Old Forecast of Famine May Yet Come True

Two centuries ago — only 10 years after a hungry, angry populace had ushered in the French Revolution — the dour Englishman predicted that exponential population growth would condemn humanity to the edge of subsistence.

“The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race,” he wrote with alarm.

This was, we now know, wrong. The gloomy forecast was soon buried under an avalanche of progress that spread from England around the world. Between 1820 and the year 2000 the world’s population grew sixfold. Economic output multiplied by more than 50.

Nonetheless, Malthus’s prediction was based on an eminently sensible premise: that the earth’s carrying capacity has a limit. On Monday, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change provided a sharp-edged warning about how fast we are approaching this constraint.

“In many cases, we are not prepared for the climate-related risks that we already face,” Vicente Barros, co-chairman of the panel and professor emeritus of climatology at the University of Buenos Aires, said.


The list of present damages outlined by the United Nations panel — melting ice caps and rising sea levels, stressed water supplies, heat waves and heavy rains — underscored the risk if humanity does not figure out how to curb the use of fossil fuels that have provided the lifeblood for economic development since the time of Malthus.

But what most stood out in the report from the panel, which gathers every few years to produce a synthesis of mainstream science’s take on climate change, was that it rolled straight into Malthus’s territory, providing its starkest warning yet about the challenge imposed by global warming on the world’s food supply.

The panel’s past report in 2007 had concluded: “Globally, the potential for food production is projected to increase with increases in local average temperature over a range of one to three degrees Celsius.”

But the new report is much more pessimistic about the prospect of extra grain production in the globe’s temperate zones, where more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase the rate of photosynthesis, raising yields, and warmer weather would lengthen the growing season.

Faster photosynthesis will help weeds more than cereal crops, while the accumulation of ozone and high temperatures would reduce yields of all the major grains, according to the report.

This would be bad enough if demand for food were to remain constant. It won’t. Studies suggest that feeding more than nine billion people in 2050 will require 70 percent more calories than the world’s population consumes today, according to Craig Hanson, director of food, forests and water programs at the World Resources Institute.

Indeed, the panel calculates that food demand is rising at a pace of 14 percent per decade. But it estimates that climate change is already reducing wheat yields by 2 percent each decade — compared with where they would be in the absence of climate change — and corn yields by 1 percent.

“This is a wake-up call for the agriculture sector,” Mr. Hanson said. “Climate change is a food security issue. It’s not just an environmental issue.”

The climate panel’s findings do not quite endorse the Malthusian idea that famine will spread practically everywhere. But a world with a more unstable food supply is likely to be a more volatile place. And those most exposed, of course, will be the world’s poor.

Recent experience suggests that the productivity of farmland won’t decline gradually as the world grows warmer. World food prices stopped their long secular decline around 2007 and have been on a roller-coaster ride since. More volatile weather patterns promise to bring sharp disruptions to agricultural production that can cause spikes in food prices.

“There is a rigorous correlation between food price spikes and urban unrest,” said Andrew Holland, who studies climate change at the American Security Project, a research group in Washington. “There was a food price spike in 2008, and you can see unrest spread throughout Africa. And there’s a relatively clear line that leads from the food price spike in 2010 to unrest in the Middle East and the Arab Spring.”

Instability spreads easily. When rice prices jumped in 2007, big producers like India and Vietnam banned exports to protect their domestic markets, while importers like Bangladesh, Nigeria and Iran went out on the market to hoard as much grain as they could. The combination wreaked havoc in commodity markets.

Since then big food importers, like China, Saudi Arabia and South Korea, have tried to insulate themselves from future food shortages by buying or leasing agricultural land in places like Sudan, Madagascar and Uzbekistan. The strategy is still to be tested in a situation in which Africa or Central Asia were to suffer itself shortages of grain.

“I have run some war game scenarios,” Mr. Holland said. “The tendency becomes very quickly for a country to look after its own interests.”

Still, there are good reasons to take prophesies of doom with more than a pinch of salt. Ecological Cassandras have consistently underestimated humanity’s capacity to invent ways around constraints, using resources more efficiently and switching from scarcer commodities to more abundant ones.

In “The Population Bomb,” published in 1968, the noted Stanford ecologist Paul R. Ehrlich wrote “in the 1970s the world will undergo famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” In “The End of Affluence,” written six years later, he forecast “a genuine age of scarcity” by 1985.

Today, Professor Ehrlich is perhaps best known for his bet with the economist Julian L Simon — a committed believer in the power of human ingenuity — who in 1980 challenged Mr. Ehrlich to choose any five commodities and accurately predicted that Mr. Ehrlich’s basket would be cheaper 10 years later, not scarcer and more expensive.

Indeed, the climate panel suggests a variety of ways in which countries could adapt to a changing climate. Farmers could breed new species to better resist heat and drought. Water harvesting techniques could be used to delay evaporation. Rotation of crops could help improve yields.

The United Nations panel reported that a survey of various studies concluded that adapting crop management could raise yields of wheat, rice and maize from 15 to 18 percent compared with doing nothing.

Changes in demand and logistics could also help cope with scarcer food. Mr. Hanson pointed out that fully one-quarter of the food produced in the world today is wasted — by either poor storage and transport infrastructure in developing countries or wasteful consumers in the rich world.

But for all the evidence of humankind’s ability to adapt to its environmental constraints, it would be reckless to assume that ingenuity will arrive just in time to pull us from the brink.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian think tank that is skeptical about global warming, 13 years ago created the Julian L. Simon Memorial Award to celebrate his “vision of man as the ultimate resource.” But Mr. Simon got lucky, too. Had the bet extended for 30 years rather than 10, it would have gone to Mr. Ehrlich.

Retrieved from – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/02/business/energy-environment/a-200-year-old-forecast-for-food-scarcity-may-yet-come-true.html?

Climate change alters land map of India

The adverse effects of climate change are being felt on more than a fourth of India’s landmass over the last four decades. While some parts of the country have turned arid, others have witnessed more rainfall.

A study by the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture (CRIDA) at Hyderabad has revealed that about 27% of the country’s geographical area has been directly impacted by climate change, a result of increase in mean surface temperatures coupled with changes in rainfall pattern between 1971 and 2005.

 The study said the changes in weather have implications on agriculture, water availability, drought preparedness, and could be a possible trigger for climate-change driven disease.

Scientists working on climate-resilient agriculture said the impact of climate change on crops in states is a reality. “Demarcation of climate zones helps in adaptation methods such as identifying new technologies and carrying out research to bring out new seed varieties. But, the analysis must be studied further and should take a longer time period into account,” said a senior agriculture scientist, requesting anonymity, as he is not authorised to talk to the media.

An 11-member team from CRIDA used temperature and rainfall data from 144 weather stations and 6,000 rain gauge stations to compute the moisture index (MI), which is a fundamental variable on the basis of which climate was classified across India.

Their analysis found substantial increase in arid areas in Gujarat and a decrease of arid regions in Haryana. While Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh have witnessed a shift from medium rainfall (dry sub-humid) to semi-arid, states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have changed from being high rainfall (moist sub-humid) to dry sub-humid.

Areas that have seen maximum decrease in rainfall are Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, where 28 districts have changed from high rainfall (moist sub-humid) to medium rainfall (dry sub-humid). Meanwhile, Ladakh district in Jammu and Kashmir, which was earlier classified as a dry and cold region, is now an area with medium rainfall.

“While we cannot say that India is moving towards aridity, extremities are certainly increasing. Therefore, it was pertinent to revisit climatic classifications that will aid better planning and help in allocating funds to various government mega projects,” said B Venkateswarlu, director, CRIDA.

The changes in the climate zones listed in the present study as compared to the previous one are stark. The maximum shift from high rainfall (moist sub-humid) to medium rainfall (dry sub-humid), comprising 7.23% of the geographical area, was observed in Orissa (12 districts), Chhattisgarh (7 districts), Jharkhand (4 districts) and Madhya Pradesh (5 districts).

The earlier humid districts of Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh are now moist sub-humid. It’s become per humid (continuous rain and therefore the wettest) in Mizoram and Tripura from being just humid. While Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra has seen a marginal reduction in its semi-arid zone, about half of the districts with high rainfall in eastern India (other than West Bengal, which has shifted to being humid) received medium rainfall.

The study states that some regions, which now receive more rainfall, may no longer need that much irrigation, while regions that are showing declining rainfall, like Orissa and Chhattisgarh, may need more irrigation.

Stating that climate classification must be revisited every 30 years, Venkateswarlu said: “Many districts such as dry regions of Punjab and Haryana that once needed large funds are well irrigated and may not need that kind of allocation anymore. On the other hand, areas such as Orissa and Jharkhand are turning arid and hence may now be eligible for funds for water-shed programmes.”

The first climatic classification for Indian districts was given in 1988 based on temperature and monsoon data in the 1960s. “Back then, there were fewer weather observatories, rain gauges and even districts as compared to today. The last 30-40 years have seen changes in temperature and rainfall, as well as irrigation across the country,” added Venkateswarlu.

According to climate studies, the rate of warming in India has increased after 1970s, with mean annual surface air temperature of 0.21 degrees Celsius every decade as against 0.51 degrees Celsius every 100 years during the past century.

Scientists attribute global warming to an increase in carbon emissions from man-made factors such as vehicular emissions and biomass burning. A rise in temperature affects evapotranspiration, thereby increasing aridity. Evapotranspiration means the loss of water from the soil, both naturally and through vegetation.

Retrieved from – http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/climate-change-alters-land-map-of-india/article1-1174475.aspx

11 challenges facing 7 billion super-consumers

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about Halloween this year is not the ghouls and goblins taking to the streets, but a baby born somewhere in the world. It’s not the baby’s or the parent’s fault, of course, but this child will become a part of an artificial, but still important, milestone: according to the UN, the Earth’s seventh billionth person will be born today. That’s seven billion people who require, in the very least, freshwater, food, shelter, medicine, and education. In some parts of the world, they will also have a car, an iPod, a suburban house and yard, pets, computers, a lawn-mower, a microwave, and perhaps a swimming pool. Though rarely addressed directly in policy (and more often than not avoided in polite conversations), the issue of overpopulation is central to environmentally sustainability and human welfare.

The questions of how many people can the Earth sustain is rightly a sensitive one, since it strikes at the heart of very personal decisions made by billions worldwide. What do we do if we’re pregnant? Do we want children? How large do we want our family to be? No one wants to be told how many children they can or cannot have, and discussions of overpopulation may imply such lectures. Others see any discussion of overpopulation as a call for stemming human population with any means necessary, which, of course, is ridiculous. Or they condemn the speakers as misanthropes—also ridiculous and contrary to the point of the discussion in the first place. Still these specious charges have made many wary to wade into one of the most important issues of our age: how many people can the Earth sustain? And, just as important, how many people do we want? For we ignore overpopulation at our peril—and our misery. The Earth is a finite planet; it has limits and thresholds; and according to many scientists and experts we are already passing several of those.

Currently, humans are consuming the equivalent of one-and-a-half planet Earths every year, according to WWF’s Living Planet Report. Looking at renewable resources—from fish to forests and carbon to agriculture—the report shows just how far we have surpassed the sustainability of our world. By the time the global population is expected to stabilize at 9 (or maybe 10) billion people in 2050, a total 2.8 Earths will be necessary if ‘business as usual’ continues. In other words it would take the Earth’s resources nearly 3 years to recover from 1 year of human consumption. Not surprisingly, some consume a far bigger share than others: for example, if everyone on Earth consumed as much as the average American, global society would need 4.5 Earths today to live sustainably.

To understand the impact of humanity on the world’s ecosystems, one needs to keep in mind it is made up of two factors. The first is population: the more of us, the greater our collective impact. The other, though, is consumption: the more resources we each consume, the further we move away from true sustainability. This makes some more responsible than others. For example, according to a 2009 study, a child born in the US today will have a carbon footprint that is 7 times larger than a child born on the same day in China. But it gets worse: the American child’s carbon footprint would be 55 times larger than an Indian’s and 86 times larger than a Nigerian’s. Population multiplied by consumption is the important metric in comprehending our footprint. In addition, humans are also living longer. A sign of societal well-being, longer lives also means a more difficult time stabilizing population and a larger individual footprint.

Yet tackling global overpopulation does not require draconian methods or a mass human tragedy; in fact, lowering global population and consumption now would make such events less likely in the future. With around two of every five pregnancies unwanted, research has shown that the greatest way to slow population growth— eventually leading to a population plateau and a slow decline—is to empower women. Universal access to contraceptives, better education, and family planning are some of the best ways to combat an overcrowded planet. Reducing poverty and child mortality are additional goals that bring overall population growth down. It also wouldn’t hurt to build greater awareness around overpopulation and consumption—and make such issues topics of conservation, even in polite company.

Food: Hunger is the issue most frequently brought up in conjunction with overpopulation (even though many others are just as pressing): how do we feed 7 billion people, let alone the 9 billion projected by 2050? According to the UN, a billion people in the world today don’t have enough food. However it’s not because the world doesn’t grow enough food, but because the food we produce is inequitably distributed. One third of all the world’s food is thrown out at one end of the agricultural chain or another: either spoiled by farmers, tossed out by merchants, or thrown in the garbage by consumers. Still, the FAO has estimated that food production will need to rise by 70 percent to supply the anticipated 9 billion. But how do we grow so much food without trashing the very environment that sustains agriculture? With quality arable land running out, there is a desperate need to grow more food on less land, while improving stewardship of resources such as water and soil. Experts continue to debate, sometimes fiercely, whether small-scale organic production is the only sustainable way forward, or whether industrial chemical-driven GMO farming is the answer.

The Turkana tribe of northern Kenya are buffeted by constant drought and food insecurity, which recent research says may be worsening due to climate change.

Water: Like food, access to fresh unpolluted water is becoming a rising concern on our crowded planet. Over 800 million people currently don’t have access to clean drinking water, while one in three people suffer from water scarcity, reports the WHO. And its not just the poor that face water problems: the American Southwest, where it is still common to see well-watered green lawns in the desert, is facing a water crisis largely due to decades of unsustainable and wasteful consumption. Experts warn that underground aquifers are running low all over the world, which will have a direct impact on crop production, since currently 70 percent of consumed water is used for agriculture. In the face of water issues, some nations are turning to desalination plants and taking their water from the sea. However, desalination is still prohibitively expensive for many, while climate change is expected to add greater pressure on water-scarce regions.

Rice field in Laos.

Mass extinction: More people consuming more resources means less and less for the millions of other species inhabiting our world. Many experts believe we are in the midst of mass extinction, with rates estimated at 100 and 1,000 times the background rate. The IUCN Red Lists says that 869 species have gone extinct since 1500 AD, yet this is a vast underestimation, considering the bulk of the world’s species have probably never been named, let alone evaluated. Expanding human population doesn’t just imperil big beloved species like rhinos, tigers, and elephants, but multitudes of species that perform essential services for humanity from clean water to soil health, and carbon sequestration to medicine. A collapse in biodiversity portends ecosystem collapse.

The Sumatran orangutan is considered Critically Endangered as forests continue to fall in Sumatra.

Oceans: In 2008 a report predicted that all wild fish stocks would collapse by 2048. This year, a landmark study predicted mass extinction in the oceans due to greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. Once believed to be superabundant, the world’s oceans are being plundered of wildlife (or overfished) at a rate never seen in human history. At the same time, ocean acidification from carbon emissions imperils the ocean’s most biodiverse ecosystem, coral reefs, and dead zones, areas starved of oxygen caused by nitrogen-rich pollution, are spreading worldwide. Such synergistic impacts mean the oceans of the future could be very different than those of today, and would likely provide far fewer resources, especially food, for future generations. Despite the dire warnings, fish stocks continue to be vigorously overfished, greenhouse gas emissions remain on the rise, and the oceans are still a dumping ground for much of society’s pollution.

Exploitation of the ocean is leading to precipitous declines in marine life.

Deforestation: Every year over 10 million hectares of forest are lost (an area larger than Hungary) according to the FAO, and another 10 million hectares are degraded. Forests are cut for a variety of reasons, yet all of them connect to population and consumption with big agriculture and commodities playing the lead role. In South America the Amazon is being whittled away by cattle ranching, industrial soy farms, and mining. The rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are falling to plantations for paper and palm oil. Pressure by rural impoverished populations are diminishing forests in the Philippines, while foreign demand for high-end woods are degrading forests in Madagascar. Rising energy demands have led to forest destruction for biofuels, gas, oil, and hydropower. By some estimates half of the world’s intact tropical forests have been lost, and every year sees more destroyed. Besides harboring the majority of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity, forests store carbon, safeguard freshwater, produce vapor that leads to rain, and sustain many rural and indigenous populations.

Geometric patterns of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Cattle ranching and soy are the biggest destroyers of forest in this part of the world.

Climate change: The 21st Century will be the century of climate change: a recent study predicted that regions in Canada, Asia, Europe, and North Africa will already see a rise of 2 degrees Celsius by 2030. Our warmer world will see rising sea levels, more extreme weather, higher frequency of droughts and floods, desertification, and biodiversity loss, generally creating a less stable and more unpredictable world. While rarely discussed, human population growth is invariably linked to greenhouse gas emissions, especially in wealthy and economically-rising powers: the wealthiest 7 percent produces half of the world’s emissions. More people and more consumption means more emissions, and until greenhouse gas emissions—whether from burning fossil fuels, raising food, or forest and peatlands destruction—becomes decoupled from consumption this will remain the case. In fact, efforts to slow population growth could have an important impact on mitigating global warming: a recent study found that slowing population growth could cut global emissions by 16-29 percent.

Herd of African buffalo and birds in the Okavango Delta.

Disease: More humans could mean more disease, though evidence for such a connection thus far is often anecdotal and sometimes contradictory. However, crowded conditions, especially as the world’s mega-cities continue to grow, and rising pressures surrounding sanitation and health care, may increase or worsen outbreaks of disease. While recent fears of a devastating pandemic over avian flu and swine flu proved overblown, it does not mean rising populations may not play role in the next outbreak. Climate change is also expected to change the range of disease, possibly pushing many dangerous tropical diseases into once-temperate environments.

Resource scarcity:Overpopulation isn’t just taking a toll on renewable resources—such as forests and soils—but on non-renewable ones as well. Peak oil has become a popular term over the past decade for good reason. Since society has lagged in transitioning to a fossil fuel-free economy, energy companies are scouring ever-more distant places (the Amazon, the Arctic, and the deep ocean) for new fossil fuel sources, imperiling some of the last pristine environments. High energy prices are also contributing to higher food costs. Meanwhile, many of the world’s important manufacturing metals—such as steel, copper, platinum, nickel, and tin—are running low and becoming harder to get, pushing prices up and forcing mining companies, much like energy companies, into remoter places, risks be damned. In many parts of the world, even protected areas are no longer safe from mining, drilling, and exploitation for resources.

Aerial view of Amazon rainforest landscape scarred by open pit gold mines.

Economics: The world of economics is rarely looked at as an environmental problem, since many traditional economists appear quite willing to ignore the environment. Some have even forecast that the world’s economies will keep growing exponentially, with future generations far richer than we can imagine. But how can material wealth grow on a plundered finite world? Wealth, at least capital in resources, is dependent on the environment, and our environment—planet Earth—is both finite and increasingly plundered. Beyond the fact that there is a limited amount of oil, coal, gold, etc. in the world, there is only so far one can unwisely push renewable resources—such as fish in the sea, trees to log, and arable land—before they collapse. Sustainability means safeguarding renewable resources for future generations. But currently, waste and greed are plundering not just our non-renewable resources, but pushing our renewable ones to the brink. The rise of a global throwaway culture and conspicuous consumption has resulted in an economy based in part on collapsing environmental capital, creating what may be the ultimate bubble.

Dani man in traditional battle array on the island of New Guinea. Once one of the remotest jungles on Earth, this island is seeing rapid change due to industrial-scale logging and mining

Poverty and wealth: Currently, over a third of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, while the top 1 percent globally holds 43 percent of the world’s wealth. Hundreds of millions don’t have access to enough food or clean water on a daily basis, while according to Forbes this year there are a record 1,210 billionaires possessing accumulated wealth of $4.5 trillion. As more people populate the planet, paradoxically the wealth disparity has been widening. Millions in developing countries are lacking the basics of human survival (food, water, shelter, and medicine) though their nations may be rich in natural resources. Meanwhile their resources, from forests to marine fish, are often unsustainably depleted for consumption abroad in wealthy nations.

Girl in a village in Madagascar: 70 percent of the Malagasy people suffer from malnutrition. Nearly half the population is under 14.

Well-being: Even if we survive the environmental calamities brought on in part by overpopulation and overconsumption, even if we make it to 10 billion people and society is still humming along, how happy will we be? So many people crowding our small planet means the decline of some very human needs: privacy, wilderness, and hopefulness. It’s hard to imagine a world of beauty and happiness for our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren if they only know gorillas and rhinos from images on the Internet, if they never have a chance to taste fresh seafood or experience true silence, if they can’t see the stars for all the light pollution or know the joy of an hour of solitude in the woods.

Retrieved from – http://news.mongabay.com/2011/1030-hance_7billion.html

”Climate change poses an unprecedented situation before India'”

New Delhi, Aug 31 (PTI) Warning that climate change and global warming pose an “unprecedented situation” before a developing country like India, a Parliamentary panel has asked the government to step up R&D efforts in agriculture.

“The increased economic and industrial activities have led to a paradigm shift in the climate and environment of the world. Apart from diseases and pestilence, new threats are emerging to agriculture sector due to global warming and climate change,” the panel has said.

The Committee on Agriculture, in its report on the review of R&D, found the government efforts lacking in extending research in the sector. “The committee expect the government to wake up from its slumber and do the needful at least in the twelfth plan,” it said.

Laying emphasis on the need to strengthen the National Agricultural Research System, the committee advised that R&D efforts in NARS are to be accorded utmost priority so as to ensure food security for the country.

The committee warned that weather changes, particularly when almost 80 million hectare in India is rain-fed, poses serious problems for the farm sector.
“The committee notes that though abiotic stresses are as old as agriculture itself, the changing dimensions due to climate change are a worrisome aspect,” it said.

The panel commended the work done by the Department of Agricultural Research And Education (DARE) and Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in meeting the challenge of ensuring food security.
The DARE/ICAR network has contributed significantly towards self-reliance and development of agriculture and allied sectors in India,” the committee noted. However, it advised ICAR to gear up to face the challenges posed by climate change and global warming.

Coming down strongly on the political leadership, the committee felt that though NARS is aware of the challenge and is working on it, the leadership in the country has not shared the same enthusiasm.

“Unfortunately, however, the requisite support of the political leadership and the policy makers is not forthcoming at the requisite levels and with due alacrity,” the committee pointed out.

Retrieved from  – http://news.in.msn.com/business/article.aspx?cp-documentid=5405380