August 6, 2010

Why What you Drive Affects the Price of Bread

Russia is in the middle of the worst heat wave in its recorded history. The droughts have destroyed millions of acres of wheat. Russian farmers will harvest about 70 million metric tons of grain this year, down an astonishing 27 million tons. Yesterday, as the New York Times reported, Russia banned all exports of wheat.

According to the Times, Russian exports represent 17 percent of the global grain trade. Wheat prices have already leapt 90 percent since June, and this sudden restriction in supply won't help.

When I think about the forces making the pursuit of sustainability unavoidable, I often try to categorize or separate them to get a handle on what's going on. I think about climate change, water issues, natural resource constraints, greening the supply chain, and on and on, as problems in and of themselves. But this story from Russia shows how they're all inextricably linked.

The United States has been unable to pass a climate bill and factions of this country are in deep denial about the reality of climate change and how it will impact business, society, and our day-to-day lives. These real-life impacts in Russia are a stark reminder that nature, and the physics and chemistry of planetary change, don't care about our political battles.

But how do we draw these connections for everyone? The environmental movement, and even the growing business lobby that's behind climate legislation and action, have not done a great job showing people how our prosperity is threatened by inaction.

I know it's difficult for the average person to believe, but how we use energy and what we drive actually connects directly to the price of bread. And it doesn't really take that many "degrees of Kevin Bacon" to connect the dots.

We drive energy-inefficient vehicles which spew carbon dioxide...which captures heat in the atmosphere...which greatly increases the odds of record droughts and heat waves...which destroys crops and reduces grain supply...which raises the price of wheat and thus bread.

Part of the problem with the discussion on climate change is that it doesn't feel as tangible as other environmental challenges such as water and air pollution. It feels remote and not part of our daily lives. Somehow we need to make these seemingly bizarre connections between what we drive to the store and what's available once we get there.

If we don't start seeing the systematic challenges and tackling them, the system will come crashing down on us.


On August 7, 2010 2:42 PM, Sean Patrick Harrington said:

Andrew, wonderful post. Thank you!

I have a few skeptics out there who are claiming that there is no proof CO2 traps sun radiation in our atmosphere causing temperatures to rise. They claim that if CO2 allows sun radiation in, it certainly cannot allow it to escape. Can you address this in an upcoming post please?

On August 8, 2010 2:20 PM, Andrew Winston said:

Thanks for your comment.
To be honest, I'm not sure how to respond really. That CO2 (and water vapor and other gases) hold in heat is one of the most basic and well established facts about how our planet and atmosphere works. That knowledge goes back to the 1800s or further. Without the basic greenhouse effect -- and this is aside from whatever has happened since the Industrial Revolution -- our planet would be MUCH colder and uninhabitable. I don't think we can spend too much time convincing people who are so skeptical that they deny basic physics.
We need to move forward...

On August 26, 2010 2:11 PM, Greg Hume said:

Perhaps an analogy is in order? Although the absorbent wavelengths are a bit different, a car will greenhouse by letting visible light in while trapping the resultant heat. It's the result of a glass barrier that both transmits visible light and blocks radiation of thermal IR (heat).
The reality is a little more complicated - a greenhouse works primarily by preventing absorbed heat from leaving the structure through convection, i.e. sensible heat transport. The greenhouse effect heats the earth because greenhouse gases absorb outgoing radiative energy and re-emit some of it back towards earth.

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