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Not Just a Late Monsoon

The monsoon rains are finally arriving in central and northern India, but they are two weeks late. It started raining in Mumbai on Monday, and it should be raining in Delhi by Friday, but it will have come too late for many people, especially farmers. For some parts of the country, it has been 200 days without rain.

Late May and early June are always brutal in northern India, as the heat builds up and
the humidity rises. This year, with the monsoon so delayed, it has been particularly bad, with the temperature hitting 48°C in Delhi last week – the hottest June day on record – and 50°C in Rajasthan. And countrywide rainfall for this year is down 37%.

The heat and drought don’t just cause discomfort. After a few years of late or poor monsoons the level of the groundwater drops and wells run dry. This year hundreds, perhaps thousands of villages have been temporarily abandoned as the residents moved to towns where there was still water, and in the state of Maharashtra alone 6,000 tanker-trucks were delivering water to other hard-hit villages.

The Indian government has just created a new Ministry of Water Power to tackle water conservation and management (better late than never), but it can’t solve the problem. Food production is falling, people are dying, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse.

It’s impossible to say how many people have died because of this year’s late monsoon, because India generally only counts people who make it to hospital before they die (and not always even then.) But the single state of Bihar reported 184 deaths by the middle of last week.

A more plausible measure of mortality comes from Europe, where they compare overall mortality in normal times with mortality during a heatwave, and (quite reasonably) assume that the difference is mostly due to the heat deaths. In the record 2003 heatwave in Europe, when temperatures were slightly lower that they have been in northern India this month, an estimated 35,000-70,000 people died.

So how many premature deaths from heat were there really in India this month? Probably tens of thousands. And how much food production will be lost this year? Again, you cannot calculate it directly, but I can give you an informed guess.

About a dozen years ago I was interviewing Dr Jyoti Parikh, the director of IRADe, a well-known think-tank in New Delhi. Out of the blue, she mentioned that her organisation had got the World Bank contract to forecast how much agricultural production India would lose when average global temperature reached +2°C above the pre-industrial average.

The contract was confidential at the time, but the World Bank’s chief economist had given these contracts to private think-tanks in every major country, probably on the assumption that official predictions were being kept secret in most countries so as not to frighten the children. Or should I say the citizens?

In the end, the predictions commissioned by the World Bank also remained unpublished. Indeed, they are secret even down to the present (because, after all, it is governments that pay for the World Bank.) But Dr Parikh told me the prediction for India. At +2°C, India would lose 25% of its food production. We are now at about +1.3° worldwide, so shall we say 10% of food production lost now in a bad year?

Weather does fluctuate from year to year, of course, but worldwide the last four years have been the four warmest since 1880, when global records become available. Since 2004, India has experienced 11 of its 15 warmest recorded years. The frequency and duration of heat waves in India has increased and is predicted to continue increasing. Global heating isn’t coming. It’s here.

It’s not just India, of course. The British Meteorological Office says there is a 10% chance that the average global temperature will exceed +1.5°C at least once in the next five years. (That’s the Paris climate change agreement’s ‘never-exceed’ target.) At the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, it’s going to take a major miracle to avoid hitting +2°C within fifteen years.

At that level significant numbers of people will be dying of the heat every year, and much bigger numbers will be starving as food production fails, especially in the tropical and sub-tropical parts of the world. But don’t feel left out if you live in the more temperate parts of the planet.

The wildfires have already started again in Canada and California, with predictions that they may be even worse than last year. And Europe is getting ready for a heat wave, starting around Friday, that will bring temperatures above 40° to much of the continent. Nobody gets off free.
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To shorten to 675 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“The heat…villages”; and “Weather…here”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

31 March 2014

Climate Change: Documenting the Blindingly Obvious

If you want to go on eating regularly in a rapidly warming world, then live in a place that’s either high in latitude or high in altitude. Alternatively, be rich, because the rich never starve. But otherwise, prepare to be hungry.

That’s the real message of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on the impact of warming on human beings, released this week: the main impact is on the food supply. Of course, everybody who was paying attention has already known that for years, including the scientists. It’s just that scientists are professionally cautious, and will not say anything that they cannot prove beyond any shadow of a doubt.

An ordinary person will look out the back window and say that it’s raining. A scientist will feel obliged to look out the front window and make sure that it’s raining on the other side of the house too. (Cats do the same, although they are not scientists.)

Then he must consider the possibility that the drops that are falling on the window-pane are some other clear liquid, like vodka, and he must check that it’s not simply a back-projection onto the windows. Only then can he state with 95 percent confidence that it’s raining. (The other 5 percent allows for the possibility that he might just be hallucinating.)

The standards for evidence in science are much higher than they are in ordinary life, which is why it has taken the scientists on the IPCC so long to announce the same conclusion that any ordinary mortal who looked into the question would have reached five or ten years ago. (The scientists really knew it, too, of course, but they couldn’t yet prove it to the required standard.)

But the World Bank, for example, has long known approximately how much food production every major country will lose when the average global temperature is 2 degrees C higher. At least seven years ago it gave contracts to think tanks in every major capital to answer precisely that question.

What the think tanks told the World Bank was that India will lose 25 percent of its food production. China, I have been told by somebody who saw the report from the Beijing think tank, will lose a catastrophic 38 percent. But these results have never been published, because the governments concerned did not want such alarming numbers out in public and were able to restrain the World Bank from releasing them.

So, too, for example, the armed forces of many countries have been incorporating predictions of this sort into their scenarios of the future for at least five years. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency in the United States and the British armed forces have been doing it openly, and I have seen strong indications that the Russian, Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and Japanese armed forces are also doing so.

When you look at the scenarios in detail, they do not just predict serious food shortages in most tropical and sub-tropical countries (which account for about 70 percent of the world’s population). They predict waves of refugees fleeing from these countries, a proliferation of failed states in the sub-tropics, and even inter-state wars between countries that must share the same river system when there’s not enough water to go around.

That’s still farther than the IPCC is prepared to go, but to the military it’s as obvious as the nose on your face. As for what will happen to crop yields by 2050, assuming an average global temperature 3 degrees C higher by then, you have to go elsewhere for information. The military don’t plan that far ahead.

But the World Resources Institute published a map recently that estimated the losses country by country by 2050, and according to the WRI’s calculations they are really bad by then. Crop yields are down everywhere in the Middle East and the Mediterranean countries. In Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, they are down by 50 percent.

All of Africa is down except Lesotho, Rwanda and Kenya, which are all or mostly above 1,000 metres in altitude. Food production is down in almost all of South America except Chile, also very high, where it is up. Crop yields in North America are down too, except in Canada and a few US states right along the Canadian border. High latitude is even better than high altitude.

In Europe and Asia, latitude is decisive. Countries far away from the equator will still be doing well; countries even a bit closer to the equator get hammered.

Russia, Scandinavia, Germany and Poland will be producing more food than ever, but southern Europe including the Balkans and even France and Ukraine will have lost production. India, China, and all of South-East Asia will be sharply down, as will Australia – but Japan will be only a bit down and New Zealand will be sharply up. It pays to be an island, too.

But this is not a “mixed” result, in the sense that it all works out about even. The total population of all the countries where food production will be stable or higher in 2050 will be less than half a billion. At least eight-and-a-half or nine billion will live in countries where food production has fallen, sometimes very steeply. It will be a very hungry world.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 4 and 5.  (“An ordinary…standard”)

Frog in the Pot

15 Jul 13

A Frog in the Pot

By Gwynne Dyer

If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, so they say, it will hop right out again. Frogs aren’t stupid. Well, okay, but they’re not THAT stupid.

However, if you put a frog in a pot of cool water, and gradually turn the heat up under it, the frog will not notice what’s happening. It will happily sit there until the water boils, and it dies.

Now, I have never carried out this experiment personally – I prefer my frogs’ legs fried – so I can’t vouch for the truth of it. It’s just a story the environmentalists like to tell. Besides, I already knew that human beings have trouble in detecting slow-moving threats. You can watch us failing to do it every day: we persistently ignore the fact that we are running into trouble at a civilisational level, even though the evidence is all around us.

The foundation of every civilisation is an adequate food supply: human beings simply cannot live at the density of population that civilisation implies without a reliable agriculture. But the supply of good agricultural land is limited, and the number of human beings is not.

You can postpone the problem for a while by increasing the yield of the available land: irrigate it, plant higher-yielding crops, fertilise the soil artificially, use pesticides and herbicides to protect the crops as they grow. But even these techniques have limits, and in many cases we have reached or exceeded them. So we are running into trouble. Why isn’t anybody taking action?

Governments everywhere are well aware of the problem: we are now 7 billion people, heading for an estimated 11 billion by the end of this century, and the food situation is already getting tight. So tight, in fact, that the average price of the major food grains has doubled in the past ten years. But everybody finds local reasons to ignore that fact.

The developing countries know that they are under the gun, because the standard predictions of global warming suggest that it is the tropics and the sub-tropics where the warming will hit food production first and hardest.

A (still unpublished) study carried out by the World Bank some years ago concluded that India (all of which is in the tropics or sub-tropics) would lose 25 percent of its food production when the average global temperature is only 2 degrees C higher. China would lose an astounding 38 percent, even though most of it is in the temperate zone. And all that is before their underground water sources are pumped dry.

Most governments in the developing countries know the facts, but the short-term political imperative to raise living standards takes precedence over the longer-term imperative to curb the warming. So headlong industrialisation wins the policy debate every time, and we’ll worry about the food supply later.

The developed world’s governments do nothing, because until recently they secretly believed that the catastrophe would mostly hit countries in the former Third World. That would unleash waves of climate refugees, plus local wars and a proliferation of failed states, but the rich countries reckoned that they would still be able to feed themselves – and their military could hold the other problems at bay.

But what is becoming clear, just in the past few years, is that the developed countries will also have trouble feeding themselves. Part of the problem is that many of them depend heavily on underground aquifers for irrigation, and the water is running out.

It’s running out even faster in China, India and the Middle East: for example, grain production has dropped by a third in Iraq and Syria in the past ten years. But it is hitting the big producers in the developed countries, too, and especially the United States.

For example, the amount of irrigated land in Texas has dropped by 37 percent since 1975. The amount in Kansas has fallen by nearly 30 percent in the past three years. And now it is becoming clear that the impact of warming will also be much greater than anticipated in the developed countries.

In these countries, the problem is extreme weather causing massive floods and prolonged droughts – like the heat wave that hit grain production in the US Midwest last summer, or the coldest spring in 50 years in England, which has cut wheat yields by a third.

Combine the steep fall in irrigation, the crop losses to wild weather, and the diversion of large amounts of cropland to grow “biofuels” instead of food, and it is not at all certain that the developed world will be able to grow enough food for its own citizens in five or ten years time. So are the leaders of these countries launching crash programmes to stop the warming, cut down on water losses and end the lunacy of biofuels?

Of course not. The smarter ones just reckon that since their countries will still be rich, they will buy up whatever food is available elsewhere and feed their own people that way. It will be other people, in other countries, who go hungry.

And the slower ones? They’re just frogs.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“You can…ready”; and “A still…dry”).

 

 

Carbon Tax: The Chinese Are Frightened

2 March 2013

Carbon Tax: The Chinese Are Frightened

by Gwynne Dyer

Last week’s announcement by China’s Ministry of Finance that the country will introduce a carbon tax, probably in the next two years, did not dominate the international headlines. It was too vague about the timetable and the rate at which the tax would be levied, and fossil fuel lobbyists were quick to portray it as meaningless. But the Chinese are deadly serious about fighting global warming, because they are really scared.

A carbon tax, though deeply unpopular with the fossil fuel industries, is the easiest way to change the behaviour of the people and firms that burn those fuels: it just makes burning them more costly. And if the tax is then returned to the consumers of energy through lower taxes, then it has no overall depressive effect on the economy.

The Xinhua news agency did not say how big the tax in China would be, but it pointed to a three-year-old proposal by government experts that would have levied a 10-yuan ($1.60) per ton tax on carbon in 2012 and raised it to 50-yuan ($8) a ton by 2020. That is still far below the $80-per-ton tax that would really shrink China’s greenhouse gas emissions drastically, but at least it would establish the principle that the polluters must pay.

It’s a principle that has little appeal to US President Barack Obama, who has explicitly promised not to propose a carbon tax. He probably knows that it makes sense, but he has no intention of committing political suicide, the likely result of making such a proposal in the United States. But China is not suffering from political gridlock; if the regime wants something to happen, it can usually make it happen.

So why is China getting out in front of the parade with its planned carbon tax? No doubt it gives China some leverage in international climate change negotiations, letting it demand that other countries make the same commitment. But why does it care so much that those negotiations should succeed? Does it know something that the rest of us don’t?

Three or four years ago, while interviewing the head of a think-tank in a major country, I was told something that has shaped my interpretation of Chinese policy ever since. If it is true, it explains why the Chinese regime is so frightened of climate change.

My informant told me that his organisation had been given a contract by the World Bank to figure out how much food production his country will lose when the average global temperature has risen by 2 degrees C (3.5 degrees F). (On current trends, that will probably happen around 25 years from now.) Similar contracts had been given to think-tanks in all the other major countries, he said – but the results have never been published.

The main impact of climate change on human welfare in the short and medium term will be on the food supply. The rule of thumb the experts use is that total world food production will drop by ten percent for every degree Celsius of warming, but the percentage losses will vary widely from one country to another.

The director told me the amount of food his own country would lose, which was bad enough – and then mentioned that China, according to the report on that country, would lose a terrifying 38 percent of its food production at +2 degrees C. The reports were not circulated, but a summary had apparently been posted on the Chinese think-tank’s website for a few hours by a rogue researcher before being taken down.

The World Bank has never published these reports or even admitted their existence, but it is all too plausible that the governments in question insisted that they be kept confidential. They would not have wanted these numbers to be made public. And there are good reasons to suspect that this story is true.

Who would have commissioned these contracts? The likeliest answer is Sir Robert Watson, a British scientist who was the Director of the Environment Department at the World Bank at the same time that he was the Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

George Bush’s administration had Watson ousted as chair of the IPCC in 2002, but he stayed at the World Bank, where he is now Chief Scientist and Senior Advisor on Sustainable Development. (He has also been Chief Scientific Adviser to the British Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for the past six years.)

He would have had both the motive and the opportunity to put those contracts out, but he would not have had the clout to get the reports published. When I asked him about it a few years ago, he neither confirmed nor denied their existence. But if the report on China actually said that the country will lose 38 percent of its food production when the average global temperature reaches 2 degrees C higher, it would explain why the regime is so scared.

No country that lost almost two-fifths of its food production could avoid huge social and political upheavals. No regime that was held responsible for such a catastrophe would survive. If the Chinese regime thinks that is what awaits it down the road, no wonder it is thinking of bringing in a carbon tax.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 4 and 5. (“A carbon…economy”: and “It’s a…don’t”)