Global Weirding Whacks Your Wallet

by Glenn Scherer

What do foreign cars, computer hard drives, hamburgers, chocolate, coffee, peanut butter, wine and Kentucky bourbon have in common? They’re all likely to cost more – and be harder to come by – in coming months and years for the same reason: climate change.

Globalization has brought us many wonderful things, like cheap sneakers and February bananas. But lately, the global economy is taking a hit from global warming, as extreme weather – floods, droughts and heat waves – increases the price and decreases availability of U.S. imports and domestic goods.

A few examples: unprecedented floods in Thailand submerged a thousand factories last month. Some were neck-deep in grimy water and only reachable by jet ski and skiff. While this might not seem like a U.S. problem, consumer goods giants Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Toyota and Honda all have plants there. So do the world’s biggest computer manufacturers.

As a result, expect a 10 percent price surge on external computer hard drives in coming months, reports The New York Times. Parts shortages could even lead to laptop and desktop computer price increases.

Likewise, with the auto industry which sources parts from Thailand. Bangkok’s flooding forced Toyota to slow assembly plant production in North America, Indonesia, Japan, and elsewhere. That could mean longer waits for some models and higher sticker prices.

All this comes about as the influences of globalization – the wholesale conversion of Asian floodplains and rice paddies to industrial parks – collides with climate change and weird weather.

Commodities worldwide are also taking a hit. Peanut butter prices, for example, soared this autumn after searing summer temperatures scorched the U.S. peanut crop – pushing bulk prices from $450 to $1150 a ton. That means at least a thirty percent price hike for Smucker’s Jiff and Unilever’s Skippy.

Then there’s U.S. beef devastated by the Texas drought. Ranchers are slaughtering starving herds rather than take a total loss. While this has created a brief beef glut with lower prices, expect the long-term loss of herds to bring higher costs for hamburger next year, and for t-bones and roasts in 2013, says American Public Media’s Marketplace.

Many global crops grow best within strict limits of temperature, rainfall and altitude. Half the world’s chocolate, for example, is made from Ghana and Ivory Coast cocoa grown only between 72 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit, at an altitude of 330 to 820 feet. Hotter weather is forcing cocoa higher – above 1,500 feet in the next forty years. Costs to the industry and chocolate lovers will make the climb along with the crop.

Coffee giant Starbucks told Congress this October that coffee production is already being impacted by climate change in Central America, with much worse expected. Coffee too – like Kentucky bourbon – is sensitive to rising temperature and erratic rainfall.

In 2011, wild weather wreaked havoc with U.S. wine grapes and Australian sugar cane. Long-range climate forecasts call for crop declines and record prices for global staples like soybeans, wheat, corn and rice.

How do we prepare for the volatility ahead? One way is to match climate change computer models with vulnerable landscapes and consumer products (like major industrial floodplains or coffee-growing mountainsides), and perform detailed risk analyses to benefit businesses, farmers, nations and consumers. If, for example, the world’s computer makers had foreseen the climate risks posed by concentrating factories in the Bangkok floodplain, they could have scattered plant sites. Such analyses would help us plan new factories and croplands, and better protect existing ones. But we can’t fund those analyses if U.S. policy denies there’s even a problem.

Climate change denial threatens more than polar bears. It imperils your next cup of joe, that sweet glass of Kentucky bourbon, and our daily bread. We can meet the threat, but action is needed yesterday. Inaction leaves business and consumers flatfooted.

“Climate change brings not only bad news but also a lot of potential opportunities,” notes the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. “The winners will be those who are prepared for change and know how to adapt.”

Glenn Scherer is Blue Ridge Press Senior Editor. © 2011

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