Author Archives: Charles W. Elliott

Climate Change and Food System Shocks: Threats of Cascading Catastrophe

Charles W. Elliott

Food System Shocks
A global pre-eminent insurance market is waving red flags about the risk of climate-change shocks to our world food system that could quadruple the price of basic food commodities, cause widespread famine and social instability, and  bring down governments. Are world capitals paying attention?

Adding to the chorus of voices warning of threats to the global food system caused by climate change is global insurer Lloyds, which recently issued its report, “Food System Shock: The insurance impacts of acute disruption to global food supply“.  Food System Shock is one in a series of Lloyd “emerging risk” reports that address risks that are “perceived to be potentially significant but which may not be fully understood or allowed for in insurance terms and conditions, pricing, reserving or capital setting.”  This is not the first risk report on climate change issued by Lloyds (see, Lloyds’ Catastrophe Modelling and Climate Change (2014)), nor the first to address global food security (see, Lloyds’ Feast or Famine (2013)).  But it is the first by Lloyds to connect these two, explicitly addressing the impacts of climate change on food production and follow-on effects to society in a globalized economy.

As with other Lloyds’ emerging threat reports, Food System Shock employs scenario modeling, in which events occur that are based on plausible expert data-based assumptions.  In this case,  a “production shock” is posited to occur within one year affecting several agricultural commodities in various regions of the world:

Experts in the fields of food security and the economics of sustainable development were asked to develop a plausible scenario of a global production shock to some of the world’s staple food crops, and to describe the cascade of impacts that could result.

The climate-change event driving the scenario is a strong warm-phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO)  in the central equatorial Pacific Ocean.  Climate models indicate that climate change increases the probability and amplitude of these events. See, e.g.,  “Climate Change Could Double Likelihood of Super El Ninos.” The scenario event causes flooding in the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, drought in India, Australia, and Southeast Asia, and intense rainfall in Bangladesh and eastern Pakistan that submerges cropland.  As a result,  severe impacts to agricultural production of rice, soybeans, corn, and wheat occur.  The analysis modeled the impacts to global commodity prices as a result of these production losses and export control responses by individual countries. In the scenario, corn and wheat prices rise to triple from 2000 prices; rice prices rise 500% in India.  Countries on the World Food Programme (WTF) food insecurity watch list become unable to import food.  Food riots break out in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America. Government instability results in a number of countries.  The U.S. stock market falls by 5%; main European markets fall 10%; more than a $1 trillion of market value is wiped out.

As the report tersely concludes:

In summary, quadrupled commodity prices and commodity stock fluctuations, coupled with civil unrest, result in significant negative humanitarian consequences and major financial losses worldwide.


There is little doubt that a systemic production shock to the world’s most important food crops as described in this scenario would generate a cascade of economic, political and social impacts. What is striking about the scenario is that the probability of occurrence is estimated as significantly higher than the benchmark return period of 1:200 years applied for assessing insurers’ ability to pay claims against extreme events.

Masked by this dry language, the insurance industry is, and should be, deeply worried. Our global connectedness is both a strength and a deep vulnerability. We are reminded that we are all interconnected in fundamental ways. What happens in one ocean affects us all. The cascading consequences revealed by this scenario modeling demonstrate an urgent need to build more robust resilience throughout the global food production, supply, and distribution system.

But even this is likely to enable only a weak adaptive response to the impacts of the climate change dynamics already “baked into” the levels of CO² we have released and will inevitably release into the atmosphere. What we need, of course, is collective action that will swiftly end the burning of fossil fuels and prevent the worst effects from emerging.

Absent from the Lloyds’ report is any sense of the scale of human suffering that would be wrought from these consequences. It is as though the sheer magnitude of the damage and chaos that would result cannot be directly spoken of. Yet we should not speak of a million starving people without pausing to understand what that truly means for each person, each family, each community that would be so badly hurt.

The world’s climate change negotiators will descend upon Paris on November 30, 2015 for the 21st U.N. Conference on Climate Change.  After decades of delay and inaction, we hope that they will finally keep in mind the millions of the poor and those most vulnerable to climate change disasters, most of whom have never burned a gallon of gasoline or a pound of coal their entire lives.

Food, Dignity, and the Commons: Frances Moore Lappé

Charles W. Elliott

Frances Moore LappeCommon Dreams has published an insightful interview with activist and author Frances Moore Lappé that illuminates the foundations of the struggle for a just global food economy: democracy and human dignity. Ms. Lappé is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking work on global hunger, recognizing that world hunger is not the result of insufficient food supplies but rather our industrial model of food production and the inability of the poor to access the available abundance of food or its means of production. In short, the problem of global hunger is the problem of poverty, the mal-distribution of political and economic power, and inequality. Acting upon this recognition, rather than a myth of scarcity, undermines multinational corporate attempts to more deeply entrench industrialized control over the global food supply.

Lappé argues that a solution to this inequality-driven hunger is the expansion of “living democracy”, exercised individually and collectively by each person’s daily choices of how we live, thus “infusing the power of citizens’ voices and values throughout our public lives.”  Continue reading

New Report: Feeding the World Without GMOs

Charles W. Elliott

Feeding the World Without GMOsA new report, Feeding The World Without GMOs , by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) refutes the corporate biotech/industrial narrative that genetically modified organism (GMO) foods offer real solutions to global hunger and food insecurity.

Despite significant progress over the past 30 years, the world still faces an ongoing crisis of hunger and food insecurity. 805 million people continue to go hungry, according to estimates by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.[1] The world also faces a “hidden hunger” problem —micronutrient deficiency—which affects some two billion people, causing long-term, irreversible health effects and significantly impairing economic productivity. We face stark challenges posed by population growth: by 2050 the demand for food will be twice what it was in 2005.[2]

Feeding the World Without GMOs takes a hard look at ways to address this problem and concludes that GMO food is a non-solution. In nine pages of tight synthesis, it analyzes: (1) why GE crops don’t contribute to food security; (2) what would work to boost the global food supply; and (3) the unfulfilled promise of genetic engineering.
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Marching Toward A New Climate Future

Charles W. Elliott

BGR at Peoples Climate March


This past Sunday, Buddhist Global Relief joined 400,000 others at the People’s Climate March in New York to demand swift action to halt the threat of global climate change. The streets were filled with marchers as far as the eye could see with young and old, rich and poor, of all races and religions, joined by their common humanity.

Buddhist Global Relief was part of an Interfaith contingent of thousands that packed 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues so tightly there was barely room to breathe. Joining us were more than twenty other Buddhist groups in the common cause of compassion and concern for the world.

BGR Peoples Climate March
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There’s No Debate about Climate Change Denial

Charles W. Elliott

Originally published at DeSmogBlog

First Phase Digital

Fact and fantasy took the stage at this past Sunday’s CBS “Meet the Press”. Bill Nye and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R. Tenn.) appeared for a so-called “debate” on climate change. Bill Nye is best known for his educational science program “Bill Nye the Science Guy”.  Climate change-denier Blackburn is known, among other things, for echoing Sarah Palin’s claims that the Affordable Care Act included “death panels.” Somewhat less known is Blackburn’s role as vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, responsible for legislative oversight on matters of public health, air quality and environmental health, and energy.

One would think that a person in such an important role would have a clear, if not advanced, understanding of the science of energy and climate change in order to guide policy to further the public interest and protect our children’s future.

Sadly, one would be wrong.
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Super-Typhoon Devastates the Philippines – Emergency Aid Needed Now

World Food Programme Emergency Aid for the PhilippinesTyphoon Haiyan has caused massive loss of life and destruction in the Philippine Islands. The typhoon – described as perhaps the largest tropical storm ever to hit land in recorded history – has left nearly half a million people in the Philippines homeless and without basic necessities.  Those children and families need your help.  Please consider making a donation to the United Nations World Food Programme – the world’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger. You can make a donation at:

Oxfam International is accepting donations for emergency relief at:

You can also make a $10 donation to UNICEF USA by texting “RELIEF” to 864233

A Buddhist teaching  from the Tibetan Mahayana tradition is to think of all beings as our mothers. Recognizing that all of these suffering beings have been our mothers and in every other close relationship with us since beginningless time, we urge you to help as generously as possible.

The Costs of Economic Inequality: Social, Political, and Moral

by Charles W. Elliott

U.S. is most wealth unequal Gandhi once famously said: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.” Over the past decade, we have witnessed an unprecedented grab of wealth—with its associated power and influence—by a few at the expense of everyone else. This increasing concentration of wealth for a few in the face of continuing struggles of poor and middle class families just to make ends meet is the consequence of public and economic policies that favor private interests over the public good. This inequality corrupts our political system.  And it ultimately corrodes social cohesion and threatens widespread unrest.

Most people do not have a true perspective of the gross inequality in our economic systems. Fewer still understand its corrosive effects. As writer Michael Lind observed in his article “To Have and to Have Not”[1]:

 The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist, but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.

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