Climate Change Need Not Be the Harbinger of Global Famine

What appears today as a food supply shock is, in reality, a price shock

Yesterday in the New York Times Opinion section, David Wallace-Wells asks “How Bad is the Global Food Crisis Going to Get?” His answer: pretty bad.

Wallace-Wells is right. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven up the price of food, natural gas, energy, and fertilizer. It has restricted the crucial grain trade flowing from Russian and Ukrainian ports in the Black Sea to countries in the Middle East, Africa, Southeast, and South Asia. And, it has done all this in a global context of COVID-19-induced supply chain crises, and climate-connected weather events impacting yields in the United States, France, and Central Africa.

Putting all these things together, as Wallace-Wells neatly does, ought to raise the hair on your neck. That Gro Intelligence, a New York-based agricultural analytics firm, estimates that around 49 million people are on the “edge of famine,” 1.1 billion are in “extreme poverty,” and 1.6 billion people are “food insecure,” is enough to grab headlines. But these kinds of shocking estimates are not new. The story of our global food crisis is months old. Instead, what readers ought to take away from Wallace-Wells’ essay is an idea somewhat underrepresented in the broader coverage of the crisis: that food supply has been increasing despite a changing climate, that the world is not anywhere near close to “running out of food,” and that what appears today as a supply shock is, in reality, a price shock.

Wallace-Wells quotes Rupert Russell, the author of Price Wars: How the Commodities Market Made Our Chaotic World, at length. Russell argues that shocks to the commodities markets, in this case, the invasion of Ukraine, are amplified by commodity traders speculating on the impacts of that shock. This, Wallace-Wells points out, re-affirms Amartya Sen’s familiar adage that “all famines are man-made.”

This also underlines how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has acted as a force multiplier on the multifactorial influence on food prices normally. Wallace-Wells does well to point out the many components affecting food security — climate, COVID, and agricultural productivity growth — but insofar as the price spike is the cause of growing food insecurity and hunger, the war, and its impact on trade should be the primary cause for concern as we try to solve today’s problems and prevent similar ones in the future.

But, what should we make of the connection between food insecurity today and the extreme heat wave in South Asia, the ongoing drought in Western North America, or flooding in China? Or to put it more simply: what is the role of climate change in today’s crisis and what does that mean for future crises?

These events are undoubtedly connected to climate and have helped pave the way for the increased hunger and food insecurity that makes the price shock even more alarming. But tying the food crisis today to climate-induced productivity decline not only undervalues the impact of the Russian invasion, but subtly repeats the same mistakes of Ehrlich, Malthus, and the litany of other predictors of the end of society through mass starvation.

This is not to say that overcoming the food security impacts of climate change will either be easy or inevitable. It will require massive public support for agricultural R&D to increase yields around the world, adapt to variable weather conditions, and, ideally, reduce the land use and greenhouse gas emissions stemming from food production. But, innovations to solve these problems are possible, and, hopefully, within our reach.

Future shocks from war, disaster, or pandemics are likely to have similar consequences as Russia's invasion of Ukraine. But climate change need not be the harbinger of global famine.