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Socialism Today 161 - September 2012

Drought in the USA

THE USA is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, along with record high temperatures decimating crop production. This has led to a huge rise in price for cereals that will cause growing hunger on a world scale because the US is the leading international food exporter.

There is increasing evidence that the drought is not a random natural disaster, but is driven by global warming. Extreme weather events have recently been linked to climate change by, among others, the US Department of Agriculture, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an agency of the US government that studies global warming.

Since mid-June, the price of corn has shot up by 41%, wheat by 50%, and soya beans by 25%. This was caused by sudden blasts of devastating heat hitting the US Midwest, the main agricultural area, which destroyed crops. The US Department of Agriculture calculated that on 5 June, 17% of land for corn production was under drought conditions, but by 24 July the figure was 89%, an area equivalent to the size of Belgium and Luxembourg. Yet, as recently as mid-June it was estimated that there would be a record harvest, illustrating the still significant unpredictability of global warming effects on agriculture.

The situation could get even worse since adverse weather conditions are currently affecting Russia, Kazakhstan, Australia, Argentina and China, all major agricultural producers. In 2010, after its worst drought in a century, Russia halted cereal exports, which led to a world-wide food price spike that is only just beginning to subside. Speculators are making matters worse by ramping up prices in anticipation of a worsening position, in particular a new Russian clampdown on exports.

The crisis in the USA will directly hit the rest of the world because last year it grew 35% of the global corn and soya bean crop, and exported 40% of these staples. China, Mexico and Egypt are particularly dependent on US grain exports. Since they are used for animal feed, a shortage of corn and soya influences most food prices, in particular for meat. A big international increase in staple food prices will worsen hunger and malnutrition for the poorest people on the planet. There will be resistance, though, as a similar situation in 2007/08 showed, with riots in twelve countries. Governments around the world could be rocked by protest again, the Chinese regime in particular is terrified by the political effects of escalating food prices.

Another consequence of these extreme weather conditions will be that rising food prices will prevent inflation falling as much as it otherwise would have done, due to the depressing effects of the present economic crisis. As a way out of the recession, the Bank of England and Britain’s Con-Dem government are relying on disposable income going up as inflation falls, but rocketing food prices will undermine this.

Planting increased areas of crops to overcome the shortage and check inflation could have a limited effect because of the uncertainties in predicting which particular areas will be hit by future weather events and what their severity will be. For example, US farmers planted early this year after a warm spring to allow the crops to pollinate before extreme heat arrived. However, the high temperatures came early, too, hitting output hard.

Also, the rise in animal feed prices could make cattle production uneconomic, leading to the slaughter of animals, which in the short term could force prices down, but in the medium term have the opposite effect, since it takes many years to rebuild the herds. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that food price inflation will accelerate to 3-4% next year, driven by a 12% decrease in yield per acre due to scarce rainfall coupled with record breaking temperatures.

No single extreme event, such as the present US drought, can yet be definitely linked to rising world temperatures. A pattern of such events is rapidly emerging, though, that can with increasing certainty be attributed to global warming. Warming does not happen uniformly. The polar regions heat up more rapidly, shown by the destruction of the ice caps. This differential warming changes temperature gradients in different locations, leading to shifts and changing volatility of weather patterns, according to Howard Covington and Chris Rapley, who are, respectively, chairman of the UK National Mathematics Research Institute and professor of climate science at University College London. They conclude that the current 0.8C of warming has made more likely the Russian drought of 2010 and the present situation in the USA. (Financial Times, 6 August)

Hurricane Katrina was the first event that was studied in detail to find a link with global warming. It was found that the rising sea temperature in the Gulf of Mexico increased the severity of tropical storms, although not their frequency. The current extreme weather events in the US have been specifically studied by various US government agencies. James Hansen of Nasa has linked summer heatwaves in the Midwest with global warming: "Today’s extreme anomalies occur as a result of simultaneous contributions of specific weather patterns and global warming". (Financial Times, 16 August)

Referring to last year’s drought in Texas, the NOAA said that it was made twenty times more likely because of human induced climate change. The US Department of Agriculture published a paper in July that concluded: "The weather that shapes the structure of US agricultural production… is changing along with world climatic conditions".

The NOAA found that in corn growing areas like Iowa and Illinois temperatures have been rising for decades in winter and spring. Higher temperatures permit more water vapour to be held in the sky leading to precipitation occurring in sudden storms rather than steady rain. The overall trend was for rising rainfall, but this year’s drought has shown that switches between different extreme climate effects are unpredictable.

Despite the growing evidence from a long list of US government bodies linking global warming to the drought, no action to tackle climate change is on the agenda. A poll of US farmers found that, while 68% believed that the climate was changing, only 10% of these thought the change was human induced, the others presumably considering the change a random event or due to divine intervention. Don Lipton, spokesperson for the American Farm Bureau Federation, which represents 6.2 million farmers, has said that his members are of the view that "the science is not necessarily determinant". (Financial Times, 16 August).

These prejudices are a reflection of the influence of the propaganda of the climate change deniers, often funded by the big oil companies. Yet the science has never been clearer that global warming is human induced or, more accurately, is driven by a tiny minority of humans, the capitalists, in the pursuit of short-term profit.

The US, in particular, has already suffered huge costs linked to climate change, from Hurricane Katrina to the present drought. However, it still refuses to take any action at all to mitigate warming effects, even though the evidence from its own agencies and government departments is overwhelming. The short-term profits of the multinationals remain the deciding factor for the capitalists, despite the huge damage being done by climate change. This is an historical indictment of the myopic nature of their system which urgently needs to be swept away.

Pete Dickenson


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