Climate Compass Blog
There is a lot of buzz around Washington these days that plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are the answer to our energy security and climate problems. In the recent State of the Union, President Obama restated his goal of having 1 million PEVs on the road in the United States by 2015, and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) recently released a report projecting that we will meet the goal. Meanwhile, a panel I sat on for Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) said the data indicates we won’t get quite that many PEVs on the road by 2015. The question is – does it matter if we precisely reach the President’s goal or not? The answer is no, so long as we are taking concrete steps towards jumpstarting PEV manufacturing and supporting infrastructure and learning from the experiences of early PEV adopters.
Co-authored by Nick Mabey and originally appeared in The Hill's Congress blog
Once a serious issue becomes politicized and turns into a virtual weapon in the culture wars, it can seem impossible to move beyond partisan bickering and identify a reasonable and responsible course of action. But as those whose job is protecting national security have shown us time and again, it is important to chart a path forward --despite political battles-- when a situation is dangerous and the future is in doubt.
Defending the nation routinely requires making weighty decisions despite uncertainty, incomplete information, and limited resources. To do its job in these difficult situations, the military routinely uses an approach known as risk management. Risk management provides a systematic way to consider threats and vulnerabilities, “knowns and unknowns”, and to take steps to minimize risk.
Last week the British Government published a report on The Future of Food and Farming in which the role of a changing climate is appropriately highlighted as a major impediment to maintaining consistent and predictable food supplies for the world’s growing population. The timing of this report is excellent; food prices have been rising recently (see chart) and have caused significant hardship for some of the most globally vulnerable populations. These vulnerable populations live in some of the most politically unstable regions, and continued food inflation could exacerbate existing social and economic issues with potentially unpredictable consequences.
Unfortunately as the global climate changes and agricultural productivity shifts, these sort of price rises in basic foods are likely to become more commonplace for the economically sensitive populations in these politically unstable regions – like Southeast Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. This is not to imply that recent increases in food prices were caused by climate change; it is not possible to attribute a single event such as this latest spike in food prices to the long-term trends we expect to experience from our changing climate. It is, however, instructive to identify that the sort of impacts that we expect from climate change can have serious social and political implications.
Recent work shows that several of the world's most important crops could be near climactic thresholds that will seriously impair agricultural yields.Several of these crops (like corn, rice, soybeans and wheat - the source of 75% of global calorie consumption) appear to be sensitive to increases in temperature variation, especially to the occurrence of a particularly hot day in the middle of the growing season. Increases in temperature variation and the prevalence of what are historically unusually hot days is exactly what our best models of the future climate predict. Even if global yields are able to remain fairly constant due to human adaptation to the shifting regions of agricultural productivity (e.g., northward from the U.S. Plains to Canada and Siberia), the temporary economic dislocation will certainly be difficult for today's farmers and for the people who are dependent on the food that they produce.
Other research suggests that increasing temperatures could cause major difficulties for farmers in Southeast Asia who produce a large fraction of global rice output, an important staple in the region. This research recognizes that the human body simply cannot perform the hard manual labor (like that needed to tend to rice paddies) at the temperatures climate models predict. By 2050, these temperatures are expected to be commonplace for the region – potentially resulting in a huge loss of agricultural output.
While agricultural contributions to overall GDP in the rich world may seem relatively minor, it is important to remember that GDP is only a measure of economic activity and not a measure of well-being. The well-being that food provides is not necessarily proportionate to its market price. A common example used to illustrate this point is a comparison of the price of diamonds to the price of water. Water is much less expensive but is an absolute necessity. Staple foods are similar. If the price of diamonds increases, people (in aggregate) can choose to purchase less. If the price of water or food increases however, there is little flexibility (elasticity, in economic terms) in terms of how much less people can choose to buy.
If food prices rise in the rich world, consumers will spend more of their income on food and forgo other consumption options. In developing nations this trade-off may not be possible – creating a situation where political unrest could become more likely. According to World Bank data, over 50% of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Obviously for these populations, even small increases in the prices of staples can cause real difficulties since a large fraction of their income is already spent on food. Some of the regions that have the highest concentrations of the global poor are also the regions that tend to be among the most politically volatile. Though it is unlikely that food prices would directly cause conflict or instability in these regions, it is more likely that the stress caused by higher (or more volatile) food prices will worsen existing socio-economic pressures.
The resulting consequences will be difficult to predict; and by their nature will create difficulties in creating an effective adaptive response. Though it will likely never be clear which future conflicts could have been avoided in the absence of climate change, we do know that proactive policy effort taken now can reduce the eventual impact of future food price pressures.
Russell Meyer is the Senior Fellow for Economics and Policy
Reducing vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, is one of the primary ways to reduce transportation’s impact on the environment. The others are lower-emitting fuels and vehicles.
How do we reduce VMT while simultaneously supporting our economic prosperity? When we drive less, we consume less fuel, which can save us money while conserving energy and lowering our individual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, the benefits don’t stop there. The co-benefits of driving less (such as improved health from walking more) can often exceed the savings in our wallet and the benefit to our climate.
On the other hand, some people prefer more space, larger yards, or more affordable single-family housing – choices that compete with the desire to reduce VMT through compact development. This means that evaluating where and how we live is not a calculation with simple inputs. We have empirical evidence that suggests compact development is good for society and for many individuals, but we also have evidence that it’s not for everyone.
Every January, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center provides an expert analysis of the previous year’s climate. This puts the extreme weather of 2010 into a broader context. The record warmth of the past year adds to the huge body of evidence that the earth continues to warm.
Here are some of NOAA’s key finding:
Global average temperature
- 2010 is tied with 2005 as the warmest year since 1880 when NOAA’s records begin. The temperature was 1.1°F above the 20th century average.
- The Northern Hemisphere was the warmest on record while the Southern Hemisphere was the 6th warmest since 1880.
- 9 out of the 10 warmest years on record are from 2001 and after.
- Every year since 2000 is one of the 15 warmest years.
- It is the 34th consecutive year that was warmer than the 20th century average.
- NOAA scientist David Easterling said that the top ranking of 2010 reinforces the conclusion that the climate is continuing to warm because of increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
10 Warmest Years on Record
°F above 20th Century Average
- Global snow cover was the lowest on record
- Arctic sea ice reached its third-smallest summer minimum
- In the United States, both land surface temperature and amount of rainfall were in the top third since 1880.
- Although the eastern U.S. is having a cold winter, Canada and the Arctic are unusually warm, maintaining a globally warm condition.
Read more from NOAA:
Jay Gulledge is Senior Scientist and Director of the Science and Impacts Program