The Upside to Global Warming

By Keith Kloor | February 12, 2011 7:00 am

A climate blogger goes down the yellow brick road:

The Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, has resigned, finally relenting to weeks of massive protests. Is he the latest casualty of climate change?

I think I see an upside that everyone else is missing. If more oppressed populaces, inspired by the Egyptians (who were inspired by the Tunisians), rise up in revolution (chain reaction-like) and send their dictators packing, what might we reasonably conclude?

You guessed it. Global warming helps end tyranny. Finally, a silver lining to runaway climate change!

And the aforementioned climate blogger thought I was one of the “Serious People.” Ha!

But seriously, for those who appreciate nuanced perspectives on the connection between rising food prices and political unrest, check out this recent smart take by Bryan McDonald, a Penn State professor who also has a new book out on food security.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, Egypt, food security
  • StuartR

    In the past starvation has had a hard job being described as a reason for forcing change. Stalin and the kulaks, England with both Ireland and India found no persuasive pressure forced back on them to change governmental systems after their policies caused starvation. I know the issue today is not starvation, but I think price fluctuation at its subtlest is read as a causal reason for surprising sudden changes in behaviour in a populace.

    Climate change as a subject clearly has no real grass roots demographic, either for and against, I am not including the vocal well heard middle class chatterati.

    This whole issue seems to be an attempt to subliminally appropriate grass roots movements. I think if you get excited about the crowds on the streets and feel you have the chutzpah to later tell them you have the underlying reason for their actions then good luck to you. Personally I’m going to wait a bit before I tell myself say I understand what is going on.

    Hearing that the Food Price Index is at “the highest (in both real and nominal terms) since the index has been backtracked in 1990.”¬Ě Doesn’t shock me.

  • Jack Hughes

    This is a classic type 1 climate prediction: predicting an event after it happens.
    ¬
    (type 2 is predicting something so far in the future that everyone in the room will be dead).

  • harrywr2

    I don’t know whats worse, Glen Beck arguing that an oppressive dictator is preferable over taking a chance that the Muslim Brotherhood will end up controlling Egypt or climate activists describing Mubarak as a ‘victim’.
     

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    Egypt is the one place in the world where climate change has always dominated. Take a look at a map.
    ¬
    You need to get off your hobby horse
     

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson
  • http://rankexploits.com/musings lucia

    The thread at Collide-a-scape is revealing in the lack of serious rebuttal, there is little aside from argument by ridicule.
    Keith– I think you may also have been guilty of failing to present a serious rebuttal to Bill O’Reilly’s proof-god-exists by because “You can’t explain the tides”.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    What’s ironic about that remark is its that it’s dismissive of a fairly lengthy diverse thread.

    It’s also worth noting that most of the commenters at Coby’s thread display a greater grasp of the factors in play–and their signficance–than he does.

  • Dean

    Attributing social change, revolution, etc to weather events in general, or AGW in particular, will make attributing climate change to anthro causes look simple by comparison.
    ¬
    We have equations for natural processes. We don’t for social processes. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t a factor, and there should not be a problem discussing it – which I think is where this all started. But for many people, whether or not they believe AGW is a significant factor in social change will be driven even more by ideology than is attitudes towards the science itself.
    ¬
    I’ve always felt that the most damaging impact from AGW will be what it does in places with poor governance. The same ecological change in two places can have radically different impacts depending on how people, society, and government reacts.

  • Heraclitus

    Keith, looking at the Coby thread I’d say the few comments there that actually criticise his position display the same tendency to (deliberately?) miss the point that many of your own commenters did. Once again we can see the argument ‘but agricultural production has been rising steadily during htis period of global warming’. This is largely irrelevent to the question Coby poses. Also I’m not sure on what basis you can judge Coby’s grasp of the factors in play given that he, explicitly, does not discuss them.

  • harrywr2

    #4 Take a look at a map.
    Yep, there is the Suez Canal, right dead center of the map.
    Ever heard of the Suez Crisis? Do you understand the strategic significance of controlling the Suez canal?
    /sarc on
    Egypt’s problems have nothing to do with having a leadership more interested in lining their pockets with super-power gold then meeting the needs of it’s people. Their problems have always been because of the weather.
    /sarc off
    ¬
    ¬
    ¬
     

  • Pascvaks

    There are three things you need to know about Global Warming and the first two don’t count.¬† There are three things you need to know about Global Cooling and the first two don’t count.¬† There are three things you need to know about People and the first two don’t count. Now, regarding the three things that we’re left with after this little exercise, you guessed it.. the first two don’t count.¬†

  • http://rankexploits.com/musings lucia

    What’s ironic about that remark is its that it’s dismissive of a fairly lengthy diverse thread.
    ¬
    Agreed. A blog post followed by 118 comments, few simply arguing by ridicule.¬†¬† It’s a lazy accusation by Coby. But even if it were true the rebuttal was by nothing more than ridicule, it would be nice to see Coby following his complaint that you argued by ridicule with this argument:
    Where is the flaw in this chain of connections: climate change -> crop failures -> rising food prices -> political upheaval?
    ¬
    Identifying possible flaws merely requires asking questions about each step in the causal (“->”) chain.
    Do rising food prices inevitably lead to political upheaval?  If so, we might note prices are rising all over the world and also note this is not causing political upheaval in China or the US and many other places.
    Are crop failures the only or the main cause of rising food prices?¬† Episodic, unanticipated crop failures contribute to rising food prices; so does economic development in highly populated countries who, having money, decide to indulge their taste for meat instead of grain.¬† Farmer’s change their strategies and raise different crops.¬† Countries political decisions relative to crop subsidies also matter.
    I don’t know the correct answers to all these sorts of hypothetical questions. But I can certainly see these sorts of things are all discussed in your thread.¬† In contrast, Coby rebutts by calling that argument by ridicule and presenting his argument by “->”.
     

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-9111-SF-Environmental-Policy-Examiner Tom Fuller

    I’ve seen a lot of intelligent conversation and the production of good statistics regarding food availability/pricing over the past few days. Time for a consolidation post?
    Food prices have now climbed back to where they were a decade ago. Food production has climbed steadily for decades–slight downward bump due to bad weather last year (probably echoed this year. Durn La Nina.) No evident correlation with rising global temperatures. No correlation with incidence or intensity of in-country unrest in developing countries, countries with autocratic governments.
    ¬
    Otoh, pretty good correlation with rise of biofuels, population and increasing wealth driving demand for meat.
    ¬
    Seems fairly clear that they just threw the AGW label at a headline event and hoped it would stick.

  • http://therealtruthproject.blogspot.com Hal Morris

    There might even be some causal relationship — extremely widespread fires in Russia, attributed to heat and drought having a major impact on agriculture, but I think it is silly to be saying “look at this one more (very indirect and debatable) thing that AGW is causing” — to people who don’t believe in Global Warming.¬† Naturally they will think it is totally ridiculous.

  • Heraclitus

    Lucia #12
    “Do rising food prices inevitably lead to political upheaval?”
    “Are crop failures the only or the main cause of rising food prices?”

    Why are either of these questions relelvent or even interesting? Both are trivially answered (for the moment at least)¬†and don’t question anyone’s actual position as far as I can see.

    The accusation of ‘argument by ridicule’ from Coby is directed at those who have repeatedly ridiculed the idea that there is any connection between unrest in North Africa and the Middle East and the spike in global food prices and/or that this spike might be caused in some way by climate change. Many of these same commenters then go on to discuss all the other possible factors that influence political upheaval without showing any awareness that this in no way undermines the point that rising food prices and climate change may have had an influence as well. It is odd how many people are happy to posit multiple causes but ridicule this one particular influence. Why would they do this?

  • http://rankexploits.com/musings lucia

    Why are either of these questions relelvent or even interesting? Both are trivially answered (for the moment at least)¬†and don’t question anyone’s actual position as far as I can see.
    ¬
    The only reason these questions are remotely interesting is that coby’s argument in the linked post is limited to
    climate change -> crop failures -> rising food prices -> political upheaval?

    When the argument for the cause effect relation is a “->” symbol and, as you agree,¬† it is trivial to show¬† “->” does not automatically hold, then the argument for the linkage is very weak.¬†¬† So, yes: it is trivial to show the problem with Coby’s “->” is insufficient, and one can show it by asking questions whose answers are trivial.

  • Heraclitus

    Only if you deliberately choose to misread the “->” as meaning “will inevitably lead to”. The obvious interpretaion is something more like “influences” or¬†“may under certain conditions lead or contribute to (and the current example may be such a situation)”.

    Why does it follow that ‘not automatically holding’ means that the argument for the linkage is very weak?

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    “->” is a “breadcrumb”. It means “leads to” or “leads directly to”. It is preposterous to suggest that it means anything less unambiguous.

  • Heraclitus

    Actually Coby explicitly states the “->” as “connections”, so there is no excuse to interpret otherwise.

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    And yet you mistakenly interpreted it as¬†“influences”¬Ě or¬†“¬Ěmay under certain conditions lead or contribute to (and the current example may be such a situation)”¬Ě.
    ¬
    The name is immaterial. The meaning is univocal.

  • Dean

    I certainly would not have interpreted -> as meaning inevitably leads to, more like can lead to. If that’s all we’re arguing about, it seems pretty pointless.
    ¬
    As to global food prices, the bulk food staple for many folks in poorer countries tends to be locally grown. This is not inevitably true, but is true in many places. So you need to look at domestic food production and prices to evaluate this issue in countries like Egypt.
    ¬
    And irregardless how strong or weak the case is for the connection in Egypt, if this process does develop in the coming decades, it will tend to be focused in certain areas. Because if food prices do go on a long-term increase, more and more exporting countries will cut or limit their exports to keep their own prices down. I can’t imagine a democracy suffering major food price increases because other countries can’t grow enough food. I think that the global trade in food is pretty dependent on relatively stable prices.

  • Heraclitus

    Simon Hopkinson, have you read Coby’s post or the posts and articles of the many other people who are arguing along similar lines, like Joe Romm or Paul Krugman? I don’t see how, if you have, you could state so categorically that my interpretation of the argument is mistaken, or indeed that your assertion of its being “leads directly to” is correct.

    I’ll ask again why it is that so many commenters have to mistate the argument, is it because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to argue against it?

    Dean, I believe Egypt imports more than half of its wheat, which is its staple food.

  • Quiet Waters

    “Even though the summer price hikes have eased for the time being, the situation is still desperate,”¬Ě Hamdi Abdelazim, an economist and former president of the Cairo-based Sadat Academy for Administrative Sciences said. “If the rise in food costs persists, there will be an explosion of popular anger against the government.”¬Ě
    Africa Review, November 2010

    http://www.africareview.com/News/-/979180/1057212/-/i8natuz/-/index.html

  • http://rabett.blogspot.com Eli Rabett

    It’s really very simple for Egypt.¬† Rising sea levels have lead to salt incursions in the nile delta.¬† The delta is pretty much the big piece of ag land in Egypt.¬† This coupled with rising global food prices (see Russia) lead to much unhappiness.¬† Food supply in Egypt was on shaky enough ground before this 1-2 punch.
    ¬
    Google Egypt climate change

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    Heraclitus, indeed I have read them.
    ¬
    “Where is the flaw in this chain of connections: climate change -> crop failures -> rising food prices -> political upheaval?”


    This can be re-stated as: “political upheaval as a consequence of rising food prices, as a consequence of crop failures, as a consequence of climate change.”
    ¬
    There is absolutely no justification for linking and stating these as the consequential factors, rather than any of the other factors at play, leading to political change. The flaw in the chain of connections is a distinct lack of evidence to support the sequence.

  • kdk33

    Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, and (maybe, perhaps) Iran…¬† Overthrow of todays autocrat does not guarantee tomorrows democracy (necessary, but not sufficient).¬†¬†There is reason to¬†be hopeful, IMO.¬† Time will tell if they can avoid a radical theocracy.

    The first of the autocrats to fall was Saddam.  That probably matters.  A lot more than global warming anyways. 

  • HR

    You can imagine Egyptians can only respond to their most base, autonomic instincts, moved only by the hunger pains in their bellies.

    Or you can take the more humanist approach that they have the same aspirations for liberty and control of their lives as the rest of us.

    I know what I saw expressed on the streets of Cairo.

  • Heraclitus

    Simon Hopkinson:

    This can be re-stated as: “political upheaval as a consequence of rising food prices, as a consequence of crop failures, as a consequence of climate change.”¬Ě

    Yes, it can be re-stated as that if you want to continue grossly misrepresenting the argument being made.

    I agree there is no justification for linking and stating these as the consequential factors rather than any of the other factors in play, but then no-one is making that argument. The point being made is that climate change may be one of the consequential factors involved (and is likely to become increasingly consequential over the coming decades).

    Out of interest, what would you take as evidence to support a causal link in the sequence?

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    Heraclitus: “Yes, it can be re-stated as that if you want to continue grossly misrepresenting the argument being made.”
    ¬
    I am not misrepresenting the argument being made. I am copy/pasting the summation of the argument being made, and re-phrasing it while maintaining the logical sequence being presented by Coby.
    ¬
    “Out of interest, what would you take as evidence to support a causal link in the sequence?”
    ¬
    Oh, that’s easy. Evidence of a single protester in the square who gives, as the cause of his angst, his inability to feed his family owing to a prohibitive leap in the cost of food. That would certainly be a prerequisite. If we had this coupled with evidence that there had been such a prohibitive leap in food cost on the street (where this revolution occurred) in Egypt (where food prices are stabilised at near-as-dammit fixed levels through subsidies), coupled with evidence that the cost of food was causally linked to global warming (rather than caused by the natural ebb/flow of crop failure/success as historic to Egypt and the region as “Joseph” and his “Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” – remember 7 years of feast followed by 7 years of famine?) then I think there might be something worth further examination.
    ¬
    But there is nothing.

  • Quiet Waters

    “I am not misrepresenting the argument being made. I am copy/pasting the summation of the argument being made, and re-phrasing it while maintaining the logical sequence being presented by Coby.”
    Simon Hopkinson @ 11:21 on 14th Feb

    “There is absolutely no justification for linking and stating these as the consequential factors, rather than any of the other factors at play, leading to political change.”
    Simon Hopkinson @ 8:22 on 14th Feb

    Coby Beck also states:

    “This is a provacative question, but I believe one worth discussing. Obviously, there are always many factors in a people’s uprising, the precise balance of which will always be subjective and varied from protestor to protestor.”

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    Re first in time:
    ¬
    Brian Schmidt Says:
    February 3rd, 2011 at 2:50 am
    Steve M and MT have the argument. ¬†The one angle not mentioned is that these Tunisian/Egyptian “riots”¬Ě are actually a good thing, so it’s a potential positive effect of AGW. ¬†I wouldn’t care to use that as an argument to do little or nothing about the climate problem, though.”
    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/2011/01/31/egypt-and-global-warming/#comment-41912
    ¬
    Turns out that William Connolley had the idea even earlier than me, posting at Michael Tobis.
     

  • http://www.hopkinson.net Simon Hopkinson

    Sure, Brian. If they had anything to do with AGW at all. But they don’t.

  • Alexander Harvey

    On the basis that it is better to be late than never:

    There was a discussion at the Frontline Club, around the time of this posting that dealt with the methods, opportunities, and causes of the Egyptian protests.

    It is my understanding from what was said that the prime cause was political, the opportunities/methods, part happenstance (Tunisia), part luck (a change in strategy), and part technology (facebook and satellite TV).

    In the hour plus of the discussion lead by journalists and specialists (one from Chatham House) the subject of food being a cause was very late in making its appearance. Towards the end it was raised in a question from the floor.

    The Dr from Chatham House responded with a “No”, and went on to indicate that in her opinion that the food riots were yet to come.

    My understanding is that these were the wrong type of protests, being conducted in the wrong way, by the wrong people for these to be the food riots that had been and are still anticipated.

    I am pretty sure that the video of the discussion is the one available here:

    http://frontlineclub.com/events/2011/02/reactive-what-now-for-egypt-and-its-neighbours-in-the-middle-east.html

    That being the case the lady from Chatham House would be:

    Dr Maha Azzam, Associate Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House

    If I can I will see if I can turn my impressions into actual¬†quotations, If …

    Alex

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Collide-a-Scape

Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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