Commentary

Corn on the Mob

Indonesia is a land in turmoil, home to massive volcanoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. On Monday, January 14, it experienced a brand new type of disturbance, the world’s first food riot caused by another nation pandering to the global warming mob. Indonesians took to the streets, demanding that their government to do something about the price of soybeans, a dietary staple.

All over the world, food prices are on the rise. For most of the late 1990s and up until 2005, the price of beans on the Chicago Board of Trade had remained stable at about $5 a bushel. Since then, they have shot up over 150 percent, to around $13. Corn has doubled, to $5. Wheat prices have tripled.

It all started with the 2005 Energy Policy Act, passed by a Republican congress and signed by a Republican president, mandating that an increasing amount of ethanol be admixed with gasoline. The bill was sold as a road to “energy independence” and as lowering the amount of carbon dioxide we emit, reducing dreaded global warming.

By now, 15 percent of our corn crop is being distilled, diverted from the proper purpose for such distillates (i.e. drinking), combusted, and sent out your car’s tailpipe.

The Act required production of four billion gallons of ethanol in 2006, increasing by approximately 700 million gallons each succeeding year. Enter those familiar characters supply, demand, and price. Supply tightens, prices escalate, and more and more farmers divert cropland from other crops (mainly soybeans and wheat) to corn. In the U.S., most crops are turned into animal feed, but in poorer countries, such as Indonesia (soybeans) or Mexico (corn for tortillas) they are consumed directly.

The ethanol malaise has also hit here at home, as a trip to the grocery store will reveal that the price of just about everything containing corn, wheat, or soybean products, or parts of animals fed on those crops, is skyrocketing. It’s hard to find a decent steak for under $12 a pound these days.

It’s only going to get worse. As if to add more 200-proof to the fire, President Bush, citing global warming in his 2007 State of the Union speech, called for production of 35 billion gallons of ethanol by 2017, displacing 20 percent of our current gasoline consumption with this intoxicating elixir. This is five times the amount mandated in the 2005 Energy Act. He claimed that this would help us get off Middle Eastern oil.

I’ll leave the hocus about energy independence to my fellow energy wonks, because the pocus about global warming is an even easier kill.

Let’s stipulate that, indeed, 20 percent of our current gasoline consumption is somehow replaced. Transportation accounts for roughly one-third of our national emissions of carbon dioxide, so this would reduce our total emissions by 6.7 percent. That’s today’s emissions. Based upon recent data, the number of cars on the road will rise by this percent in about four years.

It’s hard to find a decent steak for under $12 a pound these days.”

What does that do about global warming? It prevents .02º F worth of warming in the next century, based upon a formula published by the National Atmospheric Research Center in 1998. You experience this ambient temperature change every second of your life.

Now, suppose this policy were extended to all the nations of the world in which there are appreciable numbers of cars (called “Annex 1” countries by the United Nations), and the amount of warming that doesn’t occur is .05º F. No one will ever be able to detect these temperature changes in global records, which vary naturally by about .15º from year to year.

Displacing 20 percent of gasoline consumption is probably impossible. The U.S. produces more than half the world’s corn, and if we turned every kernel of it into ethanol, we’d still be 40 percent short of the President’s target.

To get there, we would have to find an economic way to make ethanol from cruder plant materials — so-called “cellulosic” ethanol. No matter how much money governments throw at this (including a lot from the 2005 energy bill), no one has figured out how to do this economically, and people have been at it for decades.

Of course, we won’t completely burn up our corn. We’ll incrementally ratchet it up until the inflation in food prices becomes politically untenable. Don’t be surprised, one day, if there’s a March for Food down Constitution Mall.

In other countries, there will be more riots, perhaps a coup or two, some pretty hungry people, maybe some genocide. And everywhere not a dram of a change in climate owing to ethanol will ever be measured.

The sad fact is that Indonesia’s unrest is only the slightest foreshock preceding the massive civil earthquake that is going to be unleashed as more and more absurd policies are mandated by the global warming mob.

Patrick J. Michaels is senior fellow in environmental studies at the Cato Institute and a member of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.