We're getting our environmental priorities wrong – it's about calories, not climate change

In short, will we be able to feed our kids properly as more extreme weather becomes the norm? 

Marc Lopatin
Saturday 17 November 2018 13:09
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Will we be able to eat properly as more extreme weather becomes the norm?
Will we be able to eat properly as more extreme weather becomes the norm?

Have you heard of a group of campaigners called Extinction Rebellion? They want to save you. All of us in fact. From the savage and deathly impacts of climate change.

Second only to this gargantuan task is getting your attention. Which is why they block access to government buildings, occupy the offices of environmental charities and, in general, make a non-violent nuisance of themselves.

They’ve called today “Rebellion Day” and invited the nation to join them outside a tone-deaf parliament.

But is this really an environmental story? Siren calls to cut all carbon emissions by 2025 will just evaporate on impact. There is, however, creeping recognition that urgency can be framed around calories, and not climate.

In short, will we be able to feed our kids properly as more extreme weather becomes the norm?

Let’s start with last summer: the joint hottest on record in the UK. As the TV news filled with scenes of sunbathing families enjoying a cut-price version of the Med, the last thing Europe’s farmers were reaching for was their swimming trunks.

In July, the European Association of Fruit and Vegetable Processors stated growing conditions were the most serious experienced in the last 40 years, and that this was the third year in a row that the sector has faced serious weather-related issues.

More recently, Irish farmers warned the humble spud could double in price since the hot weather reduced this year’s crop by a quarter.

Ok, but that’s hardly going to strip your nearest Tesco back to its fittings, is it? But as anyone who has tended to a garden or an allotment knows, even a brief spell of hot or cold weather at the wrong time can ruin seedlings and decimate plants and crops. It is precisely what’s happening globally, as our weather gets more and more extreme.

This arguably supersedes a 2015 Foreign Office report entitled Extreme weather and resilience of the global food system, where the authors put forward a “plausible scenario” headed towards “multiple bread basket failures”. It posits that failing monsoons in India, an early spring thaw in the Black Sea, a summer drought in North America and a heatwave in Europe could play havoc with wheat, maize and rice yields.

So much so that the export of cereals could grind to a halt as countries hoard and panic escalates.

Now, the authors frame such shocks as one-offs that rich countries like the UK can muddle through. Because that’s how it’s always played out in the past.

But what are the risks of such shocks lasting three or four years as rising global temperatures increase the frequency of stable weather going AWOL or turning up at the wrong moment?

Perhaps it’s time to haul environment minister Michael Gove on to The Today Programme, just to double check that a country that imports over half its food can ride out such a scenario without invading Spain for its greenhouses?

There is a very small group of people that ought to be fearful of a world going hungry. They have everything to lose if civilisation starts to implode like poorly built dwellings in an earthquake.

Crucially, it is in their grasp to help reinforce those dwellings before the quake hits. Because unlike you and I, they really do have the resources and soft power to do something about it.

Who are they? Well, they are the onepercenters​. And given what’s coming, they’d love to be gawping at us from the safety of space orbit like their fictional peers in the movie Elysium.

But unfortunately for them, they can’t even fly the Concorde these days, let alone hitch a ride to the International Space Station. The best they can do is build luxury bunkers in secret locations in the hope of sitting out a real-life game of Resident Evil.

But as some onepercenters are starting to realise, they’ll still need to deploy private soldiers to defend their bunkers and food stores. Alas, self-repairing, robotic guards don’t come along soon enough.

So what’s to stop their heavily-armed human subordinates from rebelling and commandeering all their supplies? At a time of collapse, money will be worthless. And you can’t snack on diamonds.

Even if a few onepercenters did manage to hide, the day will come when the last tin of peaches is opened and consumed.

Above their heads, the soil no longer supports crops as the climate subjects what’s left of humanity to “hothouse earth”.

Much better for the richest of the rich to prolong themselves and their loved ones by helping keep you and I fed. I am not saying we forgive them for hoovering up half the planet’s wealth, buying our Premiership rivals and steering us to the cusp of extinction. Far from it.

But we are going to need them to start spending their billions to improve our resilience to the shocks ahead. And use their soft power with prime ministers, presidents, royalty and media magnates, to ensure governments follow their lead.

It’s a shame that the onepercenters probably aren’t members of a highly-organised, dastardly cabal. It would make the job a lot easier.

Who would have thought the front line of rebellion would be tedious meetings with besuited gatekeepers to the world’s richest people? Can someone please ask Al Gore to update his slides? We’re going to need the best deck ever!

Marc Lopatin is a former communications consultant to UN Environment and Royal Dutch Shell

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