wheat exports to drop from 28 million tonnes to only 13 million. For this and other weather-related reasons, wheat prices are on their way up too.

High wheat prices hit human consumers directly, but high maize prices hit even harder in the long run because huge amounts of maize are used to feed animals and provide oil for processed foods. World food prices in general are on the way back up, and it’s beginning to look like a pattern, not a series of accidents.

The last big price spike, in 2007-09, had a huge impact in developing countries, where many people spend around 40 percent of their income on food (compared with only about 10 percent in developed countries). If you’re already spending almost half your income on food and the price soars, you just have to give your children less food – which is why some people see the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” as delayed reactions to the last spike.

Meanwhile, on a different planet entirely, the McKinsey Global Institute, the business and research arm of management consultancy McKinsey & Company, published another report in June. It’s the latest in an endless series of ever-bolder estimates by various “global institutes” of how fast the demand for goods and services is growing around the world.

The themes of McKinsey’s new report, “Urban World: Cities and the Rise of the Consuming Class”, are familiar enough. The world’s economic centre of gravity is moving to Asia; huge numbers of new “consumers” – people with average annual incomes over $3,600 who buy more than just food and basic shelter – will be joining the global market by 2025; there are wonderful opportunities out there for clever investors.

The only new wrinkle in this document is the bit about how 65 percent of “global growth” to 2025 will happen in the “City 600″, as they call it: the world’s 600 biggest cities. And what McKinsey calls “the Emerging 440 cities” – those among the 600 that are in the rapidly developing countries – will account for almost half of the total growth in world demand to 2025.

Then come the numbers. As the emerging economies grow, they’ll all start buying fridges and baby food and, eventually, cars. Whoopee! We’ll all get rich selling things to the Chinese!

But nowhere in the report does McKinsey deal seriously with the impact of a predicted total of 2.6 billion consumers, up from only 0.8 billion now, on world demand for food. Yet meat consumption soars as incomes rise. Feeding animals to produce meat puts huge pressure on grain resources, so all food prices rise, for rich and poor alike.

Combine the rise in meat consumption with an extra billion people and severe constraints of food production, most of them related to climate change, and world food prices in 2025 could be two to three times higher in real terms than they are now. That means that the poorest starve, and that a lot of McKinsey’s promised new “consumers” – those who can spend on other things than sheer survival – don’t make it into the middle class after all.

The same rationing by price is likely to apply to everything else that matters. Indeed, the prices of energy and raw materials, which fell consistently through most of the 20th century, are already back up to where they were in real terms a century ago. There are not going to be 1.8 billion new consumers in thirteen years’ time, and the poor will be more desperate than ever, and political stability in many developing countries will be just a memory.

The demands of consumers, like the sheer number of human beings, can in theory expand indefinitely, but on a finite planet with dwindling resources and a changing climate the cost of meeting consumer demand is going to go up very steeply. It is probably going to get very ugly out there.

And as for China, the poster child for miraculously fast economic growth – well, China has one-seventh as much water and one-tenth as much arable land per capita as North America. When things get tough, that is going to matter a lot.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. “The last…spike”; and “The only…2025″



Why Did They Do It?

5 June 2012

Why Did They Do It?

By Gwynne Dyer

What if China, flush with its new wealth, opened its doors to mass immigration? It would make sense from an economic and social point of view, because its one-child-per-family policy has produced a young generation far smaller than the one that now does most of the work. China’s population is “ageing” (i.e. its average age is going up) faster than any other country in history, and it could certainly do with some more young people.

If it had an immigration policy like that of the United States, it could fill all the gaping holes in the workforce that will open up when the present adult generation retires, and there would be enough people working and paying taxes to support that older generation in its “golden years”. Otherwise, there will be barely one worker for each retiree, and their post-retirement years will be far from golden.

So let’s suppose China opens the gates. (Stay with me on this.) The immigrants would come, from all over the world. Probably most would be from south and south-east Asia (India, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia, the Philippines), but plenty of Russians would come too. So would Arabs from the slums of Cairo, and Congolese from the slums of Kinshasa, and Mexicans fleeing the bloody war on drugs.

There would be young Europeans coming too, fleeing the 25-to-50 percent youth unemployment rates of Spain, Italy and Greece. Some Americans would also come, like former automobile workers from Rust-Belt states hoping that their skills would find employment in what is now the world’s biggest car-maker. China’s politics wouldn’t deter them; they have already tried being free and poor, and some of them would be willing to trade.

They would all come, and China would be transformed. In fifty or sixty years it would be one of the world’s most diverse societies. Almost all the new immigrants would learn to speak some Chinese, of course, but their children would be fluent in the language. Indeed, they would think of themselves as Chinese, even though their skins were white, brown or black and their religions Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or Hindu.

Some tens of millions of them would already have intermarried with ethnic Chinese, if only because there are tens of millions of young Chinese men who will otherwise remain unmarried. (The Chinese have been killing too many of their baby girls.) And everybody would live more or less happily ever after.

I know. It’s never going to happen, because the Chinese would never let it happen. But that’s precisely the point. The Americans have let it happen. Why?

I’m not saying it is a bad thing. Personally, I like it. But it is an extraordinary thing. Sixty years ago the United States was a country whose population was overwhelmingly of white European descent. The only really big minority was the black and mixed-race descendants of African slaves, who accounted for about one-eighth of the population. And then the United States opened the gates very wide.

Last month the US Census Bureau revealed that non-white births in the country narrowly exceeded the number of births to white Americans for the first time. There are some curious kinks in the statistics, such as the fact that Spanish-speaking whites are not counted as white, but the message is clear: the next adult generation in the United States will not be majority white.

So why did the last two generations of Americans, who were still mostly of European descent, let it happen? Did they welcome and encourage it, as a good thing for the country’s future? Or were they just asleep at the wheel?

Some Americans certainly did encourage it, arguing that turning the United States into a microcosm of the whole world was fulfilling its destiny, and that the sheer diversity of its future population would give it a huge competitive advantage in the world. But there were not many people who made that argument, and there is actually little evidence to show that ethnic diversity makes a country more competitive.

Nor did this immense change happen while the old white population was just not paying attention. There were debates about immigration policy all the time, there was plenty of information about where the current immigration policy was leading, and Americans simply let it happen.

One explanation that sounds plausible is that it was about fairness. As descendants of immigrants themselves, they felt that they could not deny others the same opportunities. Many older white Americans were clearly uneasy about the new social reality that was springing up around them, but most of them remained true to their ideals and never mobilised to stop it.

Maybe the last two generations of Americans were a lot less racist than many people – including many Americans – thought. Or perhaps they were all silently aware that only five hundred years ago, none of the births in North America were white.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“Some…happen”)



The New Latin

20 May 2012

The Triumph of English

By Gwynne Dyer

The second president of the United States, John Adams, predicted in 1780 that “English will be the most respectable language in the world and the most universally read and spoken in the next century, if not before the end of this one.” It is destined “in the next and succeeding centuries to be more generally the language of the world than Latin was in the last or French is in the present age.”

It was a bold prediction, for at that time there were only about 13 million English-speakers in the world, almost all of them living in Britain or on the eastern seaboard of North America. They were barely one percent of the world’s population, and almost nobody except the Welsh and the Irish bothered to learn English as a second language. So how is Adams’s prediction doing now?

Well, it took a little longer than he thought, but last week one of the most respected universities in Italy, the Politecnico di Milano, announced that from 2014 all of its courses would be taught in English.

There was a predictable wave of outrage all across the country, but the university’s rector, Giovanni Azzoni, simply replied: “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the only way to have international classes is to use the English language. Universities are in a more competitive world. If you want to stay with the other global universities, you have no other choice.”

The university is not doing this to attract foreign students. It is doing it mainly for its own students who speak Italian as a first language, but must make their living in a global economy where the players come from everywhere – and they all speak English as a lingua franca.

Many other European universities, especially in Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia, have taken the same decision, and the phenomenon is now spreading to Asia. There is a huge shift underway, and it has become extremely rare to meet a scientific researcher or international businessperson who cannot speak fluent English. How else would Peruvians communicate with Chinese?

But wait a minute. Peruvians speak Spanish, the world’s second-biggest language, and Chinese has the largest number of native speakers of any language. Why don’t they just learn each other’s languages?

Because neither language is much use for talking to anybody else. Chinese won’t get you very far in Europe, Africa or the Americas – or, indeed, in most of Asia. The same goes for Spanish almost anywhere outside Latin America. Since few people have the time to learn more than one or two foreign languages, we need a single lingua franca that everybody can use with everybody else.

The choice has fallen on English not because it is more beautiful or more expressive, but just because it is already more widespread than any of the other potential candidates.

Mandarin Chinese has been the biggest language by number of speakers for at least the last thousand years, and is now used by close to a billion people, but it has never spread beyond China in any significant way. Spanish, like English, has grown explosively in the past two centuries: each now has over 400 million speakers. But Spanish remains essentially confined to Central and South America and Spain, while English is everywhere.

There is a major power that uses English in every continent except South America: the US in North America, the United Kingdom in Europe, South Africa in Africa, India in Asia, and of course Australia (where the entire continent speaks it). All of that is due to the British empire, which once ruled one-quarter of the world’s people. For the same reason, there are several dozen other countries where English is an official language.

Of course, the British empire went into a steep decline almost a century ago, but the superpower that took Britain’s place was the United States, another English-speaking country. After another century during which everybody dealing in international business and diplomacy – indeed, any independent traveler who went very far from home – simply had to learn English, the die was cast. English had become the first worldwide lingua franca.

There have been few languages in world history that were spoken by more people as a second language than as a first; English has had that distinction for several decades already. Never before has any language had more people learning it in a given year than it has native speakers; English has probably now broken that record as well.

Most of those learners will never become fully fluent in English, but over the years some hundreds of millions will, including the entire global elite. And the amount of effort that is being invested in learning English is so great that it virtually guarantees that this reality will persist for generations to come.

No other language is threatened by this predominance of English. Italians are not going to stop speaking Italian to one another, even if they have attended the Politecnico di Milano, and no force on Earth could stop the Chinese or the Arabs from speaking their own language among themselves. But they will all speak English to foreigners.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 14 (“Mandarin…everywhere”; and “Most of…to come”)