The first six months of this year have been the hottest on record since 1895. In June alone, we smashed more than 3,000 temperature records across the United States. It was the 328th consecutive month in which the average global temperature exceeded the 20th century mean. As Bill McKibben put it, "the odds of [that] occurring by simple chance were [one in] 3.7 x 10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe."
But if that much is obvious to most people who don’t harbor deep suspicions about the value of science, the rate at which global warming is changing life on this planet may still come as a shock. Not only are the 3.7 million Americans living within a few feet of the coastline already experiencing more frequent flooding — the result of rising sea levels — but unusual weather patterns are likely to make food more expensive, and fast.
Figures released on Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture predict substantial increases in food prices as a result of weather patterns in the Midwest — the worst drought in nearly half a century.
The prices of chicken, beef, dairy, and eggs are all supposed to rise between three and five percentage points this year. Corn futures have already spiked nearly 50 percent over the last month to roughly $8.00 a bushel on fears that crops will be ruined. (The Department of Agriculture estimated that 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is in poor or very poor condition as a result of the drought.)
And it’s not just the U.S. market that will be affected. The U.S. is the world’s largest producer of corn — exporting millions of tons every year to countries like Japan, Egypt, and China. In 2000, for example, Egypt imported 76 percent of its corn from the United States.
In 2011, revolutions erupted across the Arab world at least in part because of rising food prices. Recall that protesters in Tunisia wielded loaves of bread and Egypt suffered a spate of "bread riots" when grain prices spiked between 2007 and 2008. Now, more than a year after the uprisings, many Arab economies are struggling to get back on their feet. Significant increases in global food prices might well plunge them back into chaos.
But bad weather and worse crop yields in the U.S. are not the only forces driving grain prices skyward. Southern Europe, which typically supplies 16 percent of global corn exports, is having its own ecological disaster. Temperatures in the band that runs from eastern Italy to the Black Sea averaged about five degrees higher than normal last month, according to Bloomberg, baking corn crops that are in the critical pollination phase. Cedic Weber, whose company advises about 5,000 farmers in Europe, told Bloomberg, "in Europe we’ll need to import a lot of wheat and corn…That’s just adding to the problems we’ve got everywhere."
That doesn’t bode well for the Egypts and the Tunisias of the world — or for any other net importer of food, for that matter. As it happens, that’s practically all of the Middle East and Africa, and much of Southeast Asia.