Friday, October 24, 2014

The End of Pasta?

PRAGUE – Scare stories have been an integral part of the global warming narrative for a long time. Back in 1997, Al Gore told us that global warming was making the El Niño winds stronger and more severe. That has not happened. Greenpeace and many others have told us for years that we will see more violent hurricanes. In fact, over the last six years, global hurricane energy has dropped to its lowest level since the 1970’s, while the United States has had the longest absence of severe hurricanes ever (Sandy was a “superstorm,” not a hurricane, when it hit the vulnerable East Coast in October).

But the scares do not stop there. The World Wildlife Fund declared in 2004 that polar bears would go extinct by the end of the century, and that the calamity would start in Hudson Bay, where they would stop reproducing by 2012. The bears are still reproducing. And stories abound of global warming bringing malaria to Europe or Vermont. But here, too, the evidence contradicts such fears; in fact, malaria deaths have dropped more than 25% over the last ten years.

It is understandable that pundits, worried about global warming and frustrated with the near-absence of political interest or solutions, see exaggeration as an easy way to garner attention. The problem is that when these scare stories are later shown to be wrong, people become less willing to listen even to reasonable arguments about global warming. Indeed, skepticism about global warming has gone up, not down, as the false alarms have become increasingly high-pitched.

Moreover, by casting every problem as mainly caused by global warming, the solution almost automatically becomes cutting CO2 emissions, though this often is the slowest and costliest way to achieve the least good.

Consider the newest global-warming exaggeration: an article from Newsweek shrilly claiming that rising temperatures are heralding “The End of Pasta.” All of the major grains – rice, corn, and wheat – are already suffering from global warming, the article explains, but wheat is the most vulnerable to high temperatures. So, as warming increases, we will see “shockingly high prices” for pasta and bread. Its central message is straightforward: “If humans want to keep eating pasta, we will have to take much more aggressive action against global warming.”

The argument is almost entirely wrong. Yields of all major crops have been rising dramatically in recent decades, owing to higher-yielding crop varieties and farmers’ greater use of fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation. Moreover, CO2 acts as a fertilizer, and its increase has probably raised global yields more than 3% over the past 30 years.

But increasing temperatures will harm some crops while benefiting others. Because most crops are already grown where they do best, it is not surprising that climate models show that temperature increases will reduce yields if farmers change little or nothing. In fact, farmers will adapt, especially over the course of a century. They will plant earlier, grow more heat-loving varieties, or change their crop entirely. And, as growing wheat and grains becomes possible higher north in Canada and Russia, even more opportunities will open up.

The largest study, conducted by the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, includes temperature impacts, CO2 fertilization, and adaptation, and projects a 40.7% increase in grain production by 2050. Without global warming, production might have been half a percentage point higher. With global warming, prices will most likely be slightly lower. Our linguine supplies are safe.

Of course, this does not mean that global warming has no impact on crops. Production will move to new varieties and away from the tropics, implying even higher yields for developed countries, but slower growth in yields for developing countries. For wheat, it is even likely that parts of Africa simply will be unable to sustain production.

But cutting back on CO2 is a particularly ineffective way to help the world’s poor and hungry. Even if we managed – at very high cost – a significant reduction, we would achieve only a slightly slower rise in global temperatures. Meanwhile, by embracing biofuels, for example, we are essentially burning food in our cars, which drives up food prices and exacerbates hunger.

We could do much more good if we focused on allowing poor countries to use the benefits of extra CO2 fertilization while adapting to the problems caused by higher temperatures. That means greater investment in crop research to produce more robust and higher-yielding varieties, as well as making more irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer available.

Furthermore, even the poorest parts of the developing world will be much richer by mid-century; most people will live in cities and earn their incomes outside agriculture. As in today’s developed countries, their consumption of wheat will not depend on whether it is produced in their own country, but on global food prices and local income.

This underscores the importance of striving for free trade, thereby enabling cheaper agricultural production while increasing wages in non-agricultural sectors. Global-warming scare stories merely shift our focus to the least effective ways to help.

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  1. CommentedBill Thomas

    Lomborg isn't trying very hard to hide his climate science denial any more. Compare his unsourced claims to these credible sources:

    * Increased hurricane frequency and intensity:

    * Hurricanes ARE getting fiercer — and it’s going to get much worse:

    Carefully fact check every claim Lomborg makes and you will discover that almost every one is false.

  2. CommentedJeff Higgins

    According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), global food production must grow by 70% globally to feed the expected 9 billion people in the world by 2050. A 40.7% increase in grain production, which Lomborg so luridly presents as evidence against human-induced climate change, is not only to be expected considering the significant growth rates of agricultural yields in general in the last century, but also does not nearly account for the amount of growth that would have to take place to feed the global population in 2050.

    The report the 70% statistic comes from, the 2001 State of the World’s Land and Water Resources, from the FAO and in conjunction with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, whom Lomborg cites in the article, also addresses CO2 fertilization. The report admits that CO2 fertilization will increase yields in some parts of the world, the overall effect of rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere will still be overwhelmingly negative, particularly in the years beyond 2050.

  3. CommentedKaare Fog

    One may wonder: what have El Nino winds, hurricanes, ice bears and malaria to do with `the end of pasta´? Why does Lomborg mention these things? Obviously because he wants to tell us that those who oppose him are often wrong. So that´s what he came up with - a handfull of stories about somebody making forecasts that did not quite come true.
    Of course, both sides of the debate come up with forecasts that do not come true. The same is true of Lomborg´s side.
    But who is wrong most often ?
    Here is a comparison between Lomborg and Al Gore:
    Have a look and see if Lomborg can rightfully criticize Al Gore.
    And as to the reliability of Lomborg´s forecasts, remember what he wrote in The Skeptical Environmentalist, p. 122:
    "Thus, it is also expected that the oil price will once again decline from $27 to the low $20s until 2020."
    Why does he not apologize for his own failing forecasts before he tells everybody that he is right and the others are wrong.

  4. CommentedKaare Fog

    For those who want a more thorough view of opposing trends in plant growth, there is a useful link here:

  5. CommentedJuha Uitto

    It's very true that farmers modify their production practices and adapt to changing circumstances, whether environmental or economic; they've done this as long as agriculture has existed. However, there are a number of troublesome assumptions and assertions in this piece. For one, the accelerated climate change may make the changes too fast to adapt to. More importantly, perhaps, the GMOs, fertilizers and irrigation are still too costly and unavailable to many farmers in the developing world where the majority of farmers live. Even if we accept the need for these technologies, they themselves come with clear environmental costs and risks that are still partly unknown. Finally, the faith in global food trade is misplaced. We've seen that the huge surpluses in some places do not translate into adequate food supplies elsewhere in the world. And transporting food around the world is very wasteful environmentally. All of these 'solutions' would put farmers increasingly into the hands of large agribusiness and global market forces. Hardly an ideal sustainable future vision.

  6. CommentedWayne Miyashiro

    Mr. Lomberg says these are wrong: Al Gore, Green Peace, World Wildlife Fund, Newsweek, and pundits. But a careful reading of the writings and opinions produced by the "wrong" will reveal that they support the "greater investment in crop research to produce more robust and higher-yielding varieties, as well as making more irrigation, pesticides, and fertilizer available." Mr. Lomberg, to be serious and balanced, must write about his own serious mistakes when he was wrong, wrong, wrong.

  7. CommentedJeffrey Scofield

    Bjørn's explanation of how CO2 affects plant growth illustrates how he uses errors of omission to confuse the public.  In cases where CO2 levels are elevated, the limiting factor of plant growth is usually nitrogen.  Plants tend to assimilate the extra CO2 early on, until the soil becomes nitrogen starved, at which point the plants productivity is lowered or stunted. This is an enormous problem in ecosystems like rain forests, where humans do not fertilize the land, and for good reason. Many studies have shown the decreased productivity in areas where plants are competing for nitrogen in a high CO2 environment.

    The increased CO2 can increase crops yield with additional fertilizer (nitrogen), as he indicated.  The problem with this is that the fertilizer often comes from petroleum, which is becoming increasingly scarce, and makes agricultural communities susceptible to price shocks.  There are also other obvious geopolitical factors which make it undesirable to be dependent on this type of solution.

  8. CommentedDavid Harry

    It's a relief to know that genetically engineered crops will accommodate the higher temperatures in the mid-US. A pity though, that those crops won't be able to be delivered to market down the Mississippi River, as the current record low flows serve as a harbinger of worse things to come...

  9. CommentedV S

    What a relief none of the bad things forecast have happened. So, lets continue until those things do happen, by when we won't be able to do anything about the problem. Yeah, that sounds like a good strategy, especially when stakes are high.

  10. CommentedThomas Masterson

    I am sure the residents of NY and NJ will be relieved to hear that Sandy was not a hurricane after all, merely a "superstorm." Tell Congress to put a hold on that $60 billion appropriations bill.

  11. CommentedShane Beck

    Hmm, the population increases, thereby increasing CO2 emissions, more urbanization and middle class consumption thereby increasing CO2 emissions and more food supplies shunted around the global system, you guessed it, increasing carbon emissions. Tell me again how free trade reduces carbon emissions?