The University of Texas at Austin
  • Climate change and food supply: Q&A with Josh Busby

    By Marjorie Smith
    Published: Dec. 6, 2009
    Climate

    Josh Busby is an assistant professor of public affairs at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs.

    What do you think is the greatest threat to world food supply in the next 40 years?
    It could be climate change itself or the effects of our reactions to climate change, through such things as support for biofuels, which may ultimately lead to diversion of agricultural land to grow crops for fuel and may also change fuel prices (making the transport of food and inputs like fertilizers more expensive).

    What implications does climate change have on global food supply and production?
    Highly variable rains, extreme weather events like storms, floods, and droughts, as well as melting glaciers will make it harder to grow food in many places, particularly poor countries in the developing world.

    How does climate change directly affect food supply and resources in the U.S.?
    Unclear. There could be periods of drought and extreme weather events in the Midwest and Southeast, but the U.S. is probably better placed than other countries to adapt. There could be some areas in the northern U.S. where growing seasons are extended. The most important impact in the short run may be diversion of agricultural land for biofuels.

    What nations’ food supply and agricultural productivity will be affected the most by climate change?
    Parts of sub-saharan Africa and perhaps parts of south Asia and China. They are both likely geographically to be the most vulnerable to climate change as well as having the least capacity to adapt. Asia’s vulnerability has as much to do with large populations and population densities subject to potential irrigation losses from melting glaciers.

    A new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute titled “Climate change: Impact on Agriculture and Costs of Adaptation” estimates that an additional $7-8 billion per year must be invested to increase agricultural productivity and to prevent the adverse effects of climate change. Do you agree that an additional $7-8 billion per year is necessary? Why or why not?
    Probably at least that much. Yes, though how you actually figure out how to spend it is quite difficult. Adaptation to climate change has to mostly happen through private actors, farmers and firms rather than governments.

    Do you think a united global front will be the most effective agent for change, or do you think with climate change it happens at the micro level?
    Neither. Policies at the national level that are coordinated internationally are likely to be the best way forward. For example, pending national legislation in the United States to cap and put a price on carbon would be a huge step forward, giving users of energy and producers of pollution an incentive to reduce emissions. Those policies exist in Europe and if we pass one here, we could likely encourage China and India to do something similar. The net effect of those diverse national initiatives could put us on a path to a greener economy and energy base.

    What do you foresee happening to the global food supply if adequate action isn’t taken?
    Stagnating food production in parts of Africa and Asia could lead to periodic shortages and famines, requiring major disaster relief operations that could otherwise be prevented.

    You’re considered an expert on climate change. When did your interest in climate change develop?
    College. I was an environmental activist at the University of North Carolina and participated in rallies for dealing with climate change in 1992 in the lead up to the Earth Summit in Rio. We rallied outside the UN in New York, encouraging the George H.W. Bush Administration to address the problem.

    In your faculty profile it says you explore the politics of climate change. Can you explain what the ‘politics’ of climate change are?
    I examine why some countries support climate change agreements while others do not, looking at domestic politics and interest groups within countries. I also study the structure of international negotiations between countries, and the role of advocacy movements for global climate change.

    Does your passion for improving the climate extend beyond your professional career?
    I’m a walking stereotype. I’m a vegetarian and have been since 1991. I drive a Prius. I bicycle as much as I can rather than drive. I buy carbon offsets for flights.

    • Quote 2
      Gina said on Nov. 4, 2010 at 1:57 p.m.
      Once an environmental activist in college, but now another complacent professor.
    • Quote 2
      Alan McKendree said on June 26, 2010 at 1:01 a.m.
      Kris -- 30 seconds' worth of Google research shows that Travis Co. occupies about 990 square miles, and Williamson Co. 1,123. It's easy to calculate that the two total 58.9 billion sq ft, and thus could hold the current world population of 6.5 billion people with 9 sq feet for each person...plenty of room for each person to stand in. The point is that the vast majority of earth's habitable surface is currently unoccupied, but could be occupied if it were economically feasible. And that's not even counting the conservation of surface area resulting from vertical (multi-story) buildings. Land, like all resources, is unlimited for human purposes, and will be best allocated by a free market in which prices reflect current value and guide future use.
    • Quote 2
      kris maxwell said on Dec. 15, 2009 at 1:32 p.m.
      "Can we back up and start actually sharing data and analysis techniques among all real climate scientists, with no impact on their funding or careers?" -- to be sure I understand you correctly, you mean we should reign-in corporations who employ scientists to perform biased studies that support their agendas of using hazardous industrial processes in order to maximize profit at whatever cost to public health and impact on the environment, right? "And can we acknowledge that among these real climate scientists there is still real debate and doubt about human impact on climate change?" -- by all means, if there is corroborated evidence of this as a significant scientific debate, then we should acknowledge it for sure. But let's not make any assumptions -- that would be very un-scientific.
    • Quote 2
      kris maxwell said on Dec. 15, 2009 at 1:24 p.m.
      Alan- please explain and/or cite sources for your claim of the entire world's population being able to "fit" inside Travis and Williamson county -- alive? standing? Stacked like cord wood? Explain why this factoid, if true, has any bearing on whether or not we are overpopulated. Surely you do not think the main problem with overpopulation is the physical space each human occupies?
    • Quote 2
      maylene said on Dec. 12, 2009 at 12:24 p.m.
      thanks for posting this q&a.. i learned a lot :)
    • Quote 2
      John Good said on Dec. 10, 2009 at 8:28 a.m.
      I find it interesting that this topic is a sanctioned discussion for non-scientists with a passion for climate change, as has been the case for some time now. Can we please re-narrow the qualifications? Can we back up and start actually sharing data and analysis techniques among all real climate scientists, with no impact on their funding or careers? And can we acknowledge that among these real climate scientists there is still real debate and doubt about human impact on climate change? And can we acknowledge that essentially none of the recent decades predictions by those with this "passion for climate change" have come true, even to the extent that the term "global warming" has in the last year of this discussion been steadily redacted and adjusted to apply to any weather outcome? So far, I see the greatest potential destructive impact on food supply being caused by passionate agenda-driven people handed power to directly impact global economies, and that is what is truly concerning and dangerous.
    • Quote 2
      Alan McKendree said on Dec. 9, 2009 at 4:49 p.m.
      By the way, the plumes coming from the power plants in the picture above are simply steam. No need to run for your lives just yet.
    • Quote 2
      Alan McKendree said on Dec. 9, 2009 at 4:41 p.m.
      Capping carbon will have no effect other than to regress the economy back to 19th-century levels. Underdeveloped countries support climate change agreements because they see a way to guilt developed countries into sending them huge amounts of cash. And buying carbon "offsets" is nothing but acting out a ritual penance for consuming energy. In short, Dr. Busby, to quote the Firesign Theatre, everything you know is wrong. Time to reboot. Read Julian L. Simon and visit www.heartland.org for the beginning of more information, and to ease your fears (Ed Glass) about overpopulation. We're not overpopulated... the entire world's population could easily fit into Travis and Williamson counties combined.
    • Quote 2
      ed glass said on Dec. 9, 2009 at 2:11 p.m.
      All the above has some relevance to the problem(s), but it completely ignores the most important and fundamental root cause: overpopulation. Expanding human population is the principal driving force behind the majority of all environmental issues today. To ignore it because we are afraid to address it is dangerous and part of the problem itself.
    • Quote 2
      Kris Maxwell said on Dec. 7, 2009 at 1:30 p.m.
      I like these Q&As, but I don't know who these people are until I dig deeper and see what they're talking about. I would be more attracted by a title that addresses the content of the conversation, rather than the name of the speaker.
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