About That Trigger

As the saying goes, third time is the charm:

Expert consensus grows on contribution of record high food prices to Middle East unrest

I have to say, the “status quo” media does come in handy some times. For example, one day “Scientific American jumps the shark,” and another day they are cited prominently in a subhead to help make a point. Good heavens! Which is the true Scientific American?

Anyway, it seems Romm is determined to play this card (my emphasis):

As unrest spread through the MidEast, it became increasingly obvious that higher food prices were playing a key triggering role.

I don’t have time right now to plow through all of Romm’s “expert” articles, so I’ll just say what Nicholas Kristof says in his op-ed :

Today, we are all Egyptians!

That includes you, Joe, tangential climate change link and all.

UPDATE: Charles Blow, in his weekly NYT column, writes:

It is impossible to know exactly which embers spark a revolution, but it’s not so hard to measure the conditions that make a country prime for one.

Go have a look at the data.

27 Responses to “About That Trigger”

  1. Bob says:

    Hey Keith, do you think that Joe Romm would entertain that biofuels and converting hundreds of thousands of acres to grow corn and wheat for conversion into ethanol has anything to do with rising food prices?  We are now burning our food in our autos. Perhaps Joe and other warmistas insistence on their senseless control of fossil fuels have played a part in the chaos in Egypt.

  2. mobk says:


    A new riff on Romm every day!

  3. Lewis Deane says:

    To Romm etc,
    This extraordinary ignorance of even the simplest economics is what is astounding. Worldwide food price inflation has nothing to do with enviromental causation, whether that be bad harvests, ‘global warming’ or, indeed, a rise in the production of ‘biofuels’! Neither now nor in 2008 (remember that far back?): in both cases, to put it simplisticaly, though with different complications, caused by the massively inflationary policies of the Federal Reserve (affectively negative interest rates, constant re-inflation of the Wall Street Bubble of a thousand holes by the printing of money etc), devalueing the worlds reserve currency (probably, over the last two decades, the biggest devaluation in world history), hence making commodies in general (not just food – all commodies!) rise in price for all other currencies. This, in combination with large speculative flows in anticipation of, and in conjunction with, capital flight from risky holdings – goverment bonds, sovereign debt, financial instruments etc – into the always safer bet of commodities – from gold through oil to potatoes – is the complete, if crudely put, explanation of these short to medium term fluctations. Not global warming, nor any corrallory pressure on production – which, as usual, is becoming and more productive and is outstriping supply in accellerated fashion, as it has been doing for the past 100 years.
    If crude material causation where the only spring of human history one would, with far more justice, put the North African revolts at the feet of the Federal Reserve! And, of course, the larger context of the historicle uneven developments of West verses East but that’s for another lecture!
    But cirtainly not climate change!

  4. golf charley says:

    Is Joe Romm really on the side of AGW? His attempts to blame everything on AGW are illogical, desparate, unscientific, or to put it more simply, stupid.

    Is he a secret agent in the pay of “Big Oil”? They must be grateful for all the ridicule he generates. He is their best weapon in the AGW debate

  5. Heraclitus says:

    Bob #1, I don’t think Joe Romm or many other ‘warmistas’ would have any problem at all saying that corn ethanol has contributed to rising food prices, indeed I suspect he has said exactly that on more than one occasion. Why do you feel it’s necessary to make up positions for people against which to argue, is it that they don’t have enough that you can legitamtely disagree with as it stands?

    Lewis Deane #3, you have listed many causes that might contribute to rising food prices. If you believe that there can be so many complex and interacting contributory causes, how can you be so certain in ruling out climate change as another contributory cause? This seems an extreme position and contrasts with Joe Romm’s argument, which does not rule out other causes. 

  6. Heraclitus says:

    Keith, it is good to see you linking to Charles Blow’s piece in the New York Times, which, with his sentence “there is nothing like food insecurity to spur agita”, appears closer to Joe’s position than your own. This seems like a genuine attempt at reconciliation, which I think everyone would welcome.

  7. golf charley says:


    How do you support the view that climate change caused/contributed to the Eqyptian revolt?

    Eqypt is one of the few countries in the world, that can grow food without relying on rainfall falling on Eqypt. It also tends to be sunny for most of the year.

    That the Bible suggests that this ability to grow food has not always been so reliable, could point to beneficial changes in the climate, in the last few millennia, however the Aswan dam may have played a part.

  8. Keith Kloor says:


    I saw that sentence and agree with it–to a degree. But my disagreement with Romm over this is more about emphasis. He chooses to highlight rising food prices because he feels that has a climate change link.

    I think that’s convenient for his talking points and overly simplistic.

    Rather, what I like about Blow’s column is that it focuses rightly on the underlying conditions, which need to be addressed (and talked about much more). I’m more than willing to admit that rising food prices are a factor in the larger equation, and have done so. I just think the degree Romm focuses on it is way out of proportion to what’s really causing the unrest. The data that Blow points should be the focal point of this story.

  9. Heraclitus says:

    Keith #8
    He chooses to highlight rising food prices because he feels that has a climate change link.

    Of course he did, he’s writing about climate change. This doesn’t mean that he excludes the other issues and I don’t see any sign that he has downplayed other influences. Joe Romm, like many of us, is concerned about climate change because it is the overarching issue we face, so he is focusing on the climate change link. Not talking in detail about the other issues is not the same as oversimplifying the problems. I doubt that Joe would disagree with Blow and the data he gives includes the cost of food as one of the significant factors.

    I’m sensing that you are basically in agreement that rising food prices are a contributory factor and I’m sure you agree that climate can impact on food price. I may have been being a bit flippant earlier but this seems to present a genuine opportunity for reconciliation. Can you acknowledge that the tone of your original post on this was too confrontational? Can you accept that, whilst you may still disagree with the emphasis that Joe puts on the impact of climate in these riots, it is not an extreme position to argue that this link exists?

  10. Tom Fuller says:

    If we weighted the contributory causes to unrest in Egypt and other parts of the Middle East right now, food prices would be at best in the mid-range.
    If we weighted causes of food price hikes in a similar fashion, climate change would be low on the list.
    From his writings, one can easily see that Romm is not overly interested (from a professional aspect) in food prices per se–he wants to link them to damages to agriculture from climate change.
    As he cannot (annoyingly for him, agriculture keeps improving, with the odd bad year as exception), his stance looks really contrived, and he must reinforce it with even more vehemence than is normally the case.
    Everybody who reads both this blog and Romm’s output on a more than occasional basis sort of gets that. It’s perfectly appropriate for KK to point it out. This is all about spin control over an event, using political weather instead of climatic happenings as an excuse.

  11. Marlowe Johnson says:

    i’m late to the party on this one, but Keith I gotta say this isnt your finest hour.  joe writes a climate blog.  there is a clear connection to what is happening in egypt and climate change as MT and others have repeatedly pointed out.  does it matter that we can’t precisely say how much of a factor it was? no. but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it or not discuss it on blogs!
    IMO you really should consider a new rule with your romm posts whereby you only publish them after spending the night considering whether or not your own biases are leading you to see Romm monsters behind every door…

  12. harrywr2 says:

    I’ve been following the blogger Egyptian Sandmonkey since 2004.If you want to know what is going on in Egypt  read Egyptian blogs.
    Somehow I doubt Joe Romm or any of the other talking heads pontificating about the reasons for the Egyptian uprising even know of the existence of Egyptian blogs.
    He’s complaining on November 29th,2010 about yet another rigged parliamentary election. riots, 9 dead, absolutely no international coverage.
    Yesterday was bound to be another depressing day in Egyptian History: The election went as I expected, with massive fraud aimed towards an almost total NDP controlled Parliament, clashes, media blackouts and 9 dead, and no one in the international media or the US making a peep about it.

    He’s also on twitter.
    Apparently CNN will interview him this evening on the Parket Spitzer show.

  13. Bob says:

    Heraclitus, it would be much easier to list the pronouncements of Romm that aren’t extreme.  After, he still thinks the Hockey Stick hasn’t been totally refuted.

  14. Lewis Deane says:

    Actually, Heraclitus, my position is the ‘consensus’ position and you wouldn’t want to argue against that, would you? Try Occams razer! And don’t step in that river too many times or it will make you dizzy!
    I forget to add, by the way, the further ‘wrinkle’ of competitive devaluation, which all countries must go in for (the hypocracy of the US complaining about the value of the yuan has to be heared to be believed!) in order merely to attemp to keep par with the dollar and which, of course, massively accellerates this process but I wanted to keep it simple. Let us just say ‘climate change’ has nothing on inflation for pure destruction – destroying incomes, savings, investments, encouraging speculative hoarding – which ramps up the cycle – and just generaly destroying wealth. The reason why we concentrate, however, on food, is because it is the subsistance commodity.
    However, I repeat, it is superficial and patronising and ahistoric to believe that the Egyptians are revolting over these things!

  15. Lewis Deane says:

    Lewis Deane #3, you have listed many causes that might contribute to rising food prices. If you believe that there can be so many complex and interacting contributory causes, how can you be so certain in ruling out climate change as another contributory cause? This seems an extreme position and contrasts with Joe Romm’s argument, which does not rule out other causes.
    Actually, your argument completely loses me as far as rational argument is concerned. Because my argument involves a complex set of causes it therefore implies the possibility that the plum fairy might have had a hand it?
    What is the argument for purporting that ‘climate change’ has had a hand in the inflation of food prices? It can only be that it has affected production, the total quantity of food commodities visa vie affective demand. But I specificaly excluded this. Yes there has been local disruption here and there but globally production is as healthy and more healthy than it has ever been.
    But even suppose there was an absolute reduction in this produce – how would that then explain the lock step inflation of all commodity prices? Surely, atleast, food prices would have accellerated further? No, the only explanation is a ‘purely’ economic one, not production and it’s disruption, and therefore not climate change. Unless you believe that more carbon dioxide is good for food production.

  16. Lewis Deane says:

    And just two more points:
    First, I must knock on the head, once and for all, the myth that biofuels had anything to do with rising food prices. This is based on the fallacy of a limeted potential to meet the market and that somehow we have a ‘peak’ agriculture, like ‘peak oil’. Further it completely misunderstands the last couple of decades of economic history – and the nature of markets, commodities, speculation, hoarding, currency devaluation, capital flight and flows etc etc. To put it in a formula – if you print money, that money must buy something – hence inflation. Greshams law.
    Secondly, what is objectionable about Romms latching on to the struggles of a people is that it is emblematic of a tendancy within all spectra to latch on to the very human suffering and struggle of people to explicate ‘ones point’. It abstracts from the specific and human, it dehumanises, it’s pretty damned cold in the heat of this particuliar moment and adds nothing to our understanding. Have some respect for the Egyptians, for once!

  17. Lewis Deane says:

    And, no, historically speaking, rising food prices are not a contributary factor. Would such crude materialism explain the revolutions of ’89? Many now in the East complain they were never better fed or ‘cared’ for than they were then? You should listen to them. Do you not remember the food riots of 2008? Why didn’t they produce a revolution then?
    Never confuse occasional , in the Aristotalean sense, causes for real ones. The human desire for freedom and to fulfill our human potential is that real cause.

  18. Heraclitus says:

    Lewis Deane, it is not the consensus position that “Worldwide food price inflation has nothing to do with enviromental causation”.

  19. grypo says:

    Krugman weighs in:
    “But I’ve been looking at the USDA World supply and demand estimates, and what stands out from the data is mainly that we’ve had a huge global harvest failure.”
    “Overall grain production is down “” and it’s down substantially more when you take account of a growing world population. Wheat production (this time not per capita) is way down.”
    “Obligatory disclaimer: no one event can be definitively assigned to climate change, just as you can’t necessarily claim that any one of the fender-benders taking place right now in central New Jersey was caused by the sheet of black ice currently coating our roads. But it sure looks like climate change is a major culprit.”
    “Back to the economics: if you want to know why we’re having a spike in food prices, the data suggest that the key cause is terrible weather leading to bad harvests, especially in the former Soviet Union.”

  20. Lewis Deane says:

    On the contrary, Heraclitus, among economists, it is. Don’t step in that river again or the changes of the real world might sweep you away!

  21. Lewis Deane says:

    grypo, Do you know what supply and demand estimates really measure? Because Krugman doesn’t.

  22. grypo says:

    Perhaps you can enlighten Krugman then?

  23. Lewis Deane says:

    And theres no doubt there are tempoary fluctuations of total production – though one product often tends to offset another – overall this year was slightly down – more to do with decline of affective (none inflationary – hence hoarding and leaving fallow) demand than actual geographical conditions – but such yearly production cycles are not what is determining the medium term price and, of course, Krugman would love to deny his policy of inflation export.

  24. Heraclitus says:

    Among which economists?

    The Economist magazine doesn’t appear to agree:

    Events in Egypt may turn out to have a greater impact on other commodities, notably food. High food-price inflation has cut spending power across emerging economies (see article), where keeping bellies full accounts for a much larger share of income than in rich countries. The high cost of food is one reason that protesters took to the streets in Tunisia and Egypt. The price of bread has shot up since last summer when a drought in Russia, one of the world’s largest wheat suppliers, hit harvests and prompted an export ban.

    Of course it could be argued that it was the export ban rather than the drought itself the led to the rise in food prices, but maybe that is one of Aristotle’s ‘occasional’ causes (could you tell me more about this – I was before his time you see).

    Nor does the OECD in its report on the causes and consequences of rising food prices:

    The causes of this price spike are complex and due to a combination of mutually reinforcing factors, including droughts in key grain producing regions

    I find it hard to see how a consensus of economists would not include these two groups at least.

  25. Tom Fuller says:

    I still would ask for a weighting of factors for food totals. Has anyone attempted to estimate the relative contributions of weather, diversion into storage and away from export, diversion into biofuels and diversion into animal feed to meet rising demand for meat?
    Until someone attempts that, isn’t this discussion a bit without merit?

  26. KK, your blog is ostensibly “my platform to think out loud on topics that interest me, such as archaeology, climate change, ecology, and journalism.”
    Perhaps time to add ‘and auditing Joe Romm’s blog’?

  27. Bob #13:
    After, [Romm] still thinks the Hockey Stick hasn’t been totally refuted.
    Well then, that shows Romm is right at least somtimes.

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