›April 7, 2014 // By Richard Cincotta
Just months after popular uprisings toppled Tunisia and Egypt’s authoritarian regimes, a trio of complex-system researchers published a brief article linking these demonstrations with high levels of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s international Food Price Index. Marco Lagi, Karla Bertrand, and Yaneer Bar-Yam’s model, which predicts outbreaks of deadly social conflict when the index tops 210, has since become a popular explanation wielded by many for bouts of popular unrest, including the Arab Spring and overthrow of Ukraine’s government. But were food prices really an underlying “hidden” cause for the start of a wave of instability that is still being felt today?
Center for American Progress Takes on Climate Change, Migration, and Why They Matter to U.S. National Security›July 19, 2012 // By Kayly OberIn early 2012, the Center for American Progress (CAP) released Climate Change, Migration, and Conflict: Addressing Complex Crisis Scenarios in the 21st Century. Although generally in line with climate-migration pieces before it (“It is difficult to fully understand the detailed causes of migration and economic and political instability, but the growing evidence of links between climate change, migration, and conflict raise plenty of reasons for concern”), the report strays from the usual by focusing on U.S. national security interests and four particular sub-regions of concern.
The first region examined – and the one perhaps most on the radar of security analysts at the moment – is Northwest Africa. Here the already-tenuous political stability left in the wake of the Arab Spring will most certainly be exacerbated by climate change, authors Michael Werz and Laura Conley write. “Northwest Africa is crisscrossed with climate, migration, and security challenges…rising coastal sea level, desertification, drought, and the numerous other potential effects of climate change have the potential to increase the numbers of migrants.” All of these factors combine to create what Werz and Conley define as an “arc of tension,” that will strengthen organizations that thrive on chaos, like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has already taken advantage of the regional power vacuum left by Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster.
CAP investigates this arc of tension more fully in a more focused, separate brief on Northwest Africa, drilling down on Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, and Morocco. They find that these countries already grapple with a complex set of issues, including population pressures, drought, land degradation, large-scale migration, and natural resource conflicts. Climate change exacerbates all of these. Particularly worrying is the threat it poses to traditional pastoral and agricultural livelihoods, which could translate into “increasing numbers of disenfranchised youth, who security experts believe are more easily recruited to assist [terrorist groups] in return for money and food.”
remains an open – and hotly debated – problem for researchers. The multi-faceted nature of migration, in particular, makes it hard to define the exact causes of movement.
On a larger scale, flagging the environment as the principal reason for migration has its problems, especially under the umbrella of “refugee” status. According to respected migration experts, using the term “refugee” in the case of environmental or climate scenarios is incorrect, since the environment is often simply one “push” factor, while economic opportunities make for a heavier “pull.” Furthermore, applying the term refugee in this case, they say, is misleading and undermines true political refugees.
CAP uses the less polarizing term “climate migrants” in their paper, saying “no universally accepted concepts, much less legal categories, exist to describe or define climate migrants. There is agreement, however, that factors such as drought, flooding, severe weather, and environmental degradation can cause human mobility in large numbers that are certain to increase in the near future.”
In a case like Bangladesh and India, the second sub-region to be examined, the international community is preoccupied with rising sea levels, which is considered a more concrete example of climate change affecting migration. Ultimately, as CAP notes, it’s also a security issue:
In December 2008 the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., ran an exercise that explored the impact of a flood that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring India. The result: the exercise predicted a new wave of migration would touch off religious conflicts, encourage the spread of contagious diseases, and cause vast damage to infrastructure.While true that India is “not in a position to absorb climate-induced pressures,” as Werz and Conley write, it’s not quite true that “foreign climate migrants” would be necessarily be an immediate problem, as they suggest.
India has a history of taking in Bangladeshi migration, with an estimated 10 to 20 million illegal Bangladeshis currently living in India, according to the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, an Indian think tank. Traditionally, Bangladeshis have migrated for a myriad of socioeconomic reasons, but most alluring are land availability and a stronger Indian economy. In any case, Bangladesh-India migration would not be new phenomenon.
The environment has also been a part of the equation, but in the case of large-scale sea level rise, its effect on migration can be a bit more nuanced. As the International Food Policy Research Institute noted in its study “Environmental Migrants: A Myth?,” Bangladeshis often have “risk-sharing and informal lending arrangements” to deal with idiosyncratic shocks, which include flooding. Instead, crop failure actually has the strongest effect on mobility. This suggests that it’s not just sea level rise that observers worried about environmentally-driven migration need to track in Bangladesh, but also drought and rain-induced flooding.
The third region, the Andes of South America, also suffers from a slightly myopic security lens. Here, it’s all about melting glaciers and snowcaps. Retreating glaciers would spell disaster for countries which rely heavily on seasonal melt for agriculture and hydroelectric power. Most vulnerable are those with weak governance systems and infrastructure like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia. For reference, hydropower supplies a whopping 80 percent of Peru’s electricity. However, there are more subtle impacts that could portend bigger trouble for the region.
Regional security experts concede that higher temperatures are already affecting crop production in rural Colombia, harming the ability to consolidate the security gains made by Plan Colombia over the last decade, for example. And a recent report from EUROCLIMA, the European Union’s program on climate change in Latin America, paints an even bleaker picture for agricultural production in the face of desertification and drought:
Natural ecosystems, agriculture, water resources, and human health in Latin America have been impacted by unusual extreme weather events reported in the past years. For example, droughts related to El Niño impacts on the flows of the Colombia Andean region basins (particularly in the Cauca river basin), are causing a 30 percent reduction in the mean flow, with a maximum of 80 percent loss in some tributaries. Consequently, soil moisture, and vegetation activity are strongly reduced.Perhaps more worrying is the impact on the biodiversity in the region. Considering that Latin America represents 16 percent of the world’s surface but 40 percent of its biodiversity this could have serious implications for the biomedical field and others. In a recent Nature study, scientists discovered that in situations where glacial coverage is reduced to the point where it only covers 30 to 50 percent of the drainage basin, several species begin to disappear. They calculated that the entire melting of the glaciers in these areas would result in a huge loss of biodiversity, where between 11 and 38 percent of animal and plant species could go extinct, including many of endemic species that can be found only in these areas.
China and the Third Pole
Finally, China is now in its fourth decade of ever-growing internal migration, some of it driven in recent years by environmental change. Today, across its vast territory, China continues to experience the full spectrum of climate change-related consequences that have the potential to drive migration. CAP finds that the consequences of climate change and continued internal migration in China include “water stress; increased droughts, flooding, or other severe events; increased coastal erosion and saltwater inundation; glacial melt in the Himalayas that could affect hundreds of millions; and shifting agricultural zones” – all of which will affect food supplies and the country’s seemingly relentless pace of development. Still, the most unique factor of migration in China is the power of the central government to be the main “push factor,” as in the case of the Three Gorges Dam.
Agreeing to Agree
Though they might sacrifice some nuance in the regional breakdowns, the core of CAP’s argument for why climate migration matters to U.S. national security is solid. The United States has a “vested interest in helping ensure that areas with weak or absent governance structures – where poverty, environmental degradation, and grievances over central governments and energy production coincide – do not become future recruiting grounds for extremists,” write Werz and Conley. “The possible impacts of climate-related migration in such fragile situations could be destabilizing.” Invest in people rather than just military might; invest in poverty reduction, economic development, and alternative livelihoods.
Jon Barnett on migration as adaptation
In the context of climate change, this means accepting that migration is a form of adaptation. As Jon Barnett notes in an interview with ECSP:
In some circumstances it might be appropriate to [invest in traditional adaptation projects like] infrastructure and hard options where we’re very certain about the nature of the risk…but in other cases, expanding the range of choices and freedoms and opportunities that people have to deal with climate change in the future is perhaps the better strategy.This requires higher-level thinking by states to concede that migration will happen and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Migration bolsters origin communities through remittances and education and technology sharing. But this thinking has yet to permeate policymaking, with obvious political reasons. Until then, states that are committed to preventing migration are actually cutting off important community responses.
Ultimately, what we consider adaptation and development needs to evolve. By investing in an integrated, multi-sector development approach, we can prevent violent responses to migration at the source rather than relying on reactionary and military solutions. Or, as CAP’s Michael Werz and Laura Conley put it more boldly, “our security can no longer be guaranteed by military strength or economic clout alone, but only by our ability to compel collective action.”
Photo credit: “Villagers going to the local market in Bogoro walk past a Bangladeshi patrol unit of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) as the country prepares for the second round of elections. 12/Oct/2006. UN Photo/Martine Perret,” courtesy of United Nations Photo Flickr.
Sources: Center for American Progress, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Inter-American Development Bank, International Food Policy Research Institute, Nature, The World Bank.
Video Credit: “The Nexus of Climate Change, Migration and Security,” courtesy of the Center for American Progress. Image: “The Arc of Tension,” courtesy of the Center for American Progress.
›wrote that “the crux of the food price challenge is about price volatility, rather than high prices per se” and that “[i]t is the rapid and unpredictable changes in food prices that wreak havoc on markets, politics, and social stability.”
In a recent research paper, however, I use monthly data on food prices and news reports of social unrest worldwide to tease out the causal relationship between food prices and social unrest. The results indicate that it is rising food prices that cause social unrest and that increases in food price volatility are actually associated with decreases in the number of food riots. It thus would be a critical mistake to work toward price stabilization instead of curbing rising food prices.
Consumers, Producers, and Social Unrest
If you have taken a principles of economics class, you know that everything else equal, an increase in the price of a good means that you can afford less of that good. So if you value a given good, the consequence of an increase in the price of that good is that you are worse off.
If you live in the United States, your household dedicates about 13 percent of its budget to food. But if instead you lived in a developing country, that figure would be well over 50 percent.
It should thus come as no surprise that increases in the price of food are especially bad for the poor in developing countries.
This is true for urban households, who are almost all net consumers of food, but also for many rural households who, for a variety of reasons – ranging from failures of the credit, input, or land markets to adverse meteorological conditions – fail to produce enough to feed themselves and are also net consumers of food.
There are many more net consumers than there are net producers of food worldwide. For those net consumers of food, rising food prices can have disastrous consequences. Worse, the greater the share of its budget a household dedicates to food, the more disastrous the consequence of a rise in food prices for that household (Deaton, 1989).
Last March, Annia Ciezadlo, a writer whose memoir Day of Honey explores the social importance of food in the Middle East, wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs:
Change is sweeping through the Middle East today, but one thing remains the same: the region once known as the Fertile Crescent is now the world’s most dependent on imported grain. Of the top 20 wheat importers for 2010, almost half are Middle Eastern countries. The list reads like a playbook of toppled and teetering regimes: Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia.Indeed, after attaining a peak during the summer of 2008, food prices started rising rapidly again in the second half of 2010 to hit an all-time high in March of 2011.
For decades, many of these regimes relied on food subsidies to ensure stability (…). But over the past several years, grain prices reached record levels, and these appeasement policies lost their luster. In Tunisia, pro-democracy demonstrations began in late December 2010 with protesters brandishing baguettes. In just a few months, a wave of uprisings rippled across the region, toppling Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s longtime ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
Likewise, as illustrated in Figure 1 above, the 2008 and 2011 spikes in food prices (denoted by the red line) coincided with spikes in the number of food riots reported in the news (denoted by the blue line).
Correlation Is Not Causation
But as I constantly remind the students in my development seminar, correlation is not causation, and a key component of critical thinking is the ability to question correlations presented as causal claims. In other words, social unrest may lead to high food prices just as much as the opposite is true.
In my paper, using a statistical technique called instrumental variables estimation, I attempt to identify one side of this relationship by first conditioning food prices on the number of natural disasters worldwide (i.e., droughts, episodes of extreme temperature, floods, insect infestations, storms, volcanic eruptions, and wildfires). Not only do natural disasters constitute shocks to the supply of and demand for food, they presumably affect social unrest only through food prices. In principle, this statistical apparatus allows teasing out the potential causal relationship flowing from food prices to social unrest from the correlation between the two.
Intuitively, this is possible because conditioning food prices on natural disasters (which are themselves uncorrelated with social unrest) allows eliminating the variation in food prices that is purely due to variations in social unrest.
The results are fairly robust: to be sure, rising food prices result in more instances of social unrest, and this remains true whether:
- The price of food is considered broadly or the scope is narrowed to only the price of cereals, which constitute the bulk of an average developing-country diet;
- The food crises of 2008 and 2010-2011 are controlled for; or
- Alternative definitions of what constitutes a natural disaster are considered.
This is likely because unlike food producers, food consumers tend to slightly benefit from food price volatility.
Food producers make production decisions on the basis of expected prices, long before uncertainty over food prices is resolved (Sandmo, 1971); volatility therefore is something producers would like to avoid, and so they typically favor price stabilization policies.
Food consumers, however, make consumption decisions knowing exactly what food prices are at that moment, and so an increase in the uncertainty surrounding food prices means they might get to enjoy relative price discounts between food commodities (Turnovsky et al., 1980). This underappreciated theoretical point has recently found empirical support.
Note, however, how I avoid causal language in the case of food price volatility. That’s because my data do not allow establishing whether there is a causal relationship between food price volatility and social unrest, and the most that can be said is that the two are correlated.
What does this mean for policy? First, for domestic policy makers who want to prevent social unrest, it is crucial to ensure that food is affordable.
In many cases, this means not doing away with food subsidies for urban consumers (Bates, 1981). This is especially true in places where people already have other reasons to be upset, such as countries with high rates of unemployment. Here, both Tunisia and Egypt at the end of 2010 come to mind.
Second, if international policy makers want to prevent social unrest, it is better to work toward preventing sharp increases in food prices rather than preventing increases in food price volatility, as Chris Barrett and I argued in Foreign Affairs last summer.
Download “Rising Food Prices, Food Price Volatility, and Political Unrest.”
Marc F. Bellemare is an assistant professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
Sources: Bates (1981), Bellemare et al. (2011), Deaton (1989), Food and Agriculture Organization, Foreign Affairs, Hoisington Management, Poor Economics, Sandmo (1971), The Brookings Institution, Turnovsky et al. (1980).
Chart Credit: Marc F. Bellemare; video credit: Voice of America News.
In 2008, demographer Richard Cincotta predicted that between 2010 and 2020 the states along the northern rim of Africa – Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt – would each reach a demographically measurable point where the presence of at least one liberal democracy (and perhaps two), among the five, would not only be possible, but probable. Recent months have brought possible first steps to validate that prediction. [Video Below]
›If you’ve taken a trip to the supermarket lately or scanned the headlines you may have noticed something: Food prices are on the rise. Worldwide, food prices are on track to reach their highest point since their peak in 2008. Using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and the World Bank, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and ActionAid have collaborated to create an interactive world map called, “Hot Spots in the Emerging Global Food Crisis.”
The focus of the map is to highlight the 52 most at-risk countries where increases in staple food prices could tip the scales of stability. There are three variants of the map to choose from: countries at risk which depend on imported cereals, countries where prices are already increasing (featured above), and countries with vulnerable economies and high rates of hunger.
alleged role in the instability that is rocking the Middle East/North Africa region. But the Middle East is not the only area affected: Besides in Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, food-related riots and protests have also broken out in Mozambique, Bolivia, and India. As the map’s accompanying text puts it, these food riots “feed deeper discontent about economic inequalities and hunger and help give rise to revolutions that can topple governments, as in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Scrolling over a country reveals more information, like, for example, the specific percentage increases in the price of wheat or rice over the past year (wheat prices have risen 15.9 percent in China vs. 54 percent in Kyrgyzstan) or the amounts of corn, soybean, and wheat annually imported and exported (Afghanistan exported 908 million metric tons of wheat in 2010 while Egypt imported 4,978).
Users can also click on vulnerable countries to see how many people are malnourished and their per capita income per day. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, an estimated 42 million people were undernourished between 2005 and 2007, and the average person lives on $0.28 per day. According to EWG and ActionAid, the total number of people living in extreme poverty rose by 25 million in 2008 during the last global food crisis. Since June 2010, the start of the current upward trend in prices, the World Bank estimates that 44 million people have fallen into extreme poverty.
One recommendation from EWG and ActionAid for developed countries and the United States in particular: Stop looking to biofuels as an energy option. In their view, “spending scarce taxpayer dollars to shift crops from food to biofuels at the expense of hungry people and already stressed resources like soil, water, and air is unsustainable.”
Image Credit: Map courtesy of the Environmental Working Group and ActionAid, and Food Price Index and Food Commodity Indices, extracted from Global Food Price Monitor, January 2011, courtesy of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Sources: ActionAid International, BBC News, CNN, the Environmental Working Group, The European Union Times, Time, Voice of America, World Bank.
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