“I honestly would like to punch the silly idiots in the head, who instantly leap online to troll anyone daring to suggest we have a problem. They are so wrong.”
Some like it hot. Some like it wet. And we’ve got both.
Readers of this, muh bogl, may be aware that we have taken to publishing weekly reports from around the world of extreme climate events. I’d like to look now at the trendlines and what they mean for our chances of maintaining social stability in the coming years, principally through the continuing reliability or otherwise of our food suppliy.
2017 looks to be a vintage year for floods, droughts, heatwaves, wildfires and violent storms (see just my last Post for an exciting list of extreme weather porn). Pacific typhoons have been especially pernicious, with (at the beginning of August) eight reportedly on the go at the same time.
The Atlantic hurricane season has yet to kick-in, with just a few tropical storms counted so far – which is not to be complacent as they have caused widespread flooding and wind damage in the Caribbean, Mexico and the Gulf states, Florida and Louisiana.
Yet how poor are our memories! 2016 was also a devastating year around the globe. Remember these from last August alone: ?
USA: The devastating floods that hit Louisiana in August 2016 are expected to cost the US economy between US$10 billion and US$15 billion. Days of extreme rainfall across parts of the United States Gulf Coast and Midwest caused catastrophic flood damage in several communities during the month, killing at least 13 people.
Belize and Mexico: Hurricane Earl made separate landfalls in Belize and Mexico after first tracking through the Caribbean Sea, killing at least 67 people. Total economic losses were estimated at USD250 million, including in Mexico (USD132 million) and Belize (USD110 million)
India: Floods have affected wide areas of India, the death toll for the season is at least 600, with more than 100,000 homes and other structures destroyed. Total economic losses were estimated at USD462 million.
China, Pakistan, Vietnam, Philippines, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Sudan, South Sudan, and Macedonia: all cited major flood events during the month. The floods in Macedonia caused at least $100 million losses and left 3,500 structures damaged.
In Bangladesh, flooding in August damaged 253,413 structures.
China: Severe weather and flooding affected wide areas of China which overall cost around $600 million in economic losses.
(NB the financial figures are insurance claims (Insurance Journal). It’s reckoned 80% of properties, livestock and crops in the regions named would not have been insured.)
“August 2016 was an active month for tropical cyclone activity with several landfalls in the Atlantic and Pacific basins, including Typhoon Nida (Philippines, China, Vietnam), Tropical Storm Dianmu (China, Vietnam), Tropical Storm Mindulle (Japan), and Typhoon Lionrock (Japan, China, Korean Peninsula). Typhoon Lionrock proved the most costly, causing the deaths of 77 people, damaging at least 20,781 structures, causing economic losses of more than $245 million.
“Other costly disasters for August include wildfires burning in southern France, mainland Portugal, and on the islands of Madeira (Portugal) and La Palma (Spain) which claimed at least five lives. In Portugal alone, the fires charred 115,000 hectares (284,000 acres) of land as total economic damage was listed at EUR200 million (USD226 million).
“Major California wildfires prompted evacuations and destroyed hundreds of homes. Economic losses were forecast at above USD100 million; the cost to fight the fires was more than USD50 million alone.”
As if that were not enough, this year’s record-breaking heatwave in the western USA was equally matched only a year ago, when extreme heat advisories were issued across 14 states. From USA Today, 18 July 2016:
“Temperatures over 100 degrees and brutally high humidity will combine to deliver a potentially dangerous heat wave to much of the central and southern U.S. this week. “This may be one of the worst heat waves in the last few decades,” the National Weather Service warned. Some 130 million Americans will endure heat indexes of at least 100 degrees, according to the Weather Channel.”
We note, of course, that temperatures as high as 120F, 46C were recorded several times this year in places like Phoenix and Palm Springs; while even north of the Arctic circle Siberia achieved long-term temperatures above 24C, 75F; including in northern Canada one reading of 32C, 90F on the Mackenzie River in July.
And as more southerly areas of Europe around the Mediterranean sizzle for the second time this year in 40C + temperatures over the weekend, we forget, don’t we, as Al Jazeera news reminds us, that only last year the UK basked in 30C + temperatures (reaching 34C, 93F) – and:
“A large slice of Western Europe looks set to experience heatwave conditions in the coming days. Temperatures from Portugal to Poland are expected to reach the 30C mark. The warmer air is coming from the south or southeast, meaning that very warm air from the Mediterranean and Africa is making northward progress. Many areas are expected to see a steady increase in temperatures towards the weekend. Temperatures in London and Paris are expected to reach 32 and 35C respectively, by Friday.
“Across the Iberian Peninsula, there will be little change to the persistent warm weather that has been ongoing since early July. The Spanish capital, Madrid, has only failed to record a maximum temperature of at least 30C on one occasion this month. Temperatures have generally reached 34 to 35C on most days. Throughout July and August, temperatures in southern parts of both Spain and Portugal have exceeded 40C, prompting the issue of heatwave warnings.
“Further east, Berlin is expected to see weekend temperatures reach 31C. Warsaw, Poland will come close to 30C by Sunday, and Kiev, Ukraine will also feel the 30C heat, although people here may have to wait until Sunday or Monday for that to happen.” – Al Jazeera, 22 Aug 2016.
Yet a glance back at the European heatwave of 2015 reveals even higher temperatures, with a UK record 36.7C, 98F set at Heathrow airport on 1 July, players dropping like flies at Wimbledon and records broken all over Europe. While in the 2003 European heatwave, 70,000 people are estimated to have died – mortuaries were overflowing – and temperature records were set going all the way back to the 16th century.
Fourteen of the 15 hottest years in the history of record-keeping have been recorded in the last 15 years!
I honestly would like to punch the gullible idiots in the head, who instantly leap online to troll anyone daring to suggest we have a problem. They are so wrong.
The myths and lies climate-change deniers peddle about sunspots and volcanoes and natural cycles and the evidently cretinous ‘global cooling’ myth are all traceable back to PR agencies, false-front ‘research institutes’ and corrupt politicians who have been paid $100s of millions by the fossil-fuel industry for decades to campaign to undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus that, basically, we’re fucked.
*Whenever I show this photograph at the top I have to explain that it is a completely unretouched colour shot looking directly out to sea from my local beach on a stormy day where the storm front terminated in a completely straight line from horizon to horizon, revealing the cumulus cloud behind; not a Mark Rothko abstract, and not a camera fault!
“It has been estimated that we need to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have ever produced in human history…”
So as the UK attempts to negotiate its way out of the Common Agricultural Policy like a bad actor emerging from a paper bag, with so many areas of the world affected by drought and floods and likely increasingly to be, are we going to have enough to eat?
British foodies may remember the Great Iceberg Lettuce Disaster of January, 2017, when the price trebled and shelves were laid bare as a result of record rainfall and flooding in Almeria province, southern Spain. That was closely followed by the Courgette Calamity, and the Avocado Unavailability, both attributable to extreme climatic events.
There is only so much to go around. And whoever is willing to pay the highest prices, eats.
Our own agriculture is facing a number of threats. Water shortages in the south of England; seasonal labour shortages (as a result of Brexit) already developing in the east. Changes in seasonal variability. Heavier rainfall. Plus of course the probable loss of EU subsidies to farmers.
Italian and Spanish producers are reporting this year up to 60% crop failures as a result of the hot, dry conditions. But both countries are net importers of, especially, wheat from France – and the UK. Can we afford to feed them as well as ourselves?
While any shortages of the special hard Durum wheat used in pasta-making, and the short-grain rice from the Po valley used in risottos, may well end up pushing up prices, both in the shops and in restaurants.
The following report comes from the Insurance Journal, and is current:
“Drought in southern Europe threatens to reduce cereal production in Italy and parts of Spain to its lowest level in at least 20 years, and hit other regional crops including olives and almonds. Castile and Leon, the largest cereal growing region in Spain, has been particularly badly affected, with crop losses estimated at around 60 to 70 percent.
“’This year was not bad, it was catastrophic. I can’t remember a year like this since 1992 when I was a little child,’ said Joaquin Antonio Pino, a cereal farmer in Sinlabajos, Avila. Pino said many of his fields had not even been harvested, because crop revenues would not cover the wages of laborers who gathered them.
“While the EU is collectively a major wheat exporter, Spain and Italy both rely on imports from countries including France, Britain and Ukraine. Spanish soft wheat imports are expected to rise by more than 40 percent to 5.6 million tonnes in the 2017-2018 marketing year, according to Agroinfomarket. The prospect of a larger harvest in France this year should ensure adequate overall supplies in the trading bloc.”
“Spain and Italy are also among the world’s top producers of olive oil. Production in both countries is expected to fall, but the decline is likely to be particularly steep in Italy, where drought is the latest headache for olive growers already plagued by insects and a bacterial disease in recent years. A 60 percent drop in Italian output is forecast by the International Olive Council.” – Insurance Journal.
So the commodities speculators are doing well, but it looks like inflationary pressures on food prices in UK supermarkets are only likely to increase as we head into an uncertain 2018. The Guardian reported in April, 2015:
“More than half of the UK’s food will come from overseas within a generation, as a rising population and stalling farm productivity combine to erode what remains of the UK’s self-sufficiency, according to farming leaders. The UK’s failure to produce more food will leave households more vulnerable to volatile prices and potential shortages, the National Farmers’ Union will say at its annual conference on Tuesday.”
And they’re still saying it, only with Brexit knobs on. So in the light of the Insurance Journal and other reports indicating that some traditional areas for food production in Europe are failing, owing to climate disruption, which other areas can we turn to for food aid to feed our 65 million mouths?
Over in the USA, from where we import our Californian avocadoes, wine, dates and almonds, they’re in trouble – and not just because the pollinating bee population has collapsed.
“Drought conditions are getting worse in several states, and extreme heat and weeks with little rain have begun to stress corn, soybeans, wheat and livestock in some areas.
“The weekly U.S. Drought Monitor recently released by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says nearly 11 percent of the continental United States is in moderate drought or worse. The conditions are ravaging pastures, hay land and crops. The federal government has declared numerous North Dakota counties to be disaster areas, paving the way for federal aid.
“The United States Department of Agriculture has designated several counties in those states as areas of natural disaster, paving the way for emergency loans for producers. Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas also are seeing stressed crops and farm animals. About half of U.S. spring wheat, 15 percent of corn and 14 percent of soybeans are in drought.” – Floodlist, 22 June
A 2015 report published on the Pacific Institute website suggests that, while California’s food producers are keeping up with demand, there’s a problem: they’re doing it by extracting water that’s needed for other uses.
“California’s agriculture sector has exceeded expectations during the most severe drought in recorded history at the cost of massive but unsustainable groundwater pumping. Continued groundwater overdraft, while reducing the economic impacts of the drought for the agricultural sector now, has shifted the burden to others, including current and future generations forced to dig deeper wells, find alternative drinking water sources, and repair infrastructure damaged by subsidence.”
Plus, of course, we need to consider that maxim propounded on the campaign trail by America’s greatest ever President: “America First!” Not only will the supply of cheap farm labour dry up as a result of his absurd and divisive immigration policies, but it is easy to imagine food exports being constrained in a time of severe drought.
So where else can we go? How about the Indian subcontinent? Floodlist reports:
“Sri Lanka was hit by the worst drought in four decades last year, with poor rains continuing into 2017, causing many farmers to lose their crops and income, the agencies said. In May, the situation was exacerbated by the worst torrential rains in 14 years, which triggered floods and landslides in the country’s southwest, killing some 200 people and forcing many from their homes.
“But in drought-affected areas in the north, rains were not sufficient to replenish reservoirs, and the second 2017 rice paddy harvest is expected to be at least 24 percent lower than last year’s, said FAO official Cristina Coslet. “The level of water in irrigation reservoirs is still well below the average,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“Some 225,000 households – or 900,000 people – face food insecurity, and have been forced to eat less and lower quality food, the report said.”
So with drought in the south and unprecedented floods in the north, it looks like India is already hurting, as indeed are 20 million Africans not only in food poverty, but on the brink of starvation.
And then if we see a major hurricane season develop in the Caribbean – sea temperatures are high enough, and there’s been no significant El Niño effect yet – we’ll be looking at damage to the sugar crop, bananas, plantain, cocoa and coffee, all of which are under pressure owing to rising demand and limitations of supply. It sounds overly pessimistic, but as windspeeds and precipitation are undoubtedly rising, there is a potential problem looming (we should not exclude non-climate factors: fertilizer and agrichemical prices are rising, plant diseases such as Panama virus, which is killing off the ubiquitous Carrington banana, on the increase).
Britain imports a lot of food and flowers from Africa; for instance Kenya, where the Ministry of Agriculture is attempting to build climate resilience through a ten-year program. The omens are not good. Kenya has experienced severe drought in 2017 as well as widespread flooding. From the ‘Smart Agriculture Strategy’:
“The sector is however the most vulnerable to impacts of climate change and extreme weather events. Enhanced temperatures and change in precipitation regimes have led to reduced suitability of agro-based enterprises; reduced productivity of crops, livestock and fisheries due to temperature and water stresses; and rising production costs. The increase in frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and strong winds have led to loss of investments, incomes and livelihoods, destruction of agro-based infrastructure as well as increased frequency of weather related disasters.”
The world outlook can be bleak. GM crops can be designed to withstand drought, but possibly not CO2 ‘poisoning’. Enhanced atmospheric CO2 does produce additional growth, but only up to a point. From the UK’s Inter-agency Report on Global Food Security: The Challenge:
“Around 795 million people face hunger on a daily basis and more than two billion people lack vital micronutrients. Nearly a quarter of all children aged under five today are stunted, with diminished physical and mental capacities, and less than a third of all young infants in 60 low- and middle-income countries meet the minimum dietary diversity standards needed for growth.
“Climate change will only make things worse as elevated levels of CO2 reduce the nutritional content of grains, tubers and legumes, affecting key nutrients such as zinc and iron (ref 4). The estimated impact of undernutrition on gross domestic product (GDP) is 11% every year – more than the annual economic downturn caused by the global financial crisis.
“It has been estimated that we need to produce more food in the next 35 years than we have ever produced in human history, given the projected increases in world population, and on the basis that rising incomes will continue to change diets. However, there is by good approximation no new land for agriculture…”. (My italics)
How bad is bad?
Try as I might, I can find little more information on how this year’s crop of heatwaves, extreme floods and wildfires covering over two million acres of forest and scrubland is already affecting food production around the world. I see the wheat harvest in Ukraine is a few % down, prices a little up; similar to Russia’s. But those forecasts predate any summaries taking into account current weather events.
Somehow once the figures for crop losses are calculated, probably next year, they will have been turned into financial statistics and we shall be little the wiser. It may be that the most significant effect of crop loss will be felt in local markets and by small subsistence farmers – as in India, where 60,000 have committed suicide in the past thirty years, many driven to bankruptcy by poor harvests.
It is safe therefore to assume that extreme weather events don’t help farmers, while if Indian and Chinese producers don’t send much food to Europe, nevertheless if their domestic markets are affected by shortages it can’t be good for our long-term outlook. Finding out information is difficult as national food ministries like to post dazzlingly optimistic forecasts.
Going back to the great European heatwave of 2003, which compares in intensity with the current one, Wikipedia has the following fairly crude statistics for loss of food production. “Shortfalls in the wheat harvest occurred as a result of the long drought:
- France – 20%
- Italy – 13%
- United Kingdom – 12%
- Ukraine – 75% (unknown if affected by heatwave or an early freeze that year)
- Moldova – 80%
“Many other countries had shortfalls of 5–10%, and EU total production was down by 10 million tonnes, or 10%.” The good news was at least that: “The wines from 2003, although in scarce quantity, are predicted to have exceptional quality.”
Given the unpredictability of risk there is a real need to harden our food defences, to become more resilient to climate disruption and less dependent on imports. And that’s not going to happen until the Government gets its stupid head out of the Brexit barrel and takes a walk in the countryside.