Food Distribution Chokepoints Threatened By Global Warming: Your Reminder That Climate Change is Already Happening

Most famines, as is by now axiomatic knowledge, are man-made. These days, there is more than enough food to go around, but the problem is distribution, which is usually choked off by war or as a product of deliberate cruelty. Sometimes it is a matter of poverty, but that too is a choice we’ve made: that food should be a function of your economic status. We’ve successfully removed natural laws from the ability to generate food; it is only market laws and political decisions that allow countries like Yemen to starve.

But now, according to Chatham House thinktank, we’re taking that to the next level. The Guardian sums it up.

Increasingly vulnerable “chokepoints” are threatening the security of the global food supply, according to a new report. It identifies 14 critical locations, including the Suez canal, Black Sea ports and Brazil’s road network, almost all of which are already hit by frequent disruptions.

With climate change bringing more incidents of extreme weather, analysts at the Chatham House thinktank warn that the risk of a major disruption is growing but that little is being done to tackle the problem. Food supply interruptions in the past have caused huge spikes in prices which can spark major conflicts.

The chokepoints identified are locations through which exceptional amounts of the global food trade pass. More than half of the globe’s staple crop exports – wheat, maize, rice and soybean – have to travel along inland routes to a small number of key ports in the US, Brazil and the Black Sea. On top of this, more than half of these crops – and more than half of fertilisers – transit through at least one of the maritime chokepoints identified.

Droughts lower the water level in the Panama Canal. Most of the water comes not from the ocean, but from a lake, which is the same ones where most Panamanians get their drinking water. Drought means shipping suffers or people thirst. Or both! The Suez Canal keeps getting choked by sandstorms and is also vulnerable to terrorism. Intensifying hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico hurt vital ports and limit the prime shipping seasons.

The issue here is that we’ve globalized food, which to me is a positive thing. In theory, our ability to easily send food from Nebraska to Somalia means that there is no reason anyone should go hungry. It is one of the benefits of globalization, and in theory, that’s something we should celebrate.

But it is a little more complicated than that. Global capitalism and local conflict combine to almost ensure that people still starve, as famine is a tool of bad actors everywhere. What’s more, the system that could generate a level of food security in the world is reliant on a few areas, and because we’ve globalized foodchains, disruption to those means instability everywhere. And one of the outcomes of this globalized planet is climate change, a byproduct of converting the environment into capital.

Which means that theoretically beneficial cross-dependencies can become vulnerabilities, either by choice or circumstance. And those vulnerabilities can spiral from local problems to global ones. We’ve talked about how drought played a huge role in the epoch-defining Syrian civil war, but The Guardian takes causality further, and farther.

The Middle East and North Africa region is particularly vulnerable, the report found, because it has the highest dependency on food imports in the world and is encircled by maritime bottlenecks. It also depends heavily on wheat imports from the Black Sea.

In 2010, a severe heatwave in Russia badly hit the huge grain harvest, leading the government to impose an export ban. As a result, prices spiked in 2011 and this was a significant factor in the Arab Spring conflicts. Other factors were important too, said Wellesley, but she said: “At the start, it was about the price of bread.”

Weather and climate are not incidental to politics, even in our mechanized and digital age. We’re still vulnerable to them, and any vulnerabilities are made instantly global. Conflict in Yemen heightens (and is exacerbated by) the cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which draws in other local actors, shifts alliances (like with Qatar), changes the calculations of Russia and Turkey (which changes the consideration of smaller players like Azerbaijan) and changes the fate of millions.

There are no small issues. There are enormous ones, and the biggest one of all is how we will deal with the changed and changing climate. Because it isn’t something that will happen in the future. We won’t wake up on New Year’s 2100 and be like “dammit, climate change happened last night. Just like those eggheads said!” It’s effects are already changing the world, and it will take a concerted, global effort by responsible and far-sighted leaders to mitigate its worst impacts.

Are you optimistic?

Here are the Chatham House recommendations.

  • Integrate chokepoint analysis into mainstream risk management and security planning – for example, government agencies should assess exposure and vulnerability to chokepoint risk at the national and subnational levels.
  • Invest in infrastructure to ensure future food security – for example by agreeing on guidelines for climate-compatible infrastructure through an international taskforce established under the G20.
  • Enhance confidence and predictability in global trade – for example, through a process under the World Trade Organization (WTO) to continually reduce the scope for export restrictions
  • Develop emergency supply-sharing arrangements and smarter strategic storage, e.g. an emerging response mechanism among major players in the global food trade, modelled in part on that of the International Energy Agency in oil markets and led by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) or the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).
  • Build the evidence base around chokepoint risk –  including through the collection of data on real-time food trade  and infrastructural capacity to aid in assessing risks to food supply chains.

Try to imagine these happening in the next four years, and laugh bitterly at how 70,000 hippie-punching votes and an 18th-century slavery-supporting compromise made it impossible. It’s a perfect encapsulation of local decisions with global consequences. A few pissed off jokers outside of Milwaukee will make responding to this changing world impossible, which will lead to more conflicts, more deaths, and more spiraling disasters.

I always thought 2 + 2 = 5 by Radiohead was a little over-the-top, even for the Bush years,but it seems like the international anthem.

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Yemen’s Agony: Starvation, War, Drought, and a Posioned Future

 

 

Yemen has only really been in the American public conscience since December of 2009, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to explode a bomb hidden in his underpants aboard a plane over Detroit. It didn’t go well, for him at least. But that was the first time the media en masse started to pay attention to Yemen. Before, if it was known at all, it was talked about vaguely, as a state where there were probably terrorists, but who really knew?

Well, after that, everyone knew. It wasn’t vague. For Americans, and much of the West, Yemen = terrorism. For me, as someone who spent a good decade of my life writing (or trying to write) professionally about Yemen, terrorism was always the hook. Most of us writing or talking about it tried to show the bigger picture, to paint Yemen as an actual country with real people and a history, but the story was almost always, ultimately, terrorism.

And that’s been a contributing to Yemen’s agony.  I’m trying to remember the last (or first) time I’ve heard a US politician talk about Yemen in positive terms, other than paying tribute to former President Saleh for being an “ally” in the GWOT, but even that was entirely about terrorism. It is identified, if at all, with being one of those explosive places on the map, the kind of joint where nearly everyone wants to kill you. Yemen is met with a shrug, at the most positive.

That’s partly why, I think, the horrible reality of its present has failed to make even the slightest dent in the public mind. What is happening in Yemen is shocking and sick-making and morally revolting; the numbers are truly apocalyptic. 17 million people are facing famine this year. Social services are wiped out. Traditional safety nets have been destroyed by war. Distribution networks are non-existent. Every 10 minutes, a child under the age of five dies of preventable causes.  The mind reels at the brutality of life and cowers from the lengthening shadow of a death-hunted land.

These are the kinds of horrors that usually awaken the generous conscious of the American people, and I genuinely mean that. For all our public meanness, when the country is roused, its private citizens turn their good fortunes outward. But with Yemen, there is nothing.

I think that’s partly, of course, because we have our own problems here. A quick glance down this blog shows where my priorities are; I have less an excuse to ignore Yemen than literally almost anyone in the United States. Even Yemen posts have largely been US and Trump-centric. But a lot of it is because Yemen is easily brushed off as a country where there are no real people, just terrorists. And if not terrorists, certainly some other kind of bad dude.

That’s why the war crimes of our great ally Saudi Arabia have been ignored (by successive administrations, to be clear). It’s why we don’t at all blink an eye when Yemen is reduced to “areas of active hostilities“, an expansion of war.  It’s why it isn’t a scandal when the incoming POTUS knows absolutely nothing about the region (though to be fair, he doesn’t know anything about anything). And it is why a strategy designed to provoke civilizational collapse is basically seen as aces all around, when it isn’t being actively ignored.

And that’s what this is: a civilization that is collapsing, pummeled from without and starving from within. It’s running out of water as well as food, a terrible harbinger for our collective climate-imperiled future. The lack of resources fuel more war; war increases the resource shortage. Millions will die in withering agony.

This could be the worst famine in modern times, surpassing even the miseries of Ethiopia, Somalia, Biafra, Ireland, approaching the terror famines of the Ukraine. And to be clear, this is little different than the last example (or any of these examples). You don’t have the towering figure of Stalin or Mengistu orchestrating the misery, but you have the shadow of indifference and even active complicity across the world.

The UN estimates it needs $2 billion dollars to fight the famine, and $1 billion has been pledged. That’s pledged, not collected, and it is still short. Meanwhile, we’re slashing foreign aid (the public meanness which stands contemptuous rebuke to the short bursts of private decency; no politician has ever won by promising to increase aid to foreigners). The US alone could easily make up the shortfall; Trump wanted a billion for a down payment on his idiot wall. But there was no way to turn cruelty into decency.

This isn’t about the next generation of terrorists, or the stretegic importance of turning enemies into allies. That is important, and it is blind and willful idiocy to let Yemen collapse. It isn’t even about how we are dealing with a terrible onrushing future in which this will happen more and more, as resources dwindle and water evaporates and conflict increases. That’s also important; this is just the beginning of the show.

But it is also simply mean and terrifying. These are real lives, which will be extinguished with a stomach’s empty and piteous howl. These are human beings, lives ripped apart by Yemen’s place in the world’s collective conscience, as a testing ground for ideas and ideologies. It’s another judgment on our species. It isn’t a good one.