El Niño is here, and in a big way. Recent sea-surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean, our main indicator of El Niño intensity, is about as high as they were prior to the winter of 1997/98, our last major El Niño (and one of the biggest in recorded history). Going forward, median climate forecasts suggest this intensity will be sustained over the coming months, and could even end up stronger than the 1997/98 El Niño. This will have important global consequences over the next 12 months not just on where food is produced but also how it is traded around the planet.
First, a quick primer. The El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a naturally occurring climatic phenomenon, arguably the most important driver of global annual climate variability. It is characterized by two extreme states: El Niño and La Niña. Warm water piles up along the western tropical Pacific during La Niña. During El Niño, the atmospheric and oceanographic forces that maintain this pool of warm water collapse resulting in a large release of heat into the atmosphere that is propagated around the planet within a relatively short period. ENSO’s impact on local environmental conditions around the planet are known as its “teleconnections.” To a rough first order, El Niño makes much of the tropics (from 30N to 30S latitude, shown in red in figure below) hotter and dryer and the temperate regions (shown in blue in figure below) cooler and wetter.
Countries where the majority of the population experience hotter conditions under El Niño are shown in red. Countries that get cooler under El Niño are shown in blue (reproduced from Hsiang and Meng, American Economic Review, May 2015).
There are two features of El Niño that have important implications on global food markets. First, El Niño creates winners and losers across the planet. Sol Hsiang and I have shown in a paper published in the American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings, that between 1960-2010, country-level cereal output in the tropics drop on average by 3.5% for every degree increase in the winter ENSO index. For a large event like 1997/98, or the one anticipated this winter, we estimate a 7% decrease in cereal output across the tropics. Conversely, the relatively more favorable environmental conditions experienced by temperate countries during the same year results in a 5% increase in cereal output. Interestingly, if you sum up the gains and losses across the world, you end up with a positive number: El Niño actually increases global cereal output.
Second, El Niño impacts are highly spatially correlated, organizing winners and losers to roughly two spatially contiguous blocks across the planet: temperate and tropical countries (which are also mostly just countries south of 30N because there are few countries south of 30S). This means under El Niño, countries suffering crop failures deep in the tropics are also surrounded by neighbors that are likely experiencing similar food shortages at the same time. Why is the spatial scale of El Niño impacts important? Basic economics tells us that the primary driver for international trade is productivity differences across countries. When El Niño occurs, tropical neighbors that normally engage in bilateral trade experience similar crop losses and thus may be less likely to trade with each other. To find an exporter that experiences bumper yields under El Niño, tropical countries have to source food from temperate countries (i.e. North America, Europe, North Asia), that are much further away, for which the cost of trade is higher. The predicted result is that El Niño has two effects on countries in the tropics: it causes direct crop losses and limits the ability of imports to offset such losses.
Is this happening? In ongoing work with Sol and Jonathan Dingel, we detect exactly these trade effects. From 1960-2010, when an El Niño occurs, cereal output fall in the tropics with some extra imports arriving. However, these imports do not offset all losses such that countries deep in the tropics experience large spikes in food prices. Stay tuned for that paper.
We think this is important beyond food prices during El Niño. In an article published in Nature in 2011, Sol and I, together with Mark Cane, detected that the likelihood of civil wars breaking out in the tropics doubles during strong El Niño years relative to strong La Niña years. Many have asked us about the mechanisms behind this large effect. We now think that direct crop losses together with the limits of trade during El Niño are important parts of the story.
What can be done? Sol and I recently wrote an op-ed in the Guardian on El Niño and its impact on global equality with some policy prescriptions. In the short-term, we argue that aid agencies, peacekeeping groups, refugee organizations, and other international institutions should be prepared to send food to the tropics as local conditions deteriorate. We also argue, in the long-term, that investments should be made to better integrate global food markets and improved access to other financial instruments such as like crop insurance.
Finally, the spatial nature of El Niño events has similarities with that of anthropogenic climate change, which we know from Marshall, Sol, and Ted’s work is expected to generate winners and losers across the planet. As such adaptation to climate change will involve not just local investments but also global efforts to improve how markets redistribute the unequal effects of climate change.
This is a guest post by Kyle Meng, an Assistant Professor at UC Santa Barbara.