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The biggest threat to the global economy? The weather

Images of the vast, swelling Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and neighbouring countries have gripped TV viewers around the world. One camp in Jordan, called Zaatari, holds 120,000 Syrian refugees, making it the country's fourth-biggest city.

The makeshift cities will get bigger as the Syrian civil war intensifies. This week, the United Nations reported that about two million Syrians, half of them children, have fled the country, up from 230,000 a year ago. About 5,000 Syrians leave Syria every day and more than four million have been uprooted within the country. The number will no doubt increase if the United States starts a bombing campaign against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's military instalments, as it has threatened to do.

The Syrian crisis has triggered one of the biggest human mass movements in recent decades and there are bound to be others, certainly from war, but also from climate change as droughts and floods create uninhabitable areas. That's the view of Munich Re, which has been researching climate change and global warming since the mid-1970s, decades before the terms entered the everyday lexicon.

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In an interview in Munich, Peter Hoppe, the meteorologist who is head of the reinsurance giant's georisk unit, said: "Climate change will create security problems because of the migrations it will create."

Drought is emerging as one of the biggest natural hazards.

It has the potential to reshape human landscapes and entire economies, mostly for the worse but sometimes for the better. Canada is less prone to drought than the United States; it could emerge as the world's emergency breadbasket if the warming trend extends the growing season and the amount of productive agricultural land.

A long time ago, Munich Re's scientists, who include some of world's leading meteorologists, geologists, hydrologists and geophysicists, concluded that anthroprogenic climate change was behind the alarming increase in weather-related natural catastrophes – storms, floods, droughts, forest fires and extreme high and low temperatures – in recent decades.

Whether Munich Re's analysis is right is irrelevant. There is no doubt that the frequency and intensity of the events, and their cost, is on the rise whether or not the climate is changing because of human activity, natural evolution of the climate, sunspots or evil little green men zapping the atmosphere with ray guns.

Droughts are especially ugly because they sometimes develop gradually, meaning that their potential to cause harm is often ignored, and can last many years. The 2011 famine in Somalia was caused by a severe drought. Russia got walloped by back-to-back droughts in 2010 and 2011, to the point that the government slapped a temporary ban on wheat exports to protect domestic supplies.

The biggie came in the United States Midwest last year. Munich Re says the drought, and the heat wave that went with it, caused $20-billion (U.S.) in damage, of which no more than $17-billion was insured. There were also 100 fatalities. The only other natural catastrophe that cost more in 2012 was Superstorm Sandy, whose ocean surges created about $65-billion in damage, less than half of which was insured (the third-costliest natural catastrophe was the earthquake in northern Italy, whose losses were largely uninsured).

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The fallout from the U.S. drought was felt around the world and it's a miracle that it didn't cause hunger in the regions where food is scarce and incomes low. The United States is the world largest producer and exporter of corn, and the largest producer and second largest exporter of soybeans. In July, 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture determined that about half the corn and soybean crop was in poor or very poor condition because of hot temperatures and low rainfall. Prices for corn rose 30 per cent; soybean prices went up 20 per cent. U.S. and worldwide stocks of both commodities dropped to record lows.

Munich Re predicts that heat waves are likely to occur every two or three years in the U.S. Midwest and in central Europe, and as often as every one or two years in Southeast Asia, raising the potential for repeated mass drought. Add many more mouths to feed – the global population will rise to as much as 10 billion from today's seven billion by 2050 – and you have a scenario for the return of the food crisis. In a recent column, Mr. Hoppe said "droughts will be one of the most catastrophic natural hazards in coming years, posing a huge threat to world food supplies."

The former boss of the World Food Program, Josette Sheeran, was fond of saying that the desperately hungry do one of three things: They riot, they migrate or they die. The Syrian civil war is giving the world an uncomfortable taste of the effects of mass migration. An enormous drought could make that migration look small and its security and economic consequences would be hard to fathom. It appears that no country, rich or poor, has a plan to deal with mass drought and mass migration. The trend lines should not be ignored.

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