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Prepare for a world of hunger

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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 Monday. 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 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 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 per cent confidence that it's raining. (The other five per cent allows for the possibility 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 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 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 India will lose 25 per cent 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 per cent. 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 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 subtropical countries (which account for about 70 per cent of the world's population). They predict waves of refugees fleeing from these countries, a proliferation of failed states in the subtropics, and even interstate 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 C higher by then, you have to go elsewhere for information. The military don'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 50 per cent.

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 8.5 or nine billion will live in countries where food production has fallen, sometimes very steeply. It will be a very hungry world.


Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 1, 2014 A9

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