It cannot be proved that the wildfires devastating western Russia are evidence of global warming. Once-in-a-century extreme weather events happen, on average, once a century. But the Russian response is precisely what you would expect when global warming really starts to bite: Moscow has just banned all grain exports for the rest of this year.
At least 20 percent of Russia's wheat crop has already been destroyed by the drought, the extreme heat.
Russia is the world's fourth-largest grain exporter, and anticipated shortages in the international grain market had already driven the price of wheat up by more than 80 percent. When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced the export ban, it immediately jumped by another 8 percent. This means that food prices will also rise, but that is a minor nuisance for most consumers in the developed countries, since they spend only about 10 percent of their income on food. In poor countries, where people spend up to half their income on food, the higher prices will mean that the poorest of the poor cannot afford to feed their children properly.
As a result, some will die -- probably a hundred or a thousand times as many as the thirty-odd Russians who have been killed by the flames and the smoke. But they will die quietly, one by one, in under-reported parts of the world, so nobody will notice. Not this time. But when food exports are severely reduced or banned by several major producers at once and the international grain market freezes up, everybody will notice. Two problems are going to converge and merge in the next ten or fifteen years, with dramatic results. One is the fact that global grain production, which kept up with population growth from the 1950s to the 1990s, is no longer doing so. It may even have flat-lined in the past decade, although large annual variations make that uncertain. Whereas the world's population is still growing. The world grain reserve, which was 150 days of eating for everybody on the planet ten years ago, has fallen to little more than a third of that.
The second problem of the world is, global warming. The rule of thumb is that with every one-degree C rise in average global temperature, Russia loses 10 percent of global food production. In some places, the crops will be damaged by drought; in others by much hotter temperatures. Or, as in Russia's case today, by both. Food production will be heading down as demand continues to increase, and something has to give. What will probably happen is that the amount of internationally traded grain will dwindle as countries ban exports and keep their supplies for themselves. That will mean that a country can no longer buy its way out of trouble when it has a local crop failure: there will not be enough exported grain for sale. This is the vision of the future that has the soldiers and security experts worried: a world where access to enough food becomes a big political and strategic issue even for developed countries that do not have big surpluses at home. It would be a very ugly world indeed, teeming with climate refugees and failed states and interstate conflicts over water.
What is happening in Russia now, and its impacts elsewhere, give Russia an early glimpse of what that world will be like. And although nobody can say for certain that the current disaster there is due to climate change, it certainly could be.
Late last year, Britain's Hadley Centre for Climate Change produced a world map showing how different countries will be affected by the rise in average global temperature over the next fifty years. The European countries that the Hadley map predicts will be among the hardest hit -- Greece, Spain and Russia -- are precisely the ones have suffered most from extreme heat, runaway forest fires and wildfires in the past few years.
The main impact of global warming on human beings will be on the food supply, and eating is a non-negotiable activity. Today Russia, tomorrow the world.
(By Gwynne Dyer the writer of “Climate Wars" published in the United States by OneWorld)