For Some Of The World, Climate Change Can't Come Soon Enough

While the long-term effects will be devastating for everyone, for many countries in the developing world struggling with drought, the changing environment could mean they can finally feed themselves.

With more than half the U.S. facing moderate or severe drought conditions, and other countries facing unusually warm weather, it’s easy to forget that climate change is not likely to be a uniform phenomenon, globally speaking.

While climate models predict higher temperatures in some places, the same models forecast cooler and wetter weather in others. (Indeed, it’s well past time we stopped using "global warming" as a synonym for climate change, implying as it does a uniform effect).

Climate change could create winners as well as losers, according to researchers who have extrapolated the data. For example, nations that have traditionally struggled with drought conditions could find themselves better able to feed themselves. And vice versa.

A new paper from researchers at Stanford, the World Bank, and Purdue shows how a country like Tanzania, in East Africa, could benefit. East Africa is one of the regions that scientists think could see more temperate conditions. The paper finds that in years where importing countries are experiencing drier conditions, Tanzania could sell more maize—its chief export product—both in Africa and further afield. Tanzania’s export partners, including the U.S. and China, are likely to have "severe dry conditions" in most of the years Tanzania is seeing "non-dry years."

"Tanzania has the potential to substantially increase its maize exports to other countries, and not only when its production is above trend," the authors say. "If global maize production is lower than usual owing to supply shocks in major exporters, Tanzania can export more maize at higher prices, even if it also experiences below-trend production."

However, the country can benefit only if it liberalizes its trade policies, says Noah Diffenbaugh an assistant professor at Stanford’s School of Earth Sciences. Restrictions on imports and exports would reduce its ability to take advantage of surpluses in good years, and its ability to manage shortages in dry ones.

"An export ban reduces the poverty-reducing effect of a high production year," he says. "There are potential opportunities that can be beneficial in the current and future climate, but they do require choice on behalf of policy-makers." Tanzania raised trade barriers in response to the 2008 food shocks, which it has only just lifted. Diffenbaugh says the country should keep borders open going forward, despite the uncertainty likely to result from climate change.

He says the same rule could apply to other countries as well. "We’ll have to see how generalizable the details are, but as a general principle we could hope that [liberalization] would help buffer against shocks and provide opportunities when there are surpluses."

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