Did climate change cause war in Egypt?
Tanya Talaga When drought and bushfires raged throughout central Russia in 2010, the country's wheat yields dropped 37 million tonnes and soon the...
When drought and bushfires raged throughout central Russia in 2010, the country's wheat yields dropped 37 million tonnes and soon the Egyptians, the main purchasers of Russian grain, took to the streets. On January. 25, 2011, the uprising in Egypt began.
While the question may seem a stretch, academics Sarah Johnstone and Jeffrey Mazo make a compelling argument in a special report for the Center for American Progress and Washington's Center for Climate and Security. They say a number of "threat multipliers," such as climate change, the price of wheat, and hunger, all helped feed the dawn of the Arab Spring.
The social, economic and political events that conspired to form the largest uprising the Arab world has ever seen could have happened at any time. But dryness and torrential rains in different parts of the world in 2010 were an important stress factor, Johnstone and Mazo say in their article "Global Warming and the Arab Spring."
With dry, largely non-farmable land and a lack of water, theMiddleEast and North Africa felt the effects of climate change acutely, they add. This area of the world imports more food per capita than any other region and is the largest consumer of Russian grain. In the post-industrial world, climate change is throwing the globe into uncharted territory. No one knows what weather disaster will hit and when and how it will affect world markets. "In the complex mix of environmental, political, economic and trade factors influencing global food security, analysts seem sure of one thing: the world is entering a period of 'agflation,' or inflation driven by rising prices for agricultural commodities," write Johnstone and Mazo.
Their work is part of a series of essays titled "The Arab Spring and Climate Change." The high price of bread has fuelled more than one revolution. The worldwide aftershocks following the French Revolution, 10 years of social upheaval between 1789 and 1799, had humble beginnings captured by Marie Antoinette allegedly yelling, "Let them eat cake," after she heard the poor asking for bread.
The Middle East has a history of "bread intifadas," says journalist Annia Ciezadlo, the author of Day of Honey, a memoir of living and working in the region. In an interview Ciezadlo gave to Guernica magazine, she said bread is so important that the word for it in Egyptian Arabic is aish, or life. In 1977, Egypt's Anwar Sadat tried to take away bread subsidies and the people staged large protests in Tahrir Square. Sadat left the subsidies in place, she said. During the Cold War, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to buy the people's loyalty by subsidizing bread costs, she told Guernica.
In early 2010, world weather was in a state of confusion. Canadian prairies recorded record rainfall, cutting Canada's wheat harvest by a quarter. Drought and fire ravaged Russia's crops, cutting the wheat harvest to 60 million tons, down from 97 million tons in 2009, according to Johnstone and Mazo's research.
Russia, in response, placed an export ban on wheat, barley and rye in an "I'm going to hoard all food for myself" move, says John Kirton, co-director of the G20 Research Group at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.
"It was less the physical embargo, but the psychological panic that inspired the markets," Kirton says in an interview from Toronto. Meanwhile, the Chinese, also hit by severe drought, bought up all the wheat they could find. Suddenly, wheat prices doubled. By February 2011, wheat traded at $8.50 to $9 a bushel, compared to half of that, or $4, in July, Mazo and Johnstone say. Egypt is one of the world's top importers of wheat, along with Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
At the beginning of the Egyptian protest, families were spending an average of 40 per cent of their income on food, food-price inflation was 20 per cent and 83 million Egyptians relied on ration cards, the authors noted. The country's national bread subsidy system was also mired in corruption.
Almost monthly, there seems to be new evidence for the harm caused by disruptive weather. Given the uncertainty around climate change, says Kirton, nobody knows what will happen next. "Everything with nuclear as an adjective � be it nuclear war, nuclear winters or nuclear terrorism � and climate change are the only two factors with the potential to destroy human life on the planet," says Kirton, whose book, G20 Governance for a Globalized World, was recently released.
So, when the highly unusual weather of 2010 hurt the growing patterns of the world's wheat supply, it added a further stressor on the Middle East. In his essay, "Chinese Drought, Wheat and the Egyptian Uprising: How a Localized Hazard Became Global," Oxford University geographer Troy Sternberg argues that understanding climate disaster, market forces and authoritarian regimes could help unravel the revolt in the Middle East.
The top nine importers of wheat are all in the Middle East and seven had political protests resulting in deaths in 2011, he notes. Bread provides one-third of caloric intake in Egypt, he adds. So when wheat prices doubled, it significantly impacted food supply and availability. University of Toronto law professor Mohammad Fadel was 3 years old when he left Cairo for the United States. He doubts that Egypt's Arab Spring was brought on by climate change. "There was no bread crisis in Egypt. Bread prices went up but the government had ample cash to buy grain. And bread is subsidized for those who can't afford it," Fadel says from Toronto. "I don't give it much weight at all. I think the kinds of political and economic grievances were much weightier than the price of bread."
Further, he refutes the idea that the poor started the Arab Spring. "Most of the people demonstrating came from the better off classes of Egyptian society. It wasn't the bottom quarter of society leading the revolution. This wasn't a revolution of the hungry masses. It was more a revolution of those who were relatively well educated and well off and were seeing their living standards declining." Political scientist Janice Gross Stein, director of U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs, agrees with Fadel. "The causal connection is too strong . . . If the argument was correct, you'd have revolution everywhere and you don't. Other variables have to intervene here."
The wheat-importing countries in the Middle East were not all in revolution, she adds. Climate change does have a correlation but it is not a cause. "When you actually pick it apart, that is important, but something else is going on as well."
The average Egyptian has an income level of about 12 per cent of that of an average U.S. citizen and Egyptians can expect to live 10 years less, notes economist Daron Acemoglu, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and author of Why Nations Fail. Climate change was a stressor in Egypt, but not the only one. Poverty, corruption, lack of education and oppression were also stressors, he says.
"I'm not sure if it is possible to draw a major causal arrow from wheat prices or any specific agricultural prices to unrest," he says in an interview in Toronto. Social unrest in authoritarian countries, such as Egypt under Mubarak, is unpredictable, says Acemoglu, who is also a member of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. "Without Mohammad Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia, would a protest in Egypt erupt at the time it did? No. Would it have erupted a couple of weeks later? Possible, but unlikely." Bouazizi, a young fruit seller, dropped out of school to help support his family of eight after the collapse of his small family farm. Street vending is illegal in Tunisia. Mired in debt and seeing no way out, he set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010. A month later, the repressive regime ruling Tunisia fell.
When authoritarian nations suffer economic hardship, it destabilizes them, Acemoglu believes. Climate change is, at best, a contributing factor thrown into the mix of revolutionary events like Arab Spring. "It is only certain sparks that get things going."
� Courtesy: Toronto Star