Global Warming: Food Supplies & Avoiding the ‘Urban Graveyard Effect’


Minneapolis, MN:  Grain Elevators along Mississippi River  3/4/12
Minneapolis, MN: Grain Elevators along Mississippi River 3/4/12

          History – human experience catalogued – tells us how people react to climate stress and how sovereigns cope – or don’t – with the societal problems it spawns.

          In most instances, sovereigns didn’t know what was happening to their lands.  As at the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 17th century, if they acted, it was in ignorance – and usually ill-advised .

          In the 21st century, we have near-certainty as to what’s happening:  Global Warming, whether human-caused or secular or both.  Unlike our ancestors, we can predict, based on history, how people and societies will react.

           In the New York Times for June 22, Bush II Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson wrote of Global Warming:

I feel as if I’m watching as we fly in slow motion on a collision course toward a giant mountain.  We can see the crash coming, and yet we’re sitting on our hands rather than altering course.

 Something less than perfect it may be, but our knowledge – scientific and historical – makes the imperative to act moral.  We must save our fellow passengers


           The Little Ice Age contributed in significant part the ‘General Crisis’ of the 17th century.  Around the northern hemisphere, Japanese, Chinese, Ottoman, German, Spanish, British and American documents record human responses to environmental stress and institutional failures to meet existential challenges.[1]

           Millions had their lives cut short.  Tens – if not hundreds – of millions suffered from war, plague, famine, pestilence, rapine….

           Reviewing Geoffrey Parker’s vitally important Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (2013), it is easy to cast blame at staggeringly stupid, even sociopathic rulers across the northern hemisphere, such as England’s Charles I and Spain’s Philip IV.  Neither Ottoman nor Qing emperors had hedged their risks of famine or disruption.

           Parker has produced a casebook on what can happen when civil authorities take no positive actions.  If post-Warming histories are written, few will be able to argue, ‘We didn’t know.’  The US military will not be one.


           In 2003 as American forces sallied into Iraq, the Department of Defense evidently[2] received a report it had commissioned, ‘An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario & Its Implications for United States National Security’.  According to the Observer (UK) for Feb. 22, 2004, its authors were ‘Peter Schwartz, CIA consultant and former head of planning at Royal Dutch/Shell Group, and Doug Randall of the California-based Global Business Network.’[3]

           ‘Our intent,’ Schwartz & Randall wrote, ‘is to dramatize the impact climate change could have on society if we are unprepared for it.’[4]  Neither when the report was leaked nor now do their hypotheses seem overstated.

           Abrupt climate change is likely to stretch carrying capacity well beyond its already precarious limits….  As abrupt climate change lowers the world’s carrying capacity aggressive wars are likely to be fought over food, water, and energy.  Deaths from war as well as starvation and disease will decrease population size, which overtime, will re-balance with carrying capacity.[5]

           A couple of paragraphs later, they summarize Constant Battles:  Why We Fight (2003) by Steven A. LeBlanc, a Harvard archaeologist, with Katherine E. Register:[6]  ‘Humans fight when they outstrip the carrying capacity of their natural environment.  Every time there is a choice between starving and raiding, humans raid.’[7]

           Parker doesn’t so limit his lesson from drawn from the 17th century.  For faced with hunger, modern humans do many things besides raid.  Many, many terrible things.


           Schwartz & Randall conclude their paper with seven recommendations.  Three are relevant here:

 4) Identify no-regrets strategies.  No-regrets strategies should be identified and implemented to ensure reliable access to food supply and water, and to ensure national security.

 5) Rehearse Adaptive strategies.  Adaptive response teams should be established to address and prepare for inevitable climate driven events such as massive migration, disease and epidemics, and food and water supply shortages.

 6) Explore local implications.  The first-order effects of climate change are local.  While we can anticipate changes in pest prevalence and severity and changes in agricultural productivity, one has to look at very specific locations and conditions to know which pests are of concern, which crops and regions are vulnerable, and how severe impacts will be.  Such studies should be undertaken, particularly in strategically important food producing regions.[8]

 Sound, vital recommendations all.  So far as I know, no government at any level anywhere has implemented any of them.


           Nothing like Schwartz and Randall’s recommendations surfaced in the 17th century, at least in Parker’s recounting.

           But they did in about the 19th century BCE.  And as I reviewed Parker’s description of ‘the urban graveyard effect’, I thought of a 4000-year-old story.  First, Parker:

…the Little Ice Age forced many farmers on marginal lands to flee to the towns with their families in the hope of finding work or at least bread.  Most of them met with bitter disappointment, in part because their flight helped to fuel unsustainable urban expansion.[9]

Unsustainable and unprecedented the cities’ growth was, though war and climate just accelerated the long-term trend:  by every measure of general well-being, mid-17th century cities were death traps.[10]

           Parker quotes a foresighted magistrate outside Shanghai:

           Our county does not produce rice, but relies for its food upon other areas.  When the summer wehat is reaching ripeness and the autumn crops are already rising, the boats of the merchants that come loaded with rice from an unbroken line…. [But] if by chance there were to be an outbreak of hostilities … such that the city gates did not open for ten days, and the hungry people raised their voices in clamour, how could there fail to be riot and disorder?[11]

 In 1641-42, ‘global cooling destroyed the rice harvest throughout South China.  Perhaps 500,000 people starved to death and public order collapsed.’[12]


           Some months ago, I wrote about Joseph & Pharaoh: A Lesson in a Time of Climate Change.  I won’t repeat here the story of Pharaoh’s dream, Joseph’s interpretation and his ascendence to viceroy.  Rather, I want to focus on what he did with the power Pharaoh delegated to him.

           Joseph had offered Pharaoh a way through the coming shift from wet westerlies to dry easterlies.  Its particularity is significant.

 Now therefore let Pharaoh look out a man discreet and wise, and set him over the land of Egypt.

 Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven plenteous years.

 And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up corn [wheat] under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities.

 And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine.[13]

           It’s easy to put Joseph’s plan into a modern, somewhat anachronistic formulation:  He’s suggesting an administrative agency with authority to bank 20 percent of the wheat crop for seven years.  That means constructing granaries, filling them and then maintaining them.  In sum, a huge, highly visible undertaking at considerable cost (including, one must assume, a rising price for corn to consumers) with no payoff for seven years.

          That’s smart, but what’s genius is ‘…and let them keep food in the cities.’[14]

           Start with visibility; there’s no question in the public’s mind where the grain’s going.  The granaries show the sovereign cares about his people.  They pre-empt the all-too-human reaction to crisis:  scapegoating.  Hungry people find people to blame.  Very hungry people can topple sovereigns.[15]

           Joseph’s plan worked:

 And the seven years of dearth began to come…: and the dearth was in all lands; but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.

And when all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread: and Pharaoh said unto all the Egyptians, Go unto Joseph; what he saith to you, do.

And the famine was over all the face of the earth: and Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold unto the Egyptians….[16]

Note that Joseph ‘sold’ the wheat; he didn’t give it away.  That signals to me the plan had kept Egypt’s economy alive.  Pharaoh’s investment in risk mitigation, thus, earned a return, as well as guaranteeing public well-being.

           And soon, hungry herders from neighboring lands moved toward Egypt, among them, Joseph’s family….


           Old Testament heroes, one can argue, have a knack for spotting the main chance and taking it.  However, this part of Joseph’s story is very different from, say, David’s.  Unlike Goliath, the threat of famine was a long way off – however you interpret ‘seven years’.  Similarly, its duration.

           Managing the risk was a long-term project requiring delegation, construction and communication.  As Genesis presents the story, Joseph did what was self-evidently right.  But one can imagine the significant political ‘sell’ it demanded and the complex organisation implementation required.

           The most peculiar attribute of Joseph’s story is its lack of a God-dictated imperative.  Interpreted in the age of Global Warming where the risks and benefits of action are as distant, the force driving Pharaoh – don’t forget: none of this happens without his power and support – was in Adam Smith’s phrase his moral sentiments, his empathy for his people.  In short:  his duty.

           Hank Paulson concludes in Sunday’s Times:

           Climate change is the challenge of our time. Each of us must recognize that the risks are personal. We’ve seen and felt the costs of underestimating the financial bubble. Let’s not ignore the climate bubble.

           No, let’s not.  For the knowledge we have imposes a duty to act.  It is the moral obligation of our time, of our children’s future.



           1.  See generally Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2013).

           2.  Peter Schwartz & Doug Randall, ‘An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario & Its Implications for United States National Security’ (October 2003).  The copies available on the web don’t indicate the report’s sponsorship on its title page, nor are the named authors given bios, nor is their organisation named.  On 5/20/14 I accessed the document at:  On 6/19/14, the link no longer worked.  (The GBN site appears to have been taken down.)  The report is still available at the link on the title.  The almost complete absence in ‘Abrupt Climate Change’ of cited sources, footnotes, etc. and its summary tone suggest to me that it is a version of a considerably longer document.  As such, one must ask, why was the summary prepared and released four months after it was delivered?  The articles linked in fn. 3, below, suggest partial but unsatisfactory answers.  H/T: Daniel Glick who pointed me toward this important report and the forgotten controversy around it.

           3.  As reprinted at:  The articles reprinted here reminded me of the thunder storm of publicity this report got at the time.  But like a summer shower, it was quickly forgotten in the 2004 presidential campaign and the continuing news from Iraq.

           4.  Schwartz & Randall, op. cit., p. 7.

           5.  Id., p. 15.

           6.  Id., pp. 16-17.  Curiously, in this one of very few sourcings, Schwartz & Randall miscite the book as ‘Carrying Capacity’ and fail to note the co-author.  Another sign, I believe, of the report’s origins.  Parker doesn’t list LeBlanc in his bibliography, nor is ‘carrying capacity’ indexed.

           7.  Id., p. 16.

           8.  Id., p. 22.

           9.  Parker, op. cit., p. 58.

           10.  Id., pp. 58-65.

           11.  Id., pp. 64-65.

           12.  Id., p. 65.

           13.  Genesis 41: 33-36.

           14.  Genesis 41: 35.

           15.  E.g., Parker, op. cit., p. 108.

           16.  Genesis 41: 54-56.