Starvation: A Negative Externality of Global Warming Policy


Some analysts have been worried that the externalities of burning fossil fuels now will starve poor people in the future. For example, a September, 2007 report from the Center for Global Development predicted:

World agriculture faces a serious decline within this century due to global warming unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are substantially reduced from their rising path, and developing countries will suffer much steeper declines than high-income countries, according to a new study by a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Peterson Institute.

Developing countries, many of which have average temperatures that are already near or above crop tolerance levels, are predicted to suffer an average 10 to 25 percent decline in agricultural productivity by the 2080s….

But it turns out that global warming policies have externalities too. Biofuel mandates aimed at reducing future global warming are helping to starve people now, not 70 years from now.

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  1. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that ethanol subsidies, for example, came about because of concern about global warming.

  2. I’m assuming this was written by Ron Bailey, but without a byline I can’t be sure.

  3. Timmy Cavanaugh, wtf?!

    super awesome!

  4. When choosing whether to kill people now or to kill my children’s children’s children, I always opt for the former.

    Seems more honest.

  5. OK, Ron, what the hell? Are you masquerading as Tim Cavanaugh? Are you in the pocket of Big Tim? Or are you just trying to make me look illiterate by changing the byline after I posted? thanks a lot.

  6. Al Gore — the man who invented not only Global Warming, but also the Internet — is a resource-hogging, overweight gay man… not that there’s anything wrong with that!!

  7. Your gimmick grew wearisome three weeks ago, Casey.

  8. A negative externality? For the love of god, try writing in English and maybe people will understand what the hell you’re talking about.

  9. *read’s Lon’s comment, slaps forehead*

  10. Ron,

    As far as I know the major reason why commodity prices have gone up is due to an effort by investors to seek shelter in such things due to the drop in the value of the dollar, etc. So yeah, I agree, biofuels probably aren’t that great of an idea as they are currently implemented (they may be a better idea if they use some high-yielding say waterborne plant), however they don’t seem to be the major or even a significant reason why food prices have jumped and this created the sort of scarcities we see are now seeing.

  11. innominate: Sorry for the momentary confusion-I was working on an unfamiliar computer and screwed up the authoring software. I’m a big fan of Tim too.

    With regard to biofuels abating global warming, some people have so argued. See below:


    “Coordinated action to expand biofuel markets and advance new technologies could relieve pressure on oil prices while strengthening agricultural economies and reducing climate-altering emissions,” says Worldwatch Institute President
    Christopher Flavin.

    Nat Geo:

    By correcting for those factors, the scientists found that corn ethanol actually reduces petroleum use by about 95 percent per gallon of fuel, though it only reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 13 percent.

    Negative Externality: In economics, an externality is a cost or benefit from an economic transaction that parties “external” to the transaction receive. Externalities can be either positive, when an external benefit is generated, or negative, when an external cost is imposed upon others. .

  12. This is not a stretch at all, the latest world bank study and meeting concluded that conversion of cropland to ethanol is a contributor to the rise in food prices and shortage of starches. There are several factors, all of which combine to create the “perfect storm” for famine.
    Drop in Dollar value,
    Sustained high energy prices
    Conversion of Cropland
    Cold Weather.

    More here:

  13. People are also starving because of droughts brought on by climate change and rapidly growing demand for food (meat especially) from the burgeoning middle classes of China and India.

  14. “The World Bank report says concerns about oil prices, energy security and climate change have led governments to encourage people to produce and use more biofuels and less petroleum. The report says that means greater demand for raw materials, including wheat, soy, palm oil and corn, which means costlier food. The World Bank also blames the food price increases on more expensive energy and fertilizer, as well as export bans and a weak dollar.

    With that in mind, Kimberly Elliott, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, says it’s time for governments to stop placing so much emphasis on corn-based biofuels such as ethanol. “So it’s driving up food prices because we’re shifting corn from food to fuel, and not doing very much for the environment, if anything, and it is very costly, so it’s really a policy that just doesn’t make sense,” he said.”

  15. Almost a fifth of US cropland has been converted to fuel crops, much of that is subsidized.

  16. Calidore: The rush to commodities is certainly part of it, but as the New York Times reports:

    Work by the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington suggests that biofuel production accounts for a quarter to a third of the recent increase in global commodity prices. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations predicted late last year that biofuel production, assuming that current mandates continue, would increase food costs by 10 to 15 percent.

  17. 1) There won’t be long term starvation due to either global warming since lower crop yields will raise the price in the short term, giving farmers incentives to cultivate more land, driving prices back down over time. Consistent shortages cannot persist in the long term unless there is some type of price control (which luckily there isn’t, except in Russia). Though there may of course be short term starvation.

    2) The effect of subsidies to ethanol on increasing food prices is under debate. It certainly should have some effect, but it seems like the magnitude of this effect is small, especially compared to the effect of the large number of people in countries like India and China who have been rapidly increasing their food consumption as they move into a more industrialized era.

    3) Of course, the subsidies are still a bad idea for other reasons–if anything, ethanol should be taxed because it, too, pollutes, generating a negative externality.

    4) I agree with joe that the real reason for the subsidies was not “for the environment.” I believe that the people supporting ethanol for its alleged “beneficial” effect on the environment have simply been duped by the true, stronger forces behind it: the agricultural lobbies such as Archer Daniels Midland.


    As much as I think it is a mistake to encourage corn-based ethanol, people should not adhere problems with corn-based ethanol onto all other biofuels, including ethanol made with other source plants.

    And yes, I think government money to help in the R&D for those fuels is warranted.

    Devil’s in the details, as always.

  19. YEA – I have recommended a column i just read by Austin Bay about these externalities. He suggests a GMO solution. The link is Here.

  20. Bk,

    TED has a nice talk on the idea of GM fuel production…

  21. It’s a bit of a stretch to claim that ethanol subsidies, for example, came about because of concern about global warming.

    Ya a stretch so big it is like taking a big rubber band…and laying it on the table.

  22. That is GMO, not GM.

    General Motors, however, might be on board, who knows.

  23. “1) There won’t be long term starvation due to either global warming since lower crop yields will raise the price in the short term, giving farmers incentives to cultivate more land, driving prices back down over time. Consistent shortages cannot persist in the long term unless there is some type of price control (which luckily there isn’t, except in Russia). Though there may of course be short term starvation.”

    I dont buy this, generally if good argricultural land is experiencing low yields due to climate preassures, such as the drought in eastern australia, which may or may not have anything to do with GW. in this situation marginal land becomes completely unfarmable leaving little room for expansion, particulary in higlly developed farming economies such as the US, Australia or europe.

    the situation at the moment in oz is that the drought has led to higher food prices, however any incetive to increase productive land area is offset by high fuel prices and a complete lack of land to expand in.

    basicaly Australia is at the limit of its farmable area, and is actually experiencing a loss.

  24. Dead peasants is a positive externality. My good friend and THE leading american foreign policy expert Dr. Henry Kissinger, who wrote: “Depopulation should be the highest priority of U.S. foreign policy towards the Third World.”

    The U. S. State Department’s Office of Population Affairs was established in 1975 by Henry Kissinger. This group drafted the Carter administration’s Global 2000 document, which calls for global population reductions.

    The fact is that 6 billion people on this planet is about 3-5 billion too many. Sustainable growth policies do not coincide with 6 billion people…we will all be cannibals in 20 years if this population growth continues.

    Talldave and most military experts agree that our low casualty to kill rate in the mideast is evidence of a extremely succesful war…this coincides with the belief of the educated in our country that some population normalization is a POSITIVE EXTERNALITY.
    Only radicals would be in favor of growing human population to 8, 10 or 12 billion people.

  25. IF President Bush had unveiled his goals for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at the beginning of his administration instead of in its waning months, he might have actually played a role in linking the United States to global efforts to curb climate change. But the proposals he made yesterday, which in 2001 could have been a starting point for negotiations with advocates of stronger action in Congress, are now too belated and too weak to be more than a historical footnote. All three remaining presidential candidates are committed to much more stringent, mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide.

  26. Just an observation about the way this thread is running.

    People who argue that biofuels are causing food shortages cite official studies and statistics.

    People who argue that biofuels aren’t causing food shortages say things like, “Biofuels shouldn’t cause food shortages.” It’s as if they’re scolding the facts.

  27. Imp,

    Don’t conflate corn-based ethanol with “biofuels.”

    It is one of a menu of biofuels.

    In this thread those arguing against biofuels are using corn-based ethanol as a stand in for all biofuels.

    Those studies don’t talk about biofuels broadly, but about corn-based ethanol.

    Devil is in the details.

  28. Starvation is a positive externality, people. Or at least necessary to move society forward.

  29. Subsidizing the transformation of corn into ethanol is a subsidy program for corn growers, not a serious attempt to address climate change.

    Ron Bailey, if you’ve seen the light on climate change, why do you keep using denialist talking points as hooks for your posts? It doesn’t reflect well on you.

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