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How Climate Change Is Worsened by Attacks on the Public Sector, Science and Regulation

What's missing from today's discussions is not just the words "climate change," but the words "public sector."

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So you had the Arab Spring, to some extent, which is many, many positive aspects of this, but it is also associated with three wars, you know: Libya, Syria, Yemen. Part of what triggered that was, I think, climate change in grain-producing areas. The U.S. and Canada hit by floods. Australia, drought. Drought in Russia—Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, which caused Russia to ban its wheat exports in 2010. Single-largest grain wheat importer in the world? Egypt. Food prices were running at over 20 percent inflation a year at that—from 2010 to 2011, when the Arab Spring kicked off. And if you go back and look, the first demands were all about the rising cost of living, with food being at the center of it. And that, to some extent, was, you could say, the expression of climate change impacting agriculture in other places, showing up as suffering and political crisis and then violence in the Middle East.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to ask Suzanne Goldenberg one of the points that Christian Parenti raised, which has to do with public sector cuts. Something you’ve spoken about in your reporting for  The Guardian is the amount of funding cuts, congressional budget cuts to—for preventing and putting out wildfires. $500 million have been cut since 2010. That’s almost 15 percent of the budget. Can you say a little about the significance of that and the impact it’s had since these fires have broken out?

SUZANNE GOLDENBERG: Well, it’s a huge impact. I mean, every prediction says that wildfires are going to be increasing over the next 10 years. And yet, we have a Congress that is—a Republican-controlled Congress in the House that is opposed to spending money on things that would protect people and/or on any kind of public project. So what you’ve got now is the Forest Service coming forward every year saying, "We need this money, not just to fight fires, but to take the kind of steps that are necessary to ensure that when fires do occur, that they won’t be so devastating, that they won’t burn for weeks and weeks, that they won’t devour hundreds of thousands of acres of forest." You know, and those are programs where you’ve sort of managed the materials in the forest. You might thin out forests so there’s not there a lot to burn. You might develop a space between the forest and people’s houses, so those houses don’t burn down like we’ve seen in Colorado Springs. So those programs, as well as the programs for putting out fires when they do occur, have both been cut this year. And that’s going to have a pretty devastating effect. There’s a lot of people very worried about that.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Christian Parenti, you spoke about the effects of rising wheat prices and the effects it had on Egypt and the Arab Spring. One of the effects of the fires and the heatwave and the floods in the U.S. is likely to be a dramatic increase in the price of corn, wheat, again, and soybean. What do you think some of the global consequences of the increase in these commodities will be?

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: Well, it will—it will probably be compounded by speculation, that in situations like this, organizations—companies like Glencore get on top of it, and they increase the price even further through speculation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain what that company is, I mean, what they do.

CHRISTIAN PARENTI: It’s the second largest commodity trading company in the world after Cargill, and they’re involved in mining and buying and selling agricultural commodities like wheat and soy. So, what that will mean in the Global South is that people, such as Egyptians, who pay 40 percent of—the average Egyptian pays 40 percent of their wages in food, they’re going to be pressed to the wall. And so, we’re going to see, as we saw in 2008 and to some extent in last year, probably more food riots, more protests. And at first it won’t look like it’s about climate change. You know, it’ll be about some kleptocratic president. It’ll be, you know, Christians and Muslims fighting each other in northern Nigeria. And it’s not to say that these conflicts are reducible to climate change, but they are exacerbated by climate change.

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