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Drought: The real and unstoppable danger of global warming

By Dennis T. Avery
web posted October 5, 2009

By 2050, 25 million more children will go hungry as climate change leads to food crisis, says the highly respected International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. IFPRI, however, incorrectly links the prediction and the solutions, to man-made global warming. The food challenge will occur whether the warming is man-made or part of a natural cycle.  

By 2050, the world will probably have 8–9 billion people, up from the current 6.5 billion—as the final surge of human population growth ends.  Trade and technology will increase per capita incomes and more demand for grain, meat, and milk will follow. Plus, rich people have fewer kids, but millions more companion cats and dogs. Taken together, more than two times as much food will be needed.

The good news is that global warming now doesn't sound so scary.   

  • Global temperatures have lately been rising at 1.4 degrees C per century, not the awful 3.9 degrees C predicted by some global climate models. And, rising CO2 has already delivered most of its potential climate forcing.
  • Contrary to computer predictions, the earth has been cooling for seven years now, and the Pacific Ocean forecasts another 25 years of cooling 
  • Sea levels have been rising at the "normal," eight inches per century, with no significant rise at all in the last four years.
  • Polar sea ice has been roughly stable over the past 30 years.

The bad news is that even the modest warming forecast by the natural 1,500-year Dansgaard-Oeschger climate cycle—0.5 degree C— will apparently produce major drought problems, especially in the heavily populated tropics. The tropical rain-belts have moved about 300 miles north since 1600. Meanwhile, Oxfam reports that the 23 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda— being left behind by the rain shift— are currently threatened with drought and hunger.

There will also be extended droughts in unusual places as the Modern Warming continues. California had two century-long droughts during the Medieval Warming (950-1300 AD). A cave stalagmite in West Virginia records seven century-long mid-Atlantic droughts over 7,000 years—all during natural global warmings.     

One of the secrets of the Roman Empire was the massive amount of wheat North Africa could grow as the Sahara became wetter. Most of it sailed across the Mediterranean to Rome. When the tropic rain belts moved back south in the Dark Ages, however, the Roman Empire collapsed. Coincidence? The Mayans also thrived during the Roman Warming and their empire also collapsed after the rain-belt shift into the cold Dark Ages  brought extended drought to Central America.

Will the corn-growers of Kenya and the yam farmers of West Africa have to go on extended food aid as the rain-belts move north again to the Sahara? They could walk to the cities and eat food imported from newly productive counties such as Canada and Siberia—if there were jobs in their cities

Canada and Siberia will get warmer and wetter, but farmers there aren't ready to begin supplying more food. Russia gave up on Siberian grain after Khrushchev's massive crop failures in the 1950s. Canada's farms are thriving, but would need extra farm machinery, storage, and rail capacity.

Are we preparing for the wrong emergencies?  It looks like we'll need much higher crop yields—and far more food trade—to protect the world's children in the coming centuries. ESR

Dennis T. Avery is an environmental economist, and a senior fellow for the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.  He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Hundred Years, Readers may write him at PO Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421 or email to cgfi@hughes.net.


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