A number of readers asked me to comment on the recent Argentine report that predicts disaster for world food supplies based on Climate Change in the near term. I hadn’t done so because I was honestly puzzled by the report, which got a lot of attention, and raised awareness of climate food issues, but seemed to be predicting a much greater degree of near-term warning than is likely, barring extreme climate forcings. I was a little surprised to see such a comparatively obscure report get so much attention, when in fact, more reputable analyses have been largely ignored.
I’m grateful then that my colleage James Hrynyshyn at Class:M did a good job of going over the difficulties with the climate analysis and why this report probably shouldn’t get the kind of attention it did:
Basically, what we have here is a small, previously unknown NGO in Argentina releasing a report that warns of serious threats to the global food supply if climate change continues apace. The only thing that made this report particularly interesting — and therefore newsworthy — was the alleged fact that the warming expected by 2020 is 2.4 °C above pre-industrial levels. Which is crazy talk, as any climatologist would have pointed out had the authors of the study bothered to ask.
This little piece of nonsense means the entire report’s fundamental conclusions are highly suspect, and should have consigned it to the dust bins of history. But the mainstream media being what it is, journalists who don’t even know the very simplest of the basics about climatology were assigned the task of covering of the report’s release. Even the AAAS cranked out a non-critical release, although it was subsequently retracted. Worse, Scientific American bought the story, and continued to get the facts wrong even after the problem was brought to the editors’ attention. The Guardian runs down the whole sordid tale.
How easy was it to tell that the report’s nightmarish scenario is bonkers? Well, given that the world has warmed about 0.8 °C since the start of the industrial revolution a couple of centuries back, the idea that it would warm twice as much in just 9 years doesn’t pass even the most liberal of smell tests. The report’s authors came up with that number by confusing — or conflating as academics like to say — two different ways to measure carbon-dioxide equivalency. There’s a Real Climate post from three years back that explains the science, the basic upshot of which is, you need to take into account the warming and cooling effects of all fossil-fuel emissions, not just those that increase warming, to get an idea of just how all the different outputs will effect the climate. This the Argentinians did not do.
The thing is the food situation is serious enough that it doesn’t require the slightest bit of exaggeration. The 2008 food crisis emerged in a period of record world food production, and we know that any strain on the food system is likely to push us back into disaster. We don’t need to go beyond mainstream reports to know that the implication of climate change for food is potentially disastrous. If you aren’t worried about the world food picture in the coming decades, frankly, you are taking drugs or dumb as a rock – there’s absolutely no need to exaggerate.