Will Climate Change Trigger A Global Economic Crisis?

Ashlee Banks reports on the UN Climate Change Summit, which took place in Katowice, Poland on Monday, with its main take-away that climate change must be tackled or it will trigger a global economic crisis. Ashlee talks to Richard Wolff, Professor of Economics & International Affairs & Co-Founder of “Democracy at Work,” about the inevitability of a financial crash and how global warming will make it worse.

Scientists have high confidence that global temperatures will continue to rise for decades to come, largely due to greenhouse gases produced by human activities. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which includes more than 1,300 scientists from the United States and other countries, forecasts a temperature rise of 2.5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century.

According to the IPCC, the extent of climate change effects on individual regions will vary over time and with the ability of different societal and environmental systems to mitigate or adapt to change.

The IPCC predicts that increases in global mean temperature of less than 1.8 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit (1 to 3 degrees Celsius) above 1990 levels will produce beneficial impacts in some regions and harmful ones in others. Net annual costs will increase over time as global temperatures increase.

“Taken as a whole,” the IPCC states, “the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.”

How Climate Change Will Alter Our Food

Our food system is a very significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The figures are startling:
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has calculated that, globally, agriculture generates 30% of total man-made emissions of greenhouse gases, including half of methane emissions and more than half of the emissions of nitrous oxide.
In the EU, over 30% of the greenhouse gases from consumer purchases come from the food and drink sector.
Latest conservative estimates from the Food Climate Research Network in the UK suggest that almost one-fifth of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions are associated with our food and drink (download 260Kb ppt).
The emissions come not just from the transport of food, but from every stage of the chain – the conversion of land to agricultural use, the energy used to make fertilisers, pesticides and farm machinery, the impact of agriculture on the soil (a natural carbon store), food processing, transport, refrigeration, retail, domestic use of food and waste from all the different stages. These are complex problems with no single solution. A growing body of evidence, however, indicates that emissions from the food sector can be significantly reduced if we were all to shift towards eating:

The world population is expected to grow to almost 10 billion by 2050. With 3.4 billion more mouths to feed, and the growing desire of the middle class for meat and dairy in developing countries, global demand for food could increase by between 59 and 98 percent. This means that agriculture around the world needs to step up production and increase yields. But scientists say that the impacts of climate change—higher temperatures, extreme weather, drought, increasing levels of carbon dioxide and sea level rise—threaten to decrease the quantity and jeopardize the quality of our food supplies.


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A recent study of global vegetable and legume production concluded that if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their current trajectory, yields could fall by 35 percent by 2100 due to water scarcity and increased salinity and ozone.

Another new study found that U.S. production of corn (a.k.a. maize), much of which is used to feed livestock and make biofuel, could be cut in half by a 4˚C increase in global temperatures—which could happen by 2100 if we don’t reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. If we limit warming to under 2˚ C, the goal of the Paris climate accord, U.S. corn production could still decrease by about 18 percent. Researchers also found that the risk of the world’s top four corn exporters (U.S., Brazil, Argentina and the Ukraine) suffering simultaneous crop failures of 10 percent or more is about 7 percent with a 2˚C increase in temperature. If temperatures rise 4˚C, the odds shoot up to a staggering 86 percent.

“We’re most concerned about the sharply reduced yields,” said Peter de Menocal, Dean of Science at Columbia University and director of the Center for Climate and Life. “We already have trouble feeding the world and this additional impact on crop yields will impact the world’s poorest and amplify the rich/poor divide that already exists.”

But climate change will not only affect crops—it will also impact meat production, fisheries and other fundamental aspects of our food supply.

Sea level rise

Some experts predict that sea levels could rise one meter by 2100 due to melting polar ice caps and glaciers. In Asia, where much of the rice is grown in coastal areas and low-lying deltas, rising seas will likely disrupt rice production, and saltwater that moves further inland could reduce yields.

Aquaculture of fresh water species is also affected by sea level rise as saltwater can move upstream in rivers. For example, in the Mekong Delta and Irawaddy region of Vietnam and Myanmar, the booming catfish aquaculture could be affected by saltwater intrusion. If this occurs, fish farms would have to be moved further upstream because catfish have little tolerance for saline conditions.

Who will feel the effects?

Climate change will not only affect food production and consumers; as optimal growing conditions shift with the climate, communities that depend on fishing or farming for their livelihoods will be disrupted.
Some higher latitude areas may benefit and become more productive, but if emissions continue to rise, the outlook for food production from 2050 to 2100 is not good. Wealthy nations and temperate regions will probably be able to withstand most of the impacts, whereas tropical regions and poor populations will face the most risks. Children, pregnant women, the elderly, low-income communities and those with weakened immune systems or chronic medical conditions will be most susceptible to the changes in food access, safety and nutrition.

How science can help head off impacts

“Food security is going to be one of the most pressing climate-related issues, mainly because most of the world is relatively poor and food is going to become increasingly scarce and expensive,” said de Menocal. “So what kind of solutions can science provide to help?”

Of course, the best way to reduce these risks to our food supply is to implement policies to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Earth Institute researchers, however, are working on some ambitious and potentially far-reaching projects to reduce risks to the food system.

In addition, because food is a globally traded commodity today, climate events in one region could raise prices and cause shortages across the globe. Starting in 2006, drought in major wheat producing countries was a key factor in a dramatic spike in food prices. Many countries experienced food riots and political unrest.

The warning also comes almost a few weeks after the release of a U.S. government report that warned climate change will cost the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century, damaging everything from human health to infrastructure and agricultural production.

Phase-out coal by 2050
The group of investors called for governments to phase out thermal coal, put a “meaningful” price on carbon emissions and get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.

Peter Damgaard Jensen, the CEO of PKA, a Danish pension fund with $41 billion in assets, said: “there is no place for coal in the clean energy future.”

“Investors, including PKA, are moving out of coal in their droves given its devastating effects on the climate and public health, compounded by its poor financial performance,” he said.

The group recommended that to meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting the increase in global temperatures by 2 C, a coal phase-out is needed by 2030 in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries and in the European Union; by 2040 in China; and by 2050 in the rest of the world.

This comes after The Trump administration held an event at the UN summit Monday to promote “clean coal,” an energy sector the U.S. president has been pushing for since he was elected.

Trump and several members of his cabinet have also repeatedly cast doubt on the science of climate change, arguing the causes and impacts are not yet settled.

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