Opinion

Stopping Climate Change, and Starvation

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Few foods are more associated with home and hearth than bread. For centuries farmers have labored to master the elements and produce the crops that literally would put bread—whether in the form of corn tortillas, wheat chapattis or a loaf of rye—on the table for their families.

The struggle against nature's extremes has never been easy, but global warming seems poised to make things even harder for many farmers. Indeed, according to a new study, global warming-induced changes in rainfall and temperature averages could hit some of the world's most fertile agricultural areas hard—potentially taking bread, by whatever name, off the plates of millions.

In the summer of 2003, a heat wave hit Europe, leaving roughly 52,000 people dead and farmers across the region reeling. Stressing crops and livestock alike, the extreme heat was responsible for precipitous drops in crucial food stocks such as corn, maize and wheat compared with the year before. Indeed, in Italy alone, maize yields declined 35 percent, while France saw fruit and wheat production fall by 20 and 25 percent respectively. This scenario, while not directly attributable to global warming, serves as a preview of possibilities to come.

Examining 23 global climate models, two leading U.S. climatologists recently determined that there's more than a 90 percent chance that by the end of the century, the average growing season temperatures in the tropics and subtropics will ''exceed the most extreme seasonal temperatures recorded from 1900 to 2006.'' In other words, by 2100 the sweltering heat seen during the summer of 2003 could become a common occurrence—potentially causing food and water shortages for up to half of the world's population.

This holds with a 2007 joint study by the U.S.-based Center for Global Development and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, which found overall global agricultural productivity, due to global warming, is projected to decline on average between 3 percent and 16 percent by 2080. The impact in particular countries, however, could be much worse. Indeed, according to the study, India could see a drop in crop production of as much as 30 percent to 40 percent and the Sudan could experience as much as a 56 percent reduction.

This is a situation that noted security experts believe could place dangerous new stresses on international stability. In fact, according to a 2007 International Institute for Strategic Studies report, the effects of continued and unchecked carbon emissions could be catastrophic, with impacts ''on the level of nuclear war.'' Many scientists, however, believe that it's still possible to avert such nightmarish scenarios if we start to act now.

Soon the leaders of the world's 17 major economies—at the invitation of President Barack Obama—will meet in Washington to grapple with how to achieve a successful outcome in Copenhagen at the U.N. climate change negotiations this December. Despite the need to address the financial crisis, these leaders must show, both through their words and subsequent actions, that it's also important to solve the longer-range problem of global warming. This includes putting significant political capital behind individual domestic efforts, such as U.S. congressional action to pass legislation controlling carbon emissions, and the need to apply the same to international negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto protocol.

A strong commitment by leaders at the Major Economies Forum to address climate change would send an important message to diplomats scheduled to gather in Bonn, Germany, for a crucial round of talks this June on developing the next climate treaty. Featuring ongoing, in-depth consultations on emissions trading and land use issues, the U.N. meeting in Bonn will continue a series of sessions preparing for the final Copenhagen negotiations. President Obama and other leaders at the forum could give this effort a tremendous boost by signaling that they are as serious about combating global warming as they are about encouraging economic development.

Two thousand years ago, the Roman philosopher Seneca stated, ''A hungry people listens not to reason, nor cares for justice, nor is bent by any prayers.'' If world leaders take the politically easy path of inaction on global warming in the short term, they may well sow the seeds of potential food shortages in years to come.