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Avoiding a Soylent Green Future by 2040; First Severe Outbreak of Spring Coming

By: Jeff Masters and Bob Henson 12:51 PM GMT on March 23, 2016

If you want a sobering look at a potential global apocalyptic food shortage scenario, you don’t need to rent a copy of the 1973 sci-fi classic, “Soylent Green”. A non-sci-fi computer model being developed by the Global Sustainability Institute at the UK's Anglia Ruskin University predicts that catastrophic food shortages, triggered by a combination of climate change, water scarcity, energy crisis, and political instability might lead to a virtual collapse of industrial civilization by 2040. The model explores short-term scenarios of policy decisions by simulating social-economical-environmental systems, including the impact of climate-induced drought on crop failures and food prices. The model was successfully used to simulate the multiple factors--including the great Russian drought of 2010--that made the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings more likely. These uprisings caused major unrest in at least twelve nations, and forced rulers from power in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. Dr. Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute, said this in a June 2015 interview with Insurge Intelligence about their model:

"We ran the model forward to the year 2040, along a business-as-usual trajectory based on ‘do-nothing’ trends—that is, without any feedback loops that would change the underlying trend. The results show that based on plausible climate trends, and a total failure to change course, the global food supply system would face catastrophic losses, and an unprecedented epidemic of food riots. In this scenario, global society essentially collapses as food production falls permanently short of consumption."

Figure 1. Food riot from the sci-fi classic, “Soylent Green”.

Figure 2. Tunisians carrying loaves of bread protest high food prices and confront riot police during a demonstration against the country's new government in Tunis on January 18, 2011. Riot police fired tear gas and dispersed the rally. Global food prices spiked in late 2010 and early 2011, leading to widespread unrest and the "Arab Spring" in northern Africa and the Middle East, toppling the governments of four nations. The high food prices were primarily due to Russia's great heat wave and drought in the summer of 2010, which decimated the Russian wheat crop. Image credit: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images.

The good news
The good news is this is a short-term model, and was not designed to run for a period of decades. With the world now committed to de-carbonize its economy as a result of the December 2015 Paris Accord, long-term changes to the global food system are in store, making a “Soylent Green” world less likely than the model might suggest (although there is no telling what the future holds for the trendy, lab-concocted Soylent beverage). According to an October 2015 report by the World Bank, Future of Food: Shaping A Climate-Smart Global Food System, a growing and diverse spectrum of practices called "Climate Smart Agriculture" are showing it is possible to simultaneously deliver higher agricultural productivity, greater climate resilience, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. Important among these are silvo-pastoral livestock systems (blending forests and pastures; "silva" is Latin for forest), agroforestry, intercropping, diversification of production systems toward less water- and emission-intensive crops, improved pasture management, better fertilizer use, minimum tillage, alternative wetting and drying of rice, biogas production from agricultural waste products/livestock manure, improved irrigation and drainage efficiency that includes lowering emissions by reducing energy consumption of pumping stations, and reducing food loss and waste. For example, Uruguay has quadrupled its agricultural production within a decade while significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions per unit of food production by using some of these techniques. Of course, making these changes will cost money, but the report notes that rates of return to public investment in agricultural research and extension have been very high, averaging at least 40 percent in recent decades. We really have no choice but to make massive changes and investments in the global food system if we want to avoid the fate of the many civilizations and nations that have collapsed because of drought.

Springtime's first severe weather episode is brewing
The nation's first multi-day round of severe weather since the spring equinox will take shape from late Wednesday into Thursday (see Figure 3). A seasonably strong upper-level trough will move across the south-central and southeastern states, pulling up modest amounts of Gulf moisture. The richest moisture has been scoured out of the Gulf by earlier fronts, so instability will be less than impressive, and wind shear in the lowest levels will also be on the weak side. Still, enough total vertical wind shear will be on hand to support a slight risk of severe thunderstorms from northeast Texas to western Illinois by Wednesday evening. Storms will redevelop across the South on Thursday, perhaps extending northward into the Ohio Valley. Damaging winds and hail are the main threat on both days, but a few tornadoes are possible.

Figure 3. Severe weather outlooks for Wednesday, March 23, 2016 (left) and Thursday, March 24 (right), issued by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center late Tuesday night.

As of Monday, March 21, NOAA's Storm Prediction Center had received 202 preliminary tornado reports for the year to date, slightly above the 11-year average (2005-2015) of 184 preliminary tornado reports for the period Jan 1 - Mar 21. Tornado activity and high-wind reports surged last month with the deadly mid-Atlantic outbreak of February 24. The main story in March has been hail--in particular, a destructive hailstorm that pounded the Fort Worth, TX, area on Thursday morning, March 17. The Insurance Council of Texas estimates that insured damages from this storm will top $600 million. That would make it one of the top-20 costliest weather disasters in Texas history. The heavy weather struck the Dallas-Fort Worth region just before and after sunrise, which is one of the least common times of day to get damaging hail in this region.

Jeff Masters (food shock); Bob Henson (severe weather)

Drought Climate Change Severe Weather

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.