I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.
By: RickyRood, 11:12 PM GMT on October 24, 2011
Climate Case Studies – The 2010 Russian Heat Wave: Risks (2)
In the last article I wrote about the March 11, 2011 earthquake in Tohoku, Japan. There are two points I want to bring forward from that entry. The first is to reiterate that our world exists in many systems with fragile balance. The second is that all of these systems are connected. In the last entry I followed one thread of global consequences and risks, including climate risks, following from an earthquake that is localized on the coast of a single island in Japan.
In the past couple of years nature has provided us many examples of case studies to appreciate the risks associated with climate and weather. In this entry, I want to revisit the 2010 Russian heat wave. The heat wave was at its peak in early August 2010. The direct impact of this historic heat wave and drought was many thousands of deaths and massive fires.
Even as early as July 16, 2010 many millions of acres of crops in Russia had been destroyed. By August 16, 2010 the cost of the drought and heat was estimated at 15,000 lives and 15 billion dollars. By August 3, 2010 wheat prices had increased dramatically and were on their way to doubling. In August 2010 Russia imposed a ban on wheat exports.
There has been significant analysis of this series of events. In June 2011 Oxfam produced a report (author George Welton) that looked directly at the consequences of Russia’s grain export ban. Intuition is that the export ban would be to protect the grain supply and cost within Russia. In an absolute sense, this was not realized, and prices of both grain and bread increased in Russia. Because of disproportionate impact on the poor, the rate of poverty increased. Internationally, wheat prices were pushed up. Two of the countries that buy much grain from Russia are Egypt and Pakistan. Within Egypt there was great stress on government, and the government committed to subsidies to try to maintain the low cost of bread. In Pakistan the cost of bread increased on the order of 15%.
The conclusion of the Oxfam report is that the cost of wheat and the damage of the drought and the heat wave both in Russia and outside of Russia would have been less if there had been no ban on exports. At least as early as August 19, 2010 an article in the Financial Times was stating that the markets responded more strongly to historical market behavior than it responded to the reality of the grain supplies. In the Financial Times article it is maintained, for example, that Egypt started buying up wheat early in August, driving up prices, in anticipation of a Russian export ban – consistent with previous behavior. (From the point of view of wheat farmers in, say, Colorado in 2010, impact of the Russian drought and embargo … June Low to August High)
What strikes me is that in the short term, a large impact of weather extremes is on markets. This impact is not directly related to the actual amount of grain deficiency caused by the weather extreme. Rather it is related to humans trying to find advantage or avoid perceived risk in the market. People are anticipating changes in not only wheat supply, but also changes in behavior. They are betting. This stands in contrast to the idea that because a quantity such as wheat operates in a global market that wheat would be relatively immune to such climate extremes. That is deficiencies in one place would be offset by surpluses in other places with the cost minimized by market forces. Perhaps this is true in the longer term, but damage has already occurred to those who are vulnerable.
Let’s continue: The winter of 2010 and the spring of 2011 were characterized by very high food prices. An essay by Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo entitled, Global Warming and Arab Spring, draws a convincing line that the pressure on food prices was a contributor to the start of the revolutions of the Arab Spring – the tumultuous uprising against many Arab governments. (also here) To diffuse the arguments that are sure to follow – this was a contributor, along with many other factors that came together to fuel a movement. This is the idea of climate extremes as a threat multiplier.
When we talk about climate change and global warming, we often talk of it in the future. We talk about droughts and floods. But the consequence of droughts and floods include damage to crops and damage to cities. The impacts are local and direct, for some, but beyond the immediate, local impacts are the impacts through markets, budgets, and political systems. As these impacts tumble across the world, the results are unpredictable.
The reality of global warming is that events such as the Russian heat wave occur more frequently. The markets connect events globally. They connect parts of the world with agricultural excesses and deficiencies – but, if droughts and floods are more frequent and more extreme, then markets connect deficiencies with deficiencies. The impact of climate change is more disruption, more instability – a threat multiplier.
Figure 1: A woman sits surrounded by the remains of her home in the Russian village of Mokhovoye on July 31, 2010. (From Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)
Some other interesting references.
Food Security and Russia’s 2010 Drought
Internal Political Ramifications of 2010 Drought and Heat Wave
Changes in Russian Views on Global Warming?
Updated: 12:35 PM GMT on October 25, 2011
By: RickyRood, 3:52 PM GMT on October 13, 2011
Earthquakes and Climate Change: Risks (1)
On March 11, 2011 there was a great earthquake in Tohoku, Japan. This earthquake caused large loss of life and property, and for the focus of this article large parts of the Fukushima nuclear power plant were destroyed. Therein is the link to climate change.
Figure 1: Poster describing 2011 Tohoku, Japan earthquake. (link to a LARGE version of this poster)
Global warming due to carbon dioxide increases is caused primarily by emissions from burning fossil fuels. Hence, there is the, now familiar, link of carbon dioxide to energy use to prosperity to population. Hence, our path to addressing climate change is finding sources of energy that do not emit carbon.
Nuclear power is a controversial issue, which I will discuss more below. But in the minds of many people, nuclear power is part of the paths to solution of the climate change problem. There is no doubt that nuclear power is low carbon, and it is a proven source of energy at societal scale. Below is a comparison of carbon emissions from different sources of energy.
Figure 2: Emissions of carbon dioxide from different sources of energy. This is from The World Nuclear Association.
The World Nuclear Association is an organization that supports the nuclear industry, and they make prominent points about the importance of nuclear energy in addressing climate change. The figure above is from a report that they generated, and it is based on a review of literature. I have looked through the report, and as a non expert, they have done a credible accumulation and reporting of information. The story that is definitive is that carbon dioxide emissions from nuclear power plants is far smaller than from fossil fuel burning, and comparable to the emissions from renewable sources of energy. Given that carbon dioxide, once emitted, is around for many thousands of years, there is an urgency to address our emission levels, and increased use of nuclear energy would benefit the reduction of global warming.
In Japan, the loss of the Fukushima power plant was a loss of a major source of electrical generation. This led to a reduction of manufacturing that had direct effects on the world’s industries and economies. It also fueled and refueled opposition to the development of nuclear power plants. In Japan there have been massive protests opposing building nuclear power plants as well as calling for closing existing plants. There was a time not long ago where Japan, a country dependent on imports for most fossil fuels, was on a path to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels with the use of nuclear power. Japan has subsequently developed a policy to deemphasize nuclear power with a gradual fade out. Even with a focus on renewable energy, this decision in Japan will inevitably lead to more carbon dioxide emissions in the short term.
What I have thought was most interesting was the response in Germany. Germany decided to close its nuclear power plants by 2022. The Washington Post’s Editorial Board called this reaction to Fukushima a blunder, and there were wide spread comments that Germany’s demand for energy would inevitably lead to more coal use and an increase in both carbon dioxide emissions and public health risks. Germany’s position, however, is that they would accelerate their already aggressive programs in renewable energy. This is an interesting gamble. The challenges of meeting Germany’s energy demands with renewable energy are formidable, but if that challenge is met, then it is likely to provide Germany with technological developments and energy security that gives it huge economic advantage. Here is a nice summary story of Germany’s decision in the Christian Science Monitor.
In the earlier part of the Obama administration there was a renewed interest on nuclear energy in the U.S. Immediately after the 2011 earthquake there was significant decline in the U.S. public interest in nuclear power. This decrease came at a time when public support was at a near peak. Now a few months out, polling by the Nuclear Energy Institute, which is a “policy organization” for the nuclear energy industry, shows modest declines, but with a majority in the U.S. still supporting more nuclear energy.
Looking worldwide, there is no doubt that there will be some countries developing more nuclear energy and there will be some countries where the political environment will reduce the use of nuclear power. With regard to climate, most energy decisions are made with regard to energy needs, energy security and cost. All energy systems have their proponents. All energy systems have environmental impact; therefore, they all have opponents. The net result of this is that we continue to rely on fossil fuels, with increasing stress on energy systems and the environment. There is no doubt that the earthquake in March 2011 in Japan has influenced how we think about nuclear power. Therefore, the earthquake has an influence on how we address the energy issues that are at the root of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming.
There are two points I want to bring forward to carry to the next blog. The first is to reiterate that our world exists in many systems with fragile balance. Our energy systems are vulnerable to relatively small disruptions. Our economy is fragile. Our climate is in a balance where carbon dioxide emissions can drastically alter the balance of water between liquid and ice. The second is that all of these systems are connected. Global risks follow from an earthquake that is localized on the coast of a single island in Japan. It is this sort of systems impacts where the great risks are exposed, where climate change can have near-term impacts.