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Prepared Remarks on Global Food and Climate Security

Byzantine_agricultureThe following speech was delivered on Dec. 12, 2012 in Washington, DC by Caitlin Werrell, at a global food security and climate change lunch conversation for bishops from the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. 

I was invited to discuss the human security risks that climate change presents, specifically (but not exclusively) related to food security. I will briefly look at what we mean by climate as a security risk, discuss a couple of case studies and then close on what this might mean going forward for food security and your programs.

Climate and Security

First of all, what do we mean when we state “climate change is a security risk”?  Essentially, we are referring to answers to the question: “What are the security implications of expected climatic changes? This includes a number of sub-questions related to the effects of climate change:

  • What are the security implications of an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, like droughts and floods?
  • What are the security implications of changing seasons, such as shifts in the timing of monsoonal rains?
  • What are the security implications of melting glaciers and a changing Arctic?
  • What are the security implications of rising sea levels?

Now, droughts and floods and other climatic events are not new.  We’ve developed coping mechanisms to handle these types of events. The point here, and the reason we’re discussing the issue of security, is that the events we are seeing and will continue to see are breaking records in terms of both scale and the rate of change – or how rapidly we are moving from historical climate trends to, in some instances, climatic events unprecedented in most of human history.

Take, for example, the Arctic summer sea ice. Some studies predict that the Arctic will be ice free in the summer by mid-century, and possibly earlier. The last time we saw an Arctic without summer sea ice was during the early days of agriculture development.  This means that the majority of our agriculture systems evolved with summer sea ice in the Arctic and it is not clear what the climate (and therefore agriculture) will look like without it.  So this is one example of what we mean by record-breaking events.

To better understand the security implications of climate change, one of the frameworks we use is that climate change acts as “threat multiplier” or a “risk accelerant” – terms first coined by the Center for Naval Analyses.  Consider that climate change manifests itself primarily through water.  Too much water and flooding means it is harder to grow food. Too little water, and droughts, and it is harder to grow food. Changes in rainfall variability – harder to grow food. Sea level rise and saltwater intrusion into aquifers – harder to grow food. Climate change can also add an additional stress to existing insecurities associated with water, food, and energy resources. Or you can take an existing stable, and functioning resource management situation and increase the likelihood for the situation to become less stable or even unstable.

This is what we mean by threat multiplier. Climate change will not likely directly cause conflict, but by acting as an additional stress to water, food, and energy resources, climate change acts as one more potential driver of unrest, conflict and migration.  In short, climate change through the security lens could also be reframed as: “How are the stresses of climate change likely to manifest, and are we prepared to absorb and respond to these stresses?”

NOAA Climate Study

For today’s discussion, I will focus mostly on the Middle East and North Africa. This is in part because of a groundbreaking study by NOAA.  Often, when we discuss climate change and security we are using climate models and projections of likely future scenarios. For this reason, we use a lot of caveats, “will likely, could, may etc.” The NOAA study was important because it found strong observable evidence that climate change is already driving drought in the Mediterranean region.

So, in this instance, we are not dealing with projections but with observations.  This is important because it allows us to look at the security implications of climate change by comparing the conditions cited in the NOAA study to the socio-political-economic conditions in the countries in the region, and more specifically to look at the drought’s impact on water resources and agricultural production.

This study was also important because it found a link between observed drought conditions and climate models. This indicates that the models are accurate and can play important role in preparing for the future because we’ll have clearer idea what it is going to look like on the ground in terms of climate change going forward.

Case Studies: Syria and Egypt

So how can we use climate information, from studies like NOAA to assess impacts of climate change on security? Here are a couple of examples from the region.

The first example is Syria.  International pundits characterized the Syrian uprising as an “out of the blue” case in the Middle East and speculated that Syria was “immune to the Arab Spring.” However, the seeds of social unrest were there. From 2006-2011, up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced, “the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures for as long back as anyone could remember.” The food insecurity was due in part to poor governance and resource mismanagement, but was also due in part to the drought in the NOAA study linked to climate change. Of the most vulnerable, agriculturally dependent Syrians “nearly 75 percent…suffered total crop failure.” Herders in the northeast lost around 85% of their livestock, the number of Syrians who were left extremely “food insecure” by the droughts numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This led to a massive exodus of farmers, herders and agriculturally-dependent rural families from the countryside to the cities. It is probably no coincidence that some of the initial unrest in Syria erupted in Dara’a, a rural area badly affected by drought, and mismanagement of resources. On top of this, a recent model of climate change impacts on Syria projects that if current rates of global greenhouse gas emissions continue, yields of rainfed crops in the country may decline by up to 57 percent in the coming decades.

Obviously, the primary concern at the moment is putting an end to the atrocities occurring. But it is also important to better understand how drought, in addition to multiple other drivers, contributed to the current unrest, and better understand what a continued decline in rainfall means for the future of food security in Syria.

Another example is Egypt.  Egypt is a country in transition. Like Syria, climate change is not at the top of its concerns at the moment.  The focus is understandably on addressing the concerns of protesters in Tahrir square, but climate change will need to be addressed ASAP.  A combination of factors over time, including sea level rise, the over-extraction of water from aquifers, and the sharing of Nile waters with neighboring states, are leaving the Nile Delta in a precarious situation.  The Delta is, by nature, low lying. The problem for Egypt is that the Delta is also heavily populated (the vast majority of its population lives there), playing host to many of its major cities, which could all be inundated with a mere 0.5 centimeter rise in sea level and this is the projected rise in the delta by 2100.  On top of this, Egypt’s delta aquifers continue to be permeated by salt water, and the problem is getting worse. This is bad news for Egyptian agriculture, fisheries and industrial centers along the coast. The Nile Delta and Mediterranean coast is responsible for at least 30-40% of the country’s total agricultural production, which could be devastated by increases in saltwater intrusion. The issue of sea level rise and saltwater intrusion are further complicated by the fact that Egypt shares the waters of the Nile with 10 other nations, all of which will also be facing their own additional climate stressors.

The people of Egypt fought for a better country. If post-Mubarak Egypt is going to deliver a more stable and a more democratic state, issues like the inundation of major cities by the sea and the economic and food security implications of agriculture productivity in the delta must be addressed.

Globalization of Hazards

So we’ve looked at the impact of climate change on drought, and future projections of climate scenarios within specific states.  It is also important to account for global climate change trends that are happening in other regions thousands of miles away, and how this could impact food security in North Africa and the Middle East region.

For example, again, going back to the Arab Spring, the affected region depends heavily on imported food. It is well documented that increases in the price of food immediately before the Arab Spring was one of many factors that contributed to unrest. An important take away point on this is that it was droughts in China and wildfires in Russia (both of which were later shown to be exacerbated by climate change) that, among other global food market phenomena, led to an increase in the cost of food in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. This is part of what my colleague, Troy Sternberg at Oxford University, calls “the globalization of hazards” – where a natural disaster in one part of the world can have significant impacts on another part of the world thousands of miles away. Again, these are issues that are not likely to go away. The region will likely continue to be dependent on food imports, and the nations growing the food (including the US) will continue to see climate change impacting agricultural productivity.

In closing, climate change changes everything

Some of the events we are beginning to see and will continue to see are unprecedented in many ways.  The techniques we use to manage water, food, energy, infrastructure, etc. were all developed during certain climatic boundaries associated with the Holocene epoch. There were droughts and floods, but all of these occurred during a somewhat stable period. That is all changing now. When you look at a graph of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere it is clear that we’ve left that period. This will impact our lives in ways that we are most certainly not prepared for, from dealing with the impacts of increased intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, to “slow onset disasters” or the gradual wearing away and deterioration of water resources and agricultural productivity. It is not entirely clear if we can absorb these stresses. It is also not clear what the security implications of a changing climate will be. For example, historically, water not been a source of conflict, but a recent assessment of water security by the intelligence community says that this is likely to change over next decade.   To a great extent this means that we can no longer look to history to understand the future. We must look to climate models. And we must “climate-proof” ourselves.

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