Adapt or Fail: Climate Change & Agriculture

Posted on June 8, 2011


According to a new study by Stanford University climate scientists, tropical regions in Africa, Asia and South America can expect permanent rises in summer heat within the next twenty years.  Middle latitude regions like Europe, China and North America can expect a similar permanent temperature rise in sixty years.  Once these sweltering new climates kick in, the coolest summer seasons in these regions will be hotter than the hottest summer seasons now.

Get out the parasols.

See Stanford climate scientists forecast permanently hotter summers beginning in 20 years – Stanford U News

Of course, a lot of the Stanford forecast has to do with whether world governments decide to act against climate change by reducing carbon emissions, and so on.  If governments don’t act soon and effectively, permanent and extreme changes in climate of the kind talked about in the study are a certainty.

But because humanity has been chopping down trees, lowering the oceans’ biomass and pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for a century and a half or more, a goodly portion of those temperature rises are already locked in, whatever our civilization decides to do in regard to mitigation today and tomorrow.

Climate change is already all around us, after all, and forces already in play are a long way from having run their course.  No matter what the world chooses to do to mitigate climate change for the future, the climate will get a lot more extreme before it stabilizes, and where it stabilizes will be a lot hotter than we are used to.  No matter how you look at it—barring magic-wand solutions no one has conceived of yet—humanity is going to have to adapt.

Among the people already facing the need to adapt are farmers.

See Identifying Hot Spots of Future Food Shortages Due to Climate Change – Scientific American

Agriculture is one area that did very well globally in the latter half of the twentieth century.  The so-called Green Revolution, pushed forward by a global effort, brought improved crop varieties and more intensive farming methods to the developing world, and for a while the rise in global agricultural production comfortably outstripped the rise in global population.

Unfortunately, the very success of the Green Revolution lulled the world into thinking it had done enough, that the problem of hunger had essentially been solved, and so the international effort lapsed.  This lapse of attention—as failing crops and rising hunger in the last decade make clear—was a mistake.

See A Warming Planet Struggles to Feed Itself – NY Times

There have been two disastrous increases in international grain prices since 2007, and tens of millions people have been left hungrier as a result of these increases.  The recent battles for democracy in the Arab world were hungry battles.  The government of Haiti was ousted by a hungry people in 2008.

Some of this hunger was the consequence of failed harvests caused by weather disasters: — floods in the USA, an extended drought in Australia, heat waves in Europe and Russia.  Some disasters are expected under natural variation.  But when natural variation is exacerbated by climate change, disasters become ever more likely and ever more normal.

Special report: Scientists Race to Avoid Climate Change Harvest – Scientific American

Agriculture is vulnerable in many ways to climate change:  water availability now and in the future, number of days above 30o C (86o F)—long bouts of that kind of heat can wither a crop—length of a particular crop’s growing period in relation to the number of reliable growing days in a region, high or low rainfall, etc.

If regional climate changes to drier, then dry weather crops must be emphasized and new water-gathering techniques instituted.  If regional climate changes to wetter, other kinds of adjustments must be made, more water-tolerant crops instituted, for instance.  If the number of very hot days in a region increases—endangering harvests by reducing the number of days when crops can effectively grow—then heat resistant strains or crops have to be discovered and substituted.

Failure to act and to adapt in the face of ever-increasing impacts from climate change will inevitably result in hunger.  We’ve seen indications of what can happen already, and climate change is hardly getting started.

The world of climate change is the world Alice visited when she passed through the looking glass—a world where, because of ever-changing conditions, you have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place.

Agriculturally speaking, it’s time we strapped our running shoes on.  It’s either adapt or face widespread crop failures and widespread starvation.

Climate change is real, is with us, and is not offering us any other choices.