Gwynne Dyer: Russian response to wildfires gives an early glimpse of climate change impact

It cannot be proved that the wildfires now devastating western Russia are evidence of global warming. Once-in-a-century extreme weather events happen, on average, once a century. But the Russian response is precisely what you would expect when global warming really starts to bite: Moscow has just banned all grain exports for the rest of this year.

At least 20 percent of Russia’s wheat crop has already been destroyed by the drought, the extreme heat—circa 40 º C for several weeks now—and the wildfires. The export ban is needed, explained Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, because “we shouldn’t allow domestic prices in Russia to rise, we need to preserve our cattle and build up supplies for next year”. If anybody starves, it won’t be Russians.

That’s a reasonable position for a Russian leader to take, but it does mean that some people will starve elsewhere. Russia is the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter, and anticipated shortages in the international grain market had already driven the price of wheat up by more than 80 percent since early June. When Putin announced the export ban, it immediately jumped by another eight percent.

This means that food prices will also rise, but that is a minor nuisance for most consumers in the developed countries, since they spend only about 10 percent of their income on food. In poor countries, where people spend up to half their income on food, the higher prices will mean that the poorest of the poor cannot afford to feed their children properly.

As a result, some will die—probably a hundred or a thousand times as many as the 30-odd Russians who have been killed by the flames and the smoke. But they will die quietly, one by one, in under-reported parts of the world, so nobody will notice. Not this time. But when food exports are severely reduced or banned by several major producers at once and the international grain market freezes up, everybody will notice.

Two problems are going to converge and merge in the next 10 or 15 years, with dramatic results. One is the fact that global grain production, which kept up with population growth from the 1950s to the 1990s, is no longer doing so. It may even have flatlined in the past decade, although large annual variations make that uncertain. Whereas the world’s population is still growing.

The world grain reserve, which was 150 days of eating for everybody on the planet 10 years ago, has fallen to little more than a third of that. (The “world grain reserve” is not a mountain of grain somewhere, but the sum of all the grain from previous harvests that is still stored in various places just before the next big Northern Hemisphere harvest comes in.)

We now have a smaller grain reserve globally than a prudent civilization in Mesopotamia or Egypt would have aimed for 3,000 years ago. Demand is growing not just because there are more people, but because there are more people rich enough to put more meat into their diet. So things are very tight even before climate change hits hard.

The second problem is, of course, global warming. The rule of thumb is that with every one-degree C rise in average global temperature, we lose 10 percent of global food production. In some places, the crops will be damaged by drought; in others by much hotter temperatures. Or, as in Russia’s case today, by both.

So food production will be heading down as demand continues to increase, and something has to give. What will probably happen is that the amount of internationally traded grain will dwindle as countries ban exports and keep their supplies for themselves. That will mean that a country can no longer buy its way out of trouble when it has a local crop failure: there will not be enough exported grain for sale.

This is the vision of the future that has the soldiers and security experts worried: a world where access to enough food becomes a big political and strategic issue even for developed countries that do not have big surpluses at home. It would be a very ugly world indeed, teeming with climate refugees and failed states and interstate conflicts over water (which is just food at one remove).

What is happening in Russia now, and its impacts elsewhere, give us an early glimpse of what that world will be like. And although nobody can say for certain that the current disaster there is due to climate change, it certainly could be.

Late last year, Britain’s Hadley Centre for Climate Change produced a world map showing how different countries will be affected by the rise in average global temperature over the next 50 years. The European countries that the Hadley map predicts will be among the hardest hit—Greece, Spain, and Russia—are precisely the ones have suffered most from extreme heat, runaway forest fires, and wildfires in the past few years.

The main impact of global warming on human beings will be on the food supply, and eating is a non-negotiable activity. Today Russia, tomorrow the world.

The second edition of Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, has just been published in Canada by Random House.


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Rocky Fisher

Aug 6, 2010 at 12:18pm

Yet people whine about bike lanes!! Get over it people!! If we don't do something to solve our ecological crisis we can all look forward to crap like this in the future. Burning fossil fuel fuels global warming. Ride a bike!!

Lester Brown on Climate & Food

Aug 6, 2010 at 1:53pm

Lester Brown, writing in his widely acclaimed book 'Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization':

"It looks now as though food is the weak link, just as it was
for many earlier civilizations. We are entering a new food era,
one marked by higher food prices, rapidly growing numbers of
hungry people, and an intensifying competition for land and
water resources that has now crossed national boundaries as
food-importing countries try to buy or lease vast tracts of land
in other countries."

"As the earth’s temperature continues to rise, mountain glaciers
are melting throughout the world. Nowhere is this of more
concern than in Asia. It is the ice melt from glaciers in the
Himalayas and on the Tibetan Plateau that sustain the major
rivers of India and China, and the irrigation systems that
depend on them, during the dry season. In Asia, both wheat and
rice fields depend on this water. China is the world’s leading
wheat producer. India is number two. (The United States is
third.) These two countries also dominate the world rice harvest.
Whatever happens to the wheat and rice harvests in these
two population giants will affect food prices everywhere.
Indeed, the projected melting of the glaciers on which these two
countries depend presents the most massive threat to food security
humanity has ever faced."


Brie Oishi, Canada

Aug 7, 2010 at 9:38am

Yes, Gwynne Dyer. The main impact of global warming on human beings will be on the food supply, and eating is a non-negotiable activity. Today Russia, tomorrow the world; you are so right there!

What are we, in Canada, learning from this; especially here on the Lower Mainland? We should preserve our fertile land and our trees; keep our water clean make very sure that we do all we can, to eliminate pollution in any form. To most of us it will seem like an inconvenience or even a sacrifice thinking of the plant first, instead of ourselves; for we had it “pretty good” so far and were quite liberate ”˜taking from the Earth what ever we can’ and giving back to it in form of chemical fertilizers.
We have cut down trees and not thought of the consequences deforestation would bring; we decided to have bigger houses and smaller yards without room to plant a couple of trees on it.
Many of us have homes with wood burning fireplaces and some of these polluting devices are still used on regular basis with no thought that wood-smoke is a carcinogen, is adding to the soot problem and global warming.
We have to wake up and consider that we are the Stuarts of this planet and the Earth will take care of us as long as we take care of it!

I, personally, am so pleased that composting has become an ”˜in thing’ and so have recycling and reusing; my family and I have been doing such ever since we arrived in Canada. It can be done, it just takes a little extra time; but the day has still 24 hours. Nothing has changed there! We just need to change our attitude, get our priorities straight and go back to some of the good old methods before technology runs away with us.

We can survive without gadgets but without Nature, Food, Water and clean Air there is no chance!

Green Goblin

Aug 7, 2010 at 11:25am

Will Pamela Anderson brand cloned chicken breasts save the world?

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Dc in BC

Aug 8, 2010 at 8:23am

Another informative and well researched article. Thank you Gwynne.

Don Strong.

Aug 9, 2010 at 6:25am

Dear Gwynne: Global grain production is a very broad and heterogeneous designation. Consider global ending stocks of wheat; no flat lining in the last decade but rather wild fluctuations since 1980! Global rice production has risen consistently, but with weird import-export distortions owing to subsidies (eg for exporters in the US and importers in the Philippines). The subsidies are virtually if not literally killing the worlds poor, who cannot grow crops for the market. But the bottom billion have liitle to no no cash for the purchase of food! Corn is hugely subsidized in the US, dumped on Mexico (NAFTA), and this has contributed greatly to Mexican immigration to the US over the last decade. Global warming will play into the scenario in multiple ways, but big ag subsidies are playing a huge role right now

We have the technology!

Aug 9, 2010 at 12:18pm

No GMO? Tell that to the starving masses in China and India over the next two decades. In the same way that sanitation systems, penicillin, and inoculations have allowed us to grow stably over the last 200 years or so, biotechnology has the potential to carry us through a period of rapidly changing climate conditions.

The arguments against GMO crop production are largely scare tactics by a bunch of European eco-fascists that wouldn't consider it a tragedy if a significant portion of our population died off. After all, the monoculture crops that we raise now have been selectively bred for generations untold to bring out traits that are more desirable than what's found in wild strains. Recombinant DNA just makes this process faster and more efficient for us... perhaps even fast enough to keep our civilization from descending into chaos due to worldwide food shortages.

Brie Oishi, Canada

Aug 9, 2010 at 1:56pm

Addressing Lester Brown:
In your book under Praise for Plan B, on page 130 section A you state: that “Burning Garbage is not a smart way to deal with the waste problem” so, why are costly incinerators being build in the US and Canada?
Why not just encourage consumers to purchase goods ”˜only’ made out of natural materials and demand from manufactures to produce such environmentally friendly items! Manufacturers are flooding the market with a multitude of items produced out of plastics. Many of these end up in the trash after a very short time and claim their space as landfill.
It definitely would be better for the planet if only natural materials were used by manufacturers. Especially in the production of clothing; and shoes in particular!

There would be no need for these questionable incinerators if we “the consumers” would do some boycotting and demand from manufacturers to produce goods only made of natural materials. These products would be healthier and safer for everyone. Also, they would be considered as GREEN; and we all are striving to go that route.
But someone has to make a start! It will take a very strong minded person to take that step; someone who is not afraid of criticism, or fear not being reelected again.

If we, the “NOW-GENERATION” want to make a change, it has to be done “NOW” before things get worse!

These are the words of a Mother and Domestic Engineer.

18 9Rating: +9

Francis Mont

Aug 10, 2010 at 5:59am

Now, why do I have the impression of Gwynne Dyer as if he were the Captain of the Titanic, dutifully making log entries into the ship's log book till the very last moment, even though he knows he will go down with the ship? Not much hope for a Hollywood-style rescue in the nick of time, is there? When the shit hits the fan, there will be an overreaction as usual, too little, too late, also as usual.