Did climate change play an indirect role in the political upheavals that rocked Egypt in 2011? Absolutely, says Troy Sternberg. As he sees it, a once-in-a-century drought in China dramatically reduced global wheat supplies and sent prices skyrocketing in the world’s largest wheat importer.
By Troy Sternberg for Henry L Stimson Center
This article was originally published in The Arab Spring and Climate Change, which can also be accessed here.
Chinese drought, global wheat prices, and revolution in Egypt may all appear to be unrelated, but they became linked by a series of events in the 2010–2011 winter. As the world’s attention focused on protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, political and socioeconomic motives behind the protests were discussed abundantly, while significant indirect causes of the Arab Spring received little mention. In what could be called “hazard globalization,” a once-in-a-century winter drought in China reduced global wheat supply and contributed to global wheat shortages and skyrocketing bread prices in Egypt, the world’s largest wheat importer. Government legitimacy and civil society in Egypt were upset by protests that focused on poverty, bread, and political discontent.
A tale of climate disaster, market forces, and authoritarian regimes helps to unravel the complexity surrounding public revolt in the Middle East. This essay examines the link between natural hazards, food security, and political stability in two developing countries—China and Egypt—and reflects on the links between climate events and social processes.
The aforementioned citizen protests in Egypt represented political and economic dissatisfaction, including the high cost of food—recall the days of waving bread as a protest symbol. Bread provides one-third of the caloric intake in Egypt, a country where 38 percent of income is spent on food. The doubling of global wheat prices—from $157/metric ton in June 2010 to $326/metric ton in February 2011—thus significantly impacted the country’s food supply and availability.
The world wheat harvest was affected by changing weather patterns in 2010 that led to supply shortages. Climate factors curtailed wheat production in Russia (down 32.7 percent) and Ukraine (down 19.3 percent) due to drought, heat waves, and fires, while cold and rainy weather in Canada (down 13.7 percent) and excessive rain in Australia (down 8.7 percent) resulted in reduced global wheat supply and major price increases. At the same time China’s wheat production fell 0.5 percent, while wheat consumption in the country increased by 1.68 percent.
Phi Beta Iota: Everything is connected, there is no one single factor, and anyone tryingto connect revolution to anything had better have a holistic analytic model or they are providing narrow-cast opinion, not analysis. Financial crime has been a huge factor in the manipulation of food prices (and interest rates affecting food prices), along with corruption of the dictators, capital flight of the indigenous 1%, and poor mega-agricultural practices in the USA. Water, food, and child security are central issues for the five billion poor — and totally neglected by the one billion rich as worthy of ethical evidence-based decision-support.