U.N. Climate Scientists Write Off Africa

April 26, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the American Spectator on April 26, 2007.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) clearly believes that Africa is incapable of developing a 19th‐​century market economy in the 21st century. Where’s the outrage?

In particular, I am referring to the just‐​released “Policymakers Summary” of an upcoming UN report on “Climate Change Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” It predicts that “agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries and regions is projected to be severely compromised by climate variability and change.…This would further affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition on the continent.”

With a diversified economy Africa and the world can easily deal with declines in local food production brought upon by bad weather. Nations of the world do it all the time, every year. The mechanism is the global market.

Many nations on earth do not produce, in requisite amounts, all the raw material required for the diets people desire. Even vegetarian diets are complicated, requiring a proper balance of amino acids that can come from mixing legumes (soybeans, lentils, etc.) with rice and maybe some corn. How many small countries have sufficient agrodiversity and productivity?

More people like meat. Meat that isn’t grass‐​fed (i.e. about 99% of what’s in the store) requires a more complicated production catena: corn and soybeans, ground into food, are transported to intensive feeding facilities (quaintly and erroneously called “family farms”), fed to cattle, pigs, and chickens that are trucked to slaughter, packaged, chilled, shipped, bought and cooked.

No one person can do all this economically, nor is it likely that it’s best done even in one county or state. Some large countries might do it all, but not many others. Instead , the world relies on markets. People good at producing soybeans and corn (like the U.S.) may export feed to other countries that don’t have such a fortunate climate or favorable land (say, Mexico), and eventually the beef appears on a taco in Toluca, bought by a worker at Daimler-Chrysler’s billion‐​dollar plant that produces PT Cruisers for U.S. consumption.

Sometimes the weather is bad in the U.S., or we might divert a lot of our corn into politically‐​correct ethanol, reducing the supply (and resulting in some grumbling south of the border). The price will rise, but someone else will produce more, where the weather or political climate are more favorable, and there will still be a supply.

In Africa, there’s a tremendous amount of labor available for manufacturing, and it is in a terrific location to supply Eurasian markets. Why condemn the continent to low‐​yielding agriculture and poverty? If Mexico produces cars now, why can’t Africa industrialize? A relatively constant stream of capital will purchase food more reliably than what local weather can produce.

The UN is also assuming that agricultural technology in Africa will not change, in this century, in a fashion similar to what happened in much of the rest of the world in the last century. Rather, Africa’s food supply, and that of nearly nowhere else on earth, will be threatened by climate change.

The resilience of modern agricultural technology is obvious. Consider a climatically diverse state like Virginia. Temperatures average 6 degrees Fahrenheit warmer in the agriculturally intensive southeast than they do in the in the Shenandoah Valley to the northwest. The southeast gets over 25% more rain than the northwest. But, corn yields are the same.

Operationally, there’s little difference between a farmer moving to another climate or the climate moving around the farmer. In resilient economies, both adapt.

Yet the specter of famine is a constant theme. How many American adults were taught in school that India — now populated with over a billion people — was on the verge of starvation? Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, The Population Bomb, taken as gospel then, stated “India couldn’t possibly feed two hundred million more people by 1980,” and “I have yet to meet anyone familiar with the situation who thinks that India will be self‐​sufficient in food by 1971.”

Obviously Ehrlich was wrong. India adopted high‐​yielding “Green Revolution” wheat in the early 1970s, followed by similar advances in rice production, at it became a substantial net exporter of food, as it is today. And, even if there were widespread crop failures, the now‐​diversified Indian economy would have little problem purchasing food on the international market.

Apparently the UN does not believe Africa is capable of emulating India. The IPCC believes Africa will remain so undeveloped that it will be unable to diversify its economy enough to avoid famines in a world that is awash in food.

In other words, the UN is saying that Africans are incapable of existing in the modern world for the coming century. One might ask, on what cynical model of international development is such a pejorative outlook based? And what gives the UN’s climate scientists such special knowledge that they predict that Africa will not enter the world’s market economy?

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