Canada's foreign minister drops the ball on climate change and Islamic revolutions

In a recent speech on "[t]he security implications of climate change in fragile states," Canada's minister of foreign affairs – Stéphane Dion, who named his dog after the Kyoto Protocol and holds dual citizenship to France – made some problematic claims regarding climate change and food production:

Ladies and gentlemen, to speak in front of you about climate change as a risk amplifier for security is quite a challenge. After all, you are among the best experts that the United States and Canada have produced on this crucial issue. So I will not pretend to teach you anything; my objective is rather to reassure you that as a minister, I am fully seized with how critical the topic of this conference is for humankind.

Critical? Certainly. But how many people really know? For most, conflict and unrest have nothing to do with climate change. Yet look at the facts.

Five years ago, when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians filled Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, they were not shouting "climate change." They shouted "down with injustice, corruption and poverty." But the motto on the square was "bread, freedom, social equality."

Bread. It accounts for almost 40 percent of the Egyptian diet. And food accounts for roughly 40 percent of Egyptians’ household budget. With serious land and water scarcity issues, the country cannot produce enough wheat for domestic demand. Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer.

In the winter of 2010 and 2011, China -- the world's second-largest wheat producer -- was struck by a "once-in-a-century" drought. At the same time, wheat production in Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Pakistan and Canada also fell dramatically due to drought, wildfires, floods and abnormal weather.

With global wheat supplies down and protectionist measures up, the Egyptian government failed to balance its massive subsidies, and market prices shot up. At the time of the uprisings in early 2011, food prices had increased by 20 percent, and 40 million Egyptians -- about half of the population -- were receiving food rations.

Or look at Syria. The 2007-2010 drought in Syria was the worst drought on record, causing widespread crop failure and a mass migration of farming families to urban centres. A United Nations Development Programme report found that nearly 75 percent of farmers in northeastern Syria experienced total crop failure and herders lost 85 percent of their livestock. Another United Nations report found that more than 800,000 Syrians lost their entire livelihoods as a result of the droughts.

A lot of misinformation here to unpack, so we will tackle it sequentially – starting with the 2007-2010 Syrian drought.

Dion claims that it caused "widespread crop failure" between 2007 and 2010.  Syria's primary agricultural crops are wheat, sugar beets, barley, and olives, in that average order of production quantity since 1993.

The following charts show normalized total annual production (i.e., annual production for the year in question divided by the average annual production over the period of record, multiplied by 100) for these crops in Syria between 1993 and 2010, using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Statistics Division.

If you are not seeing a general catastrophic impact on agricultural production between 2007 and 2010, that is because there isn't one.  Except for wheat production in 2008 and sugar beet production in 2009, there are no truly anomalous years compared to the overall period since the early 1990s.

From the media reports, one would expect the data coming out of Syria to show massive declines across the entire 2007-2010 period that would be extremely unusual compared to production trends over the previous decades.  This simply is not the case.  Drought did have a significant impact on agriculture in Syria, but not to the extent suggested by Dion's analysis.

What about Dion's claims that "wheat production in Russia, Ukraine, Australia, Pakistan, and Canada also fell dramatically" in 2010 and 2011, coupled to a corresponding massive wheat production drop in China over this period that led to a global decline in wheat supplies?  This doesn't hold up to serious scrutiny, either.

The following chart shows global wheat production, and production in the six nations that Dion singled out, since 1993.

There is absolutely no evidence of some climate change-induced drop in global, or regional, wheat production during 2010-2011, especially within the context of natural year-to-year variation and the overall trends since the early 1990s.

And that a "once-in-a-century" drought that supposedly crippled China's wheat production in 2010-2011, thereby contributing to Islamic revolutions and the rise of ISIS?  In 2009, China's wheat production was 115.1 million metric tons.  It increased – yes, increased – in 2010 to 115.2 million metric tons, and then increased yet again in 2011 up to 117.4 million metric tons.

Overall, using all the data available, we must conclude that Dion's public comments appear to be entirely incorrect.

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