Chapter 4

Perpetual crisis in the 21st century

As we have seen, climate is on a collision course with our agricultural and economic systems. Even with the most vigorous mitigation efforts, climate will change. As a species, we are entering a period of uncertainty, and that is going to require adjustment. The first instinct is, of course, to adapt the systems we already have in place: these systems work well for many people and represent tremendous capital investments. But there are reasons to doubt that these systems are sufficiently flexible to work in tomorrow’s world.

Background: Six months after initial floods, Pakistan’s Sindh province remains underwater in 2010. More than 20 million people were forced from their homes. Photo Credit:UK Department for International Development (Used under Creative Commons license).

The growing threat of drought

The world is increasingly vulnerable to drought—and the cycle of crisis that comes with it—because of climate change. People in the 21st century and beyond will contend with increasingly unpredictable shifts in climate. Although we know where the climate is headed, figuring out what that means for each year’s weather is a perplexing question.

This uncertainty threatens fundamental political, social and economic stability. Climate determines which crops can grow, when they can grow, where infrastructure is built, and where people can live. In short, civilizations rely on climatic stability to function: the more predictable climate is, the easier it is to make concrete plans for the future. And the more concrete plans are, the more people can accomplish every year.

So when climate changes, it unsettles whole societies. It puts food supplies into question. It renders billions of dollars of infrastructure useless. It disrupts worldwide supply chains, labor markets and trade. It disrupts long-term plans for commercial development. Unlike short-term, weather-related disasters, climate change is a long-term, global event. The changes we will experience won’t be limited to one country or even one continent. Climate change is by definition a worldwide event.

The places vulnerable to drought

Approximate areas with significantly increased odds drought by 2100


The above map shows the regions of the world that are at significant risk for drought over the next century. More areas of the world are vulnerable than not—including important agricultural areas in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

What can we expect to see in the next 100 years, then?

The picture isn’t a bright one:

  • Near-permanent drought in western North America: After comparing 17 climate models, researchers say the drought in California is the worst in over 1,000 years and that it will spread as far east as the Great Plains by century’s end.

  • Decreases in food supplies: While climate change represents some new opportunities for agriculture (land in northern Canada and Siberia may be available for farming soon) many experts are predicting an overall decrease in the world’s food production.

    Although the decrease seems modest—two percent per decade—it is important to remember a couple of things. First, unless disease and war run rampant, the world’s population is likely to go up, not down, during that same period, thus requiring expanded production. And second, the decreases will not be distributed equally over the world. Countries least able to afford to import food are, once again, the countries that are facing the sharpest decreases in their food production output.

  • Escalating extinction: There is already evidence that Earth is in the middle of a mass extinction event and droughts will undoubtedly worsen the problem. While the relationship between domesticated animals and humans is clear, there is a subtler but no less important relationship between people and wildlife. Even societies that do not rely on wild areas for many calories via hunting and foraging are reliant on species—from earthworms and bees to birds and wolves—to keep landscapes healthy.

  • Displacement of people: Rising sea levels are likely to displace millions of people—and drought may displace millions more. In the last few decades, conditions in east Africa alone have turned millions of people into drought refugees. Such crises are likely to become more frequent.

  • Uptick in violence: There is a long history of droughts sparking wars, not only between countries but within them, too. When water and food become scarce, groups of people tend to fight over what remains.

    The Pentagon has issued a number of reports on how war may feed off climate change, and this process may have already begun. There is some debate about whether or not the current drought in the Middle East led to the rise of the Islamic State.

    Marcus D. King of George Washington University was quoted by the New York Times: “Climate change and water shortages may have triggered the drought that caused farmers to relocate to Syrian cities and triggered situations where youth were more susceptible to joining extremist groups.” In battle, the side that controls water and food often wins the war.


A view inside the Zaatari camp in northern Jordan. The harsh desert environment, with its dust and baking heart, was home to around 120,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria when this photo was taken, August 2013. Photo Credit: UK Department for International Development (Used under Creative Commons license).

Unable to afford the highest risk

The poorest countries will be the first to face climate change’s challenges

World Bank's countries most at risk

World Bank analysis shows that the highlighted countries face the greatest threats from five aspects of climate change. The countries in orange are at particular risk for drought and agricultural shortages. The countries in yellow are most threatened by floods, storms and coastal flooding due to rising sea levels.

Least-developed nations

The countries in blue are on the United Nations’ list of least developed countries, countries that rank lowest on the Human Development Index and in socioeconomic development. Clearly there is a disquieting correlation here: the countries most threatened by aspects of climate change are the least able to afford to mitigate them.

The disproportional effects of drought

How much a drought harms people varies considerably from region to region. Wealthier countries generally have more resources and can dedicate more money and infrastructure to shielding their people from the worst consequences of drought. This is an overview of how recent (and ongoing) drought has been felt by the people of high-income California, middle-income Brazil and lower-income Pakistan.


Flag of California

38.8 million

GDP (nominal)
$1.96 trillion

GDP (per capita)

Water Restrictions

Including the water used to grow food, each American consumes more than 300 gallons of water weekly. Recently, California placed a mandatory reduction of 25 percent on urban water use.

Increased Food Prices

Some food prices have increased over 25 percent. The cost of increases of some goods has been dramatic such as with berries, grapes, broccoli and other fresh fruits and vegetables.

National Impact

California grows more than 99 percent of America’s artichokes, walnuts, kiwis, plums, celery and garlic. Retailers have been trying to find sources for these products outside the U.S. while other regions of the country have begun to intensify their own fruit and vegetable production sectors.


Flag of Brazil

200 million

GDP (nominal)
$2.25 trillion

GDP (per capita)

Low Water Levels

Four million people are effected by rolling blackouts because drought has reduced the amount of water available for hydroelectric power. As of early 2015, the Cantareira Reservoir system, which serves nine million people, was at just five percent capacity.

Coffee Production

Brazil produces about one third of the world’s coffee and employs three and a half million people in the trade. Coffee production is down 15 percent and prices have increased of 50 percent.

Substandard Infrastructure

Thirty-seven percent of Brazil’s urban water supply is lost due to leaky, broken pipes. The Amazon has lost 763,000 km2 of forest in the last 20 years—about twice the size of Japan. This deforestation has interrupted Brazil’s “aerial rivers,” the weather patterns that carry water throughout the country.


Flag of Pakistan

182 million

GDP (nominal)
$232.3 billion

GDP (per capita)

Nowhere Else to Go

During each of the last three major droughts, 90 percent of Pakistan was affected. Up to 60 percent of the country was classified as having a severe or extreme drought.

Net Exporter to Net Importer

Forty-five percent of Pakistan’s labor force works in agriculture. According to projections, Pakistan’s net cereal production will be 20 million tons less in 2050 than it was in 2010.

Malnutrition and Starvation

Seventy-two percent of Pakistani households are food insecure. During the last drought, one hundred and thirty-two children died in three months in the country’s southern Sindh province. The deaths were attributed to the government’s lack of resources.