Saturday, February 5, 2011

Climate Change, Russia's Fires and the Present Uprising in Egypt

When Russia's fires last year led to the curtailing of wheat exports, it was predicted that world food prices would spike and inflame political conflict.

Climate events inflating food prices is just one example of how climate change is going to drive political conflict. Water and energy are also going to see price spikes that drive conflict.

Right now as we watch Egyptians struggle to transition from totalitarianism to democracy, remember that one of the main sparks behind this revolution was not some new societal level of enlightenment, but a new level of desperation driven by food prices.

On Feb. 3, 2011, PRI's Peter Thomson wrote about the Russia fire/ wheat scarcity/ revolution connection.

From "High food prices in Egypt and climate change":

Food price inflation in Egypt was over 20 percent last year. In particular, there’s been a big squeeze from the rising global price of wheat. New York global investment manager Vincent Truglia says depending on how you measure it, the price of wheat went up between 50 and 70 percent in 2010.

Egypt is among the world’s largest importers of wheat, and the global wheat market received a number of nasty shocks recently. The worst came last summer, when Russia was hit by an unprecedented drought and heat wave that destroyed 40 percent of its wheat harvest.

Russia abruptly banned exports, and Egypt, which had just signed a big wheat deal with Russia, was left scrambling.

The Egyptian government has tried to keep a lid on wheat prices through subsidies and rationing. But Truglia says anxiety over food prices is the key problem facing Egypt today.

And some look further up the chain of events, and trace the problem at least in part to climate change.

“I think we are seeing some of the early effects of climate change on food security,” says veteran environmental analyst Lester Brown, of the Earth Policy Institute. In particular, Brown says the heat wave that led to the collapse of Russia’s wheat harvest was no ordinary weather event.

“If someone had told me that there was likely to be a heat wave in Russia in which the average temperature would be 14 degrees Fahrenheit above the norm — that’s pushing the envelope. I mean FOUR degrees would be a lot.”

Vicken Checherian, writing for, wrote on Jan. 26, 2011 (The Arab Crisis: Food, Energy, Water, Justice), about other nearby countries taking measures to try to prevent food price-driven revolution: "Even Saudi Arabia is taking precautions; the kingdom aims to double its wheat reserves to 1.4 million tons, enough to satisfy demand for a year." He also points out that food price-driven revolution hasn't historically led to democracy in the region:

The rise of food and energy prices sparked popular demonstrations in Algeria in 1988 and Jordan in 1989. When the authorities could not suppress the demonstrations by pure repression, and could not reduce the prices for lack of means, they chose to open up a closed political system: single-party rule was ended in Algeria in 1989, and in Jordan restrictions on the media and the work of political parties were lifted. In neither case did this political opening lead to sustainable institutions and democratisation: Algeria eventually degenerated into a fratricidal war, Jordan recalled the old habits once the wave of contestation died down.

Let's hope for a better outcome for Egypt.

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