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Fire and Ice

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Two recent events -- the fires in Russia and the separation of an iceberg four times the size of Manhattan from Greenland -- remind me of a short poem, Fire and Ice, written ninety years ago by Robert Frost:

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To know that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice
.

If he were alive today, with the tragic flooding in Asia, Frost might have added something like this:

And if I had to perish thrice,
If that's my fate,
Flooding, too, might suffice.
But I have known enough of tears,
Fire is fine and so is ice,
Relieve me of these worldly fears.

But our worldly fears -- droughts, fires, flooding, and melting ice caps -- show no sign of abating. Recent events may, in fact, be signs of things getting worse. Record heat. Record drought. Record flooding. Record melting. So many records are being broken today that the word "record" is beginning to sound like ... a broken record.

No one knows for sure whether any of these natural disasters -- with the possible exception of the floating iceberg -- are directly traceable to climate change, but they are certainly consistent with climate change forecasts. And, if they are, they clearly suggest that more records and more disasters are on the horizon.

They also suggest that "adapting" to climate change may be more of a challenge than is commonly conceived. The firefighters in Russia have been overwhelmed; they have been battling an estimated 500 wildfires. International relief agencies face daunting obstacles in getting food and emergency supplies into flood-affected areas, particularly in Pakistan, where the World Food Programme estimates that six million people are at risk of going hungry.

And disasters such as these are no longer local in scope. When a wheat crop burns in Russia or a rice crop is swept away in Pakistan, the whole world is affected. Wheat prices are already soaring, up 66 percent in the last two months, and the world's urban poor may end up paying a lot more for their daily bread.

It's too early to gauge the impact of the flooding on world commodity prices, but one report indicates that agriculture production in Pakistan may fall by 10 to 15 percent. In Northern China rice and pork production have been curtailed, and prices in China are already starting to rise.

Reports of a bumper U.S. wheat crop may lower wheat prices in the days and weeks ahead, but if the effects of climate change are becoming more pronounced, the struggle to feed the world's hungry may be a long slog. Hunger has been on the rise for the past decade, and more than one billion people are now underfed. The FAO warned last year that grain production in the developing world will need to double in the next 40 years to keep up with rising populations and changing diets. With world population currently projected to rise from 6.9 billion today to 9.5 billion by 2050, we have our work cut out for us. And climate change may make the job a whole lot harder than currently expected.

A new report published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that rising temperatures may already be reducing rice yields in Asia. If, as many scientists now project, weather extremes, including drought and flooding, become more intense in the decades ahead, it will only add to the concerns about soil erosion, deforestation, loss of farm land to urbanization, and the rising costs of fuel and fertilizer.

Fire and ice? Not so nice. But neither is flooding or famine or any of the possible ramifications of living in an over-consuming, over-populated and over-heated world.

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