Also in July and August of 2010, monster monsoons (an extreme version of a natural event) hit Pakistan. The floods displaced 20 million, killed close to 2,000, sickened thousands more, and inundated grain growing areas of the Indus. Climate models project additional intensification of Asian monsoons with continued warming.
In November, 2010, an enormous tropical cyclone caused extensive flooding in Queensland, Australia, killing close to 2,000 (indigenous people being disproportionately affected), and costing an estimated $6 billion. Nearly three-quarters of Queensland, including several wheat-growing regions, was declared a disaster zone. Much of the young, winter wheat crop was severely damaged and grain exports were held up in the Brisbane, the state's largest grain terminal.
Protracted drought in central China has cut winter and summer wheat production there, while reduced snowpack in China's Northern Plain has affected 15.8 million acres. Over one-third of China's wheat production has been lost this year. (Minimal rains in January provided some relief.) In June, also in China, historic flooding claimed more homes and farmland. Meanwhile, extreme cold compounded the drought's impact on wheat yields.
China, with $2.85 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, can afford to import grains -- and it has recently begun to do so. But internal disparities have surfaced, even in China: In April, truck and taxi drivers protested rising food and fuel prices.
Unfortunately there are biological consequences to altered weather patterns as well. From Morocco to Northern India, wetter winters have ushered in "yellow rust" fungus, destroying some 60 percent of the region's dry climate wheat. More pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides may be called up to control pests, pathogens, and weeds in a warmer world -- all with their own health consequences.
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Suddenly, food security has reached critical proportions for many. With wheat prices surging 83 percent on the Chicago and Paris exchanges, nations where residents spend half of their income on food (Nigerians spend 73 percent and Vietnamese spend 65 percent) are undergoing mounting social strife.
Price hikes and food insecurity are today contributing to political instability. In April, food riots broke out in Uganda and in Burkina Faso, and rising food, feed, and fuel price have helped catapult the cries for democracy in Northern Africa and the Middle East.
While the fossil fuel industry continues its well-funded, well-orchestrated campaign to keep up a drum beat of doubt on climate change, the impacts are becoming self evident, and nowhere are they more pronounced than with the emergence of food insecurity.
Addressing climate change is everyone's business.
The challenges to inertia continue. In the U.S., a new group, Our Children's Trust, filed a suit in May against the U.S. government for its failure to protect the earth for generations unborn. (The brief was written by James Hansen of NASA and other scientists.) The U.K. has just announced accelerated targets to limit greenhouse gas emissions (50 percent by 2025), by reducing fossil fuel combustion and the felling of forests. There are many measures to help our agricultural systems adapt to the changing climate. But this is a critical time to scale up measures to clean up and transform our energy system, to give the climate a chance at restabilization.
Image: REUTERS/Andrew Caballero-Reynolds.
With Michael Barron of the Center for Health and the Global Environment and Harvard Medical School; Sophia Wen, a Harvard College graduate; and Sachi Oshima, a Harvard College undergraduate student.