By Guest Blogger Hilary Palevsky (Oceanography)
Climate Justice Seminar 2011 Student

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 4th assessment report in 2007 projected an increase in food prices as global temperatures warmed, though with considerable uncertainty as to the pace of price changes.

Figure 5.3 from the IPCC AR4, Working Group II report. “Cereal prices (percent of baseline) versus global mean temperature change for major modelling studies. Prices interpolated from point estimates of temperature effects.” Id.

Today, having experienced only a 0.74oC global average temperature rise over the past century (1906-2005), we are already witnessing far faster price increases than any of these predictions, with food prices today as compared to a decade ago already outstripping the increases predicted by all IPCC-reported models for a 5oC warmer world.

See below the FAO Food Price Index, 2006-2010, comparing recent food prices to a baseline from 2002–2004 (valued at 100).


Taken from http://www.npr.org/2011/01/30/133331809/rising-food-prices-can-topple-governments-too, Source: Food and Agriculture Organization  (FAO) of the United Nations, Credit: Nelson Hsu/NPR; See also FAO Food Price Index, available at: http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/FoodPricesIndex/en/

While world food prices will continue to fluctuate and may again drop, the steep rise in the price of basic foodstuffs over the past seven months has illustrated the profound vulnerability of food security to short-term price spikes.  With consensus growing that the protests in Egypt, Tunisia and the wider Middle East were driven in part by increasing prices for imported basic foodstuffs, the connection between climate change, extreme weather events, food prices, and civil unrest is becoming clearer.

Early on, reports from the Washington Post, The Guardian, NPR, and Slate drew the connections between the timing of the protests and the rising food prices in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt.  As NPR reported, “Social media and governmental policies are getting most of the credit for spurring the turmoil, but there’s another factor at play.  Many of the people protesting are also angry about dramatic price hikes for basic foodstuffs, such as rice, cereals, cooking oil and sugar.”

These articles made strong connections between waves of political instability and the decreased food security of the population in these countries, but why are the food prices rising?  All of these articles cite extreme weather events as a contributing cause, pointing to droughts in Russia, Ukraine and Argentina, floods in Pakistan and Australia, and heavy rains in Canada, which decimated major crops and decreased the amount available for export to countries such as Egypt, which are nearly entirely dependent on imported food.

Our society tends to view extreme weather events such as these as unpredictable random events, acts of God.  But scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that climate change as the global temperature rises will lead to increased incidences of exactly this type of extreme weather, and some are beginning to connect the dots.

Joseph Romm, a leading climate blogger and editor of Climate Progress, had already begun a series on the connections between climate change and food insecurity before these protests began and last Friday, published an article on “How extreme weather could create a global food crisis” on The Guardian’s Environment Blog, linking climate change with the extreme weather events and increased food prices witnessed in 2010.

And now, Nobel Prize–winning economist Paul Krugman has made these connections even clearer on the New York Times Op-Ed page, writing, “[T]he big question about uprisings against corrupt and oppressive regimes in the Middle East isn’t so much why they’re happening as why they’re happening now. And there’s little question that sky-high food prices have been an important trigger for popular rage…. While several factors have contributed to soaring food prices, what really stands out is the extent to which severe weather events have disrupted agricultural production. And these severe weather events are exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see as rising concentrations of greenhouse gases change our climate — which means that the current food price surge may be just the beginning.”

This isn’t news to anyone tuned in to climate justice concerns: we know that the science predicts decreasing agricultural production due to droughts, floods and heat waves, and we know that food insecurity is a significant concern for much of the world that will only be exacerbated by decreases in food production, and we know that human security and political stability are at risk in situations of food scarcity.  The news here is that this is news.  The mainstream media is making links between climate change, food security, and the leading world news events of the day.  Could the time have come that we as a country begin to take climate justice seriously?  There are still plenty of naysayers, but this is an important step in that direction.