Thanks to Climate Change, Beer Will Go the Way of Bees, Chocolate and Coffee

Tue, 10/16/2018
It’s not the most severe impact of rising temperatures, but the lack of a cold one on a hot day could “add insult to injury,” says a new study

Climate change is already a sobering topic. Drink up while you can.

Picture Credit: 
Benreis/Wikimedia Commons
Brigit Katz
Smithsonian

As a recent and very dire United Nations report on climate change made clear, rising global temperatures are poised to cause a host of catastrophic effects—extreme heat, floods, increased poverty—within the foreseeable future. If that wasn’t enough to get you worried, consider this: a new study has found that climate change is also likely to lead to shortages in beer.

According to Susan Scutti of CNN, the world’s most popular alcoholic beverage is vulnerable to global warming because its main ingredient is barley, a crop that is sensitive to drought and extreme heat. Hoping to determine how the grain’s outlook might impact beer availability and pricing in the future, an international team of scientists ran a series of computer models in three areas: climate, crops and economics. The models helped the researchers simulate outcomes based on different scenarios, the worst one being that fossil fuel burning and carbon dioxide emissions continue to persist through the 21st century.

The team’s results, published in Nature Plants, show that the future is not looking bright for fans of a pint or two. During the most severe climate events, barley crop yields could drop by as much as 17 percent. Changes in barley supply would cause beer prices to double, on average, and global beer consumption would fall by 16 percent. Even if major reductions are made in fossil fuel and carbon dioxide emissions, beer will likely feel the heat of even modest global warming. The study found that in less extreme weather events, crop yields could still fall by three percent. Global beer consumption would fall by four percent, and prices would go up by 15 percent.

A relatively small amount—17 percent—of the world’s total barley production is used for beer; most of it goes into feeding livestock. But should barley supplies dwindle, higher proportions of the grain will likely be allocated to animals, thereby exacerbating beer shortages, according to the study.

The impact of climate change on barley supplies will, however, vary from country to country. In Australia, for instance, climate change could actually make it easier to grow barley in some regions, Damian Carrington reports for the GuardianThe greatest losses in barley yields are predicted to occur in tropical areas like Central and South America, and Central Africa.

Spikes in beer costs will also fluctuate depending on the region, with wealthy, beer-loving countries experiencing the highest increases in price. In Ireland, a small country with a relatively high per capita beer consumption, prices could go up by as much as 338 percent per bottle. Residents would need to bring the equivalent of an extra $20 to cover the cost of a six-pack, study co-author Steven Davis, an earth systems scientist at the University of California, Irvine, says in a statement. While Irish imbibers might be willing to make the finanicial sacrifice, but in poorer countries, like China, the decrease in beer consumption will be more marked, according to the researchers’ predictions.

Of course, the availability of beer is “not the most concerning impact of future climate change,” as the study authors duly note. But perhaps understanding the threats to the beloved beverage will make some people more inclined to care about the impact of climate change on the world’s crops.

“[T]here is definitely a cross-cultural appeal to beer,” Davis says, “and not having a cool pint at the end of an increasingly common hot day just adds insult to injury.”