Gwynne Dyer: Documenting the blindingly obvious effects of climate change

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      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 five 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 10 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 doesn’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 U.S. 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 southeast 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.




      Mar 31, 2014 at 5:00pm

      Although I agree that global warming is occurring and continuing and will cause future problems of famine and population dislocation, I don't agree that scientists are as reserved and cautious as mentioned in this article. I have worked with researchers who have exaggerated their findings, playing on public fear in an attempt to increase their funding, and it is not difficult to find examples of other scientists worrying the public about carcinogens, nuclear reactors, immunizations, leaky guts, CFLs, asteroids, and calderas. Have you read about the latest fear?

      Russ Hunt

      Mar 31, 2014 at 5:17pm

      And the people who are writing all the propaganda and making all the decisions will be in high-altitude northern enclaves watching the world get ethnically cleansed. All those useless mouths and backs, as Swift said.

      Colin Ross

      Mar 31, 2014 at 7:11pm

      Sixtyfive years ago, I had a perceptive geography teacher who clearly outlined the effects of atmospheric Co2 on climate. Are we sleepwalking toward extinction like the yeast cells who die of alcohol poisoning when they finish their brewing function?


      Apr 1, 2014 at 5:07am

      @ Colin Ross



      Apr 1, 2014 at 7:18am

      "Believers" are the guilty ones for exaggerating 32 years of 95% certainty. In your children's eyes its as if you wanted to "believe" in this misery.Deny that
      If science can’t be 100% certain after 32 years that THE END IS NEAR, you remaining “believers” and politicians can’t be. Only believe what science "believes"; its still a 32 year old "could be" crisis that they are still only 95% certain otherwise they would have said; "proven" by now for the worst crisis imaginable? Find us one IPCC warning that says; "will be", or "inevitable" or anything beyond "could be" a threat to the planet.


      Apr 1, 2014 at 10:47am


      Despite all the noise and foot-dragging, in one of those rare examples of doing the right thing, emissions in the western world are going down. We're even driving less - on a per capita basis, a lot less. Peak car use was in 2005. Coal plants are on the way out.

      Emissions in China and India, however, are rising very rapidly.


      Apr 1, 2014 at 4:59pm


      "It seems clear to me from this data that decades of incredible progress on renewable energy has failed to make any dent in the surging levels of climate pollution from fossil fuels. None. Zip. Fail."

      Cornucopian thinking that technology will save us is unrealistic unfortunately, another form of make-believe.


      Apr 1, 2014 at 6:06pm

      You're link covers the global view. Mine breaks it down by region. Both can be correct.

      As to technology, true. But we're actually driving less. Look it up. Values are changing. It's slow and frustrating, it took decades to even begin to turn the ship, but it is happening. Not fast enough, but it's foolish to deny glimmers of hope.


      Apr 1, 2014 at 6:39pm

      The folks who predict a global population of 9 billion by mid-century apparently aren't aware of the limitations and consequences of Peak Oil and Peak Energy in general.

      The world simply doesn't have enough affordable energy and resources to support 9 billion people, so it will never happen.

      We've been on the Peak Oil plateau for the past several years, and we might continue for several more (to the year 2020) but after that comes the long and irreversible descent and unavoidable contraction of industrial society -- along with the unsustainable population it currently supports.

      World population might reach a peak of about 7.5 billion people by 2030, then gradually slide back down below 7 billion by mid-century, at which point the decrease will be gathering speed as is shoots past the 5 billion mark by the year 2100 on its way down to an eventually sustainable carrying capacity of close to 2 billion by the year 2200.

      This assumes that humanity can manage industrial decline in a controlled manner, which, considering how incredibly stupid we've been so far in gobbling energy and resources as fast as possible and blowing them on the most frivolous things, seems too optimistic. A more likely scenario is a rapid die-off due to starvation and disease shifting into high gear by 2050, so that we overshoot the low-end capacity and quickly plunge to about a billion people by 2100, then creep back up to about 1.5 billion by 2200.

      Jack Wolf

      Apr 2, 2014 at 11:03am

      Re: moving north, this will lead to suffocation with methane, like Lake Nyos where thousands died.

      Plus, most of the soils were scraped away in the last glaciation up north. That's why Greenland failed as a Viking outpost/development. They couldn't raise crops - no soil, just rocks up there except in some riverine valleys.

      And, don't forget that everything biologic has temperature limits. Protein denatures at about 120 F. Some plants won't even come close to that before wilting stress and death.

      I think it's near term human extinction for us. But, if it's damned if you do, and damned if you don't, YOU DO. And, we have to DO it now. (It being, ban fossil fuel emissions).

      Anything less just hastens our demise. Thank you for your consideration.