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UN panel: Warming worsens food, hunger problems

By Larry Dreiling

Global warming makes feeding the world harder and more expensive, a United Nations scientific panel said.

A warmer world will push food prices higher, trigger “hotspots of hunger” among the world’s poorest people, and put the crunch on Western delights like fine wine and robust coffee, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in a 32-volume report issued March 31.

“We’re facing the specter of reduced yields in some of the key crops that feed humanity,” IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said in press conference at Yokohama, Japan, where IPCC released the report.

Even though heat and carbon dioxide are often considered good for plants, the overall effect of various aspects of man-made warming is that it will reduce food production compared to a world without global warming, the report said.

The last time IPCC reported on the effects of warming in 2007, it said it was too early to tell whether climate change would increase or decrease food production, and many skeptics talked of a greening world. But in the past several years, the scientific literature has been overwhelming in showing that climate change hurts food production, said Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science and lead author of the climate report.

But this doesn’t mean in 50 years there will be less food grown. Thanks to the “green revolution” of improved agricultural techniques, crop production is growing about 10 percent per decade and climate change is likely to reduce yields by 1 percent a decade, so crop production will still go up but not as fast, said David Lobell of Stanford University, one of the authors of the report’s chapter on food problems.

Still, it is as if an anchor is weighing down the improvements to agriculture, Pachauri and Field said. Some places have seen crop yield increases drop from 2 percent a year to 1 percent or even plateau. And places like India, where 800 million people rely on rainfall not irrigation, the green revolution never improved crops much, Pachauri said.

Although changes in rainfall hurt, mostly the problem will be too much heat, Lobell said. “No place is immune,” he said.

Food prices are likely to go up somewhere in a wide range of 3 percent to 84 percent by 2050 just because of climate change, the report said.

“In a world where a billion people are already going hungry, this makes it harder for more people to feed their families,” said Tim Gore of Oxfam International, who wasn’t part of this study.

While some crops may do slightly better, staples like wheat and corn will be hurt, the Nobel Prize-winning panel of scientists said. The report specifically mentions warming squeezing out crops in some of the richer coffee-growing areas in Central and South America, apple orchards in eastern Washington and cherry orchards in California.

And where you get your wine may be changing. Both quantity and quality of wine can be hurt in much of Europe, the U.S. and Australia, but Portugal and British Columbia in Canada may become better places for wine, the report said.

It’s not just crops on land. A warmer and more acidic ocean is changing where fish live, making them harder to catch, and making it harder to feed people who rely on fish, Pachauri said.

Climate change advocates and critics had typical responses to the report.

The White House used the report to support President Barack Obama’s executive actions to fight climate change.

“I think that the report that you mentioned is a fact-based reminder of how serious this problem is and this challenge is for the United States and for every country in the world,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “And what I can tell you is the president is aggressively addressing these challenges, using every tool available to him, and that includes the fuel-efficiency standards that he’s put in place and the new fuel-efficiency standards that he’s announced. It includes other elements of his Climate Action Plan that he spoke about not that long ago.”

Carney said there are “obstacles” to legislative action, but there are still actions that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This includes shifting to natural gas for electricity production, which emits fewer greenhouse gases than other fuels like coal.

“The president is very aggressive in his approach on this, and has made clear I think repeatedly that this is an area where he will not wait for Congress, that he’ll use the authority that he has, both through executive action and through his convening power, to make progress on behalf of the country and the world,” Carney said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said, “The latest IPCC report adds a tremendous sense of urgency for Congress to wake up and do everything in its power to reduce dangerous carbon pollution. In California, we can just look out the window to see climate change’s impacts—from the driest year on record in 2013 to the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires. This new IPCC report identifies the serious threats to human health, vital infrastructure, and the world’s economy that will multiply as temperatures warm. It confirms that we must cut carbon pollution now to avoid lasting changes to our planet.”

Critics also were quick to respond to the report.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-OK, perhaps the Senate’s most prominent climate-change skeptic, called the report a distraction from real problems in the world such as poverty and violence.

“The IPCC report is another effort to scare people into believing in man-made global warming despite the 15-year pause in temperature increase,” Inhofe said in a statement. The temperature research he cited was released last year by the United Kingdom.

The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank calling itself a member of the “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change” or NIPCC, released a report of its own, saying that climate research has found “no net harm to the global environment or to human health and often finds the opposite: net benefits to plants, including important food crops, and to animals and human health.”

Among the findings in the alternative report:

Atmospheric carbon dioxide is not a pollutant. It is a non-toxic, non-irritating, and natural component of the atmosphere;

There is little or no risk of increasing food insecurity due to global warming or rising atmospheric CO2 levels;

Rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels do not pose a significant threat to aquatic life; and

A modest warming of the planet will result in a net reduction of human mortality from temperature-related events.

The report urged world leaders to prepare for the effects of climate change while working to slow it down, saying “adaptation and mitigation choices in the near-term will affect the risks of climate change throughout the 21st century.”

To learn more about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, visit

AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report from Yokohama, Japan.

Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by email at

Date: 4/21/2014


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