Climate change comes for farmers – from Mozambique to Iowa
By Timothy A. Wise
Originally published at Medium, as a contribution to Climate Media Week as people the world over strike for climate action and justice.
Part 1: Mozambique
It felt ominous when I was in Iowa in March that both Iowa and Mozambique were underwater from cyclone-induced flooding widely attributed to climate change. I’d studied and written about both places in my recent book. These farming communities are as distant from one another – geographically and developmentally – as they could be, yet there they were in the same metaphorical lifeboat trying to save their families and farms from the floods.
I saw the devastation in central Mozambique in June – houses still missing their roofs, schools barely functioning, and farmers without seeds for the coming rainy season. The March cyclone wiped out crops that were nearly ready for harvest, leaving communities dependent for the present on food aid and without seeds for this year’s planting.
Parts of Iowa were underwater when I was there in March, and today Iowa and much of the Midwest is still suffering periodic flooding from the wettest year on record. Many farmers couldn’t plant because the ground was too wet, or they got their crops in late, reducing yields. There were only three reported deaths from the flooding; Iowa had the lifeboats to get people out of danger. But they are not out of the destructive path of climate change, and I sensed a new awareness of that danger, suddenly clear and present.
With farmers on opposite sides of the globe suffering the same types of severe storms provoked by a changing climate, I imagined them all in the same lifeboat. They would have a lot to learn from one another. The Mozambicans might tell their Iowan boat-mates that U.S. farmers, with their greenhouse-gas-emitting industrial-scale farms, bore at least some of the responsibility for the rising waves of climate catastrophe. But those African peasants might also share their secret to surviving climate change, one that could help reverse Iowa’s own self-destructive agricultural path. Listen closely, Iowa, can you hear it? Diversidade, whisper the Mozambicans. Diversity. It may just be the key to climate resilience, from Africa to Iowa.
The following is the text of the speech that Liz Stanton gave at Wednesday night’s event at Tufts University celebrating the life and work of Frank Ackerman, who died in late July. Frank was one of the founders of Dollars & Sense, which maintains Triple Crisis blog, and was a frequent contributor to Triple Crisis. Cross-posted at the Dollars & Sense blog.
I’d like to talk about some very recent work of Frank’s.
Frank wrote an expert report wrote last year and made a deposition in that same case. Some of you may have heard of it.
Twenty-one kids are suing the U.S. government for knowingly failing to protect them from climate change. It’s Juliana v. the United States, filed in 2015. It’s been tossed back and forth between courts, included the U.S. Supreme Court for going on four years and has yet to see an actual hearing, a day in court for those kids, some of whom are now young adults.
In his expert report on behalf of Kelsey Juliana and her 20 co-plaintiffs, Frank explains that the conventional methods of economic analysis employed by the federal government in its decision making undervalue or dismiss altogether serious risks of climate damage. He writes about some pretty wonky, esoteric topics: the discount rate, fat-tailed distributions, contingent valuation, and credible worst-case risk assessment. He was one of quite a few witnesses offered by the plaintiffs. But it’s his testimony—full of formal economic theory, moral philosophy, and a chapter on pricing the priceless—it’s that testimony on which the judgment in this case may well hinge, if it ever gets that day in court.
It is with great sadness that we announce that Frank Ackerman, a frequent contributor to Triple Crisis blog and one of the founders of Dollars & Sense (which maintains Triple Crisis), died on July 25th of this year.
Last September, at the 50th-anniversary celebration for the Union for Radical Political Economics, Frank spoke on a panel with two other D&S founders, Ann Davis and Arthur MacEwan, and D&S co-editor Chris Sturr, on the early history of D&S. You can listen to Frank’s remarks here. (The article about the history of D&S that Frank mentions at the beginning of his remarks can be found here.) Thanks to D&S collective member Cadwell Turnbull for recording and editing the talk.
There will be an event honoring Frank tomorrow at Tufts University. The event begins at 4:30 in the Alumnae Lounge at the Aidekman Center on Tufts’ Medford campus. Several speakers will discuss Frank’s research on climate change, environmental regulation, and economic modeling. The presentations will go on until about 6:00, and a reception will follow.
The US-China trade war has flared up again less than two weeks after US President Donald Trump delayed new tariffs of US$160 billion on Chinese imports until December, purportedly to avoid harming the holiday shopping season.
Ratcheting Up War Talk
Earlier, after two days of trade talks without much progress, Trump claimed on 1 August that China had not kept its promise to buy more US farm exports. He then announced 10 per cent tariffs on US$300 billion worth of Chinese imports, besides the 25 per cent already levied on US$250 billion of goods from China.
China’s Commerce Ministry responded on 5 August by stopping purchases of US agricultural products. Its central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) also allowed China’s long over-valued renminbi (RMB) currency to fall below the RMB7 per dollar ‘threshold’ to its lowest level in more than a decade, causing US equity markets to plunge.
In response, Trump tweeted, “It’s called ‘currency manipulation’.” Supporting the President, the US Treasury officially claimed, for the first time since 1994, that China was manipulating its currency.
Many people are wary of bringing a critique of capitalism into the discussion of climate change, even if they are genuinely concerned about the crisis and actively looking for effective solutions. All it takes is the mention of any word ending with “-ism,” and skeptics will conclude that the discussion is unnecessarily ideological.
However, looking at the climate crisis through a Marxist lens can give us greater insight into the political inertia that has stalled the implementation of any kind of coordinated national response to climate change. The way capitalism operates in the United States, with its all-encompassing forces that have played a major role in creating today’s environmental disaster, is also standing in the way of the implementation of a comprehensive solution. We can only understand the impact of capitalism on the current crisis by viewing capitalism as a specific economic system and assessing its historical impact—as well as its limits and contradictions.
Recently, the High Level Panel of Experts of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released its much-anticipated report on agroecology. The report signals the continuing shift in emphasis in the UN agency’s approach to agricultural development. As outgoing FAO Director General Jose Graziano da Silva has indicated, “We need to promote a transformative change in the way that we produce and consume food. We need to put forward sustainable food systems that offer healthy and nutritious food, and also preserve the environment. Agroecology can offer several contributions to this process.”
For decades, the two Bretton Woods institutions have rejected the contribution of industrial policy (IP), or government investment and technology promotion efforts, in accelerating and sustaining growth, industrialization and structural transformation.
Finally, two International Monetary Fund (IMF) staff members, Reda Cherif and Fuad Hasanov, have broken the taboo. They embrace industrial policy, arguing against the current conventional wisdom that East Asian industrial policies cannot be successfully emulated by other developing countries.
One version of an old joke features a shipwrecked economist on a deserted island who, when asked by his fellow survivors what expertise he can offer on how they can be rescued, replies, “Assume we have a boat.” Economists have a well-deserved reputation for making their theories work only by making unrealistic assumptions about how the real world operates.
I was reminded of the joke often in the five years I traveled the world researching my book,Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food. Policy-makers from Mexico to Malawi, India to Mozambique, routinely advocated large-scale, capital-intensive agricultural projects as the solution to widespread hunger and low agricultural productivity, oblivious to the reality that such initiatives generally displace more farmers than they employ.
China has become a leader in globalization, most visibly through its One Belt One Road initiative, which spans several continents and aims to build up infrastructure and trade between China and the rest of the world. While the program has, for the most part, remained controversial in the West due to a fear of Chinese imperialism, in March 2019, Italy broke with the G7 major economies and signed up for the program. Some analysts have expressed concerns that this move will allow China a back door into Europe’s heartland, while others see it as a shrewd move on the part of the Italians, allowing them to obtain much-needed financing for a number of endeavors. So, which is it, and is this a win-lose or a win-win situation?
If Africa as a continent does not have strategic objectives of its own, the history of impediments to African economic development will be repeated in its engagement with China, says Ethiopia’s Alemayehu Geda.
LYNN FRIES: It’s The Real News. I’m Lynn Fries. My guest on today’s show is Ethiopia’s Alemayehu Geda, who is a Professor of Economics at University of Addis Ababa. We are meeting at the UN Geneva, where Professor Geda just presented at anexperts meeting. Professor Geda, welcome.