Category Archives: Food security

Climate change heralds end of civilisations

Arid land in the former Fertile Crescent area of south-west Syria Image; Simone Riehl/Tübingen University
Arid landscape in the former ‘Fertile Crescent’ area of south-west Syria
Image; Simone Riehl/Tübingen University

By Paul Brown

New research supports the growing body of evidence that many past civilisations have collapsed because of climate change. So is history repeating itself?

LONDON, 13 August, 2014 –  Scientists looking at what is known as the “Fertile Crescent” of ancient Mesopotamia have found new evidence that drought caused by climate change brings an end to civilisations.

It is the latest study that confirms the threat posed to present civilisations in Africa, Asia and parts of the United States by changes in rainfall pattern that could lead to the abandonment of once-fertile areas − and the cities that once were fed by them.

The focus of research by a team from Tübingen University, Germany, is the area currently part of Iraq and the Persian Gulf where the development of ancient agriculture led to the rise of large cities.

Evidence from grain samples up to 12,000 years old shows that while the weather was good, the soil fertile and the irrigation system well managed, civilisation grew and prospered. When the climate changed and rainfall became intermittent, agriculture collapsed and the cities were abandoned.

Analysed grains

Dr Simone Riehl, of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences and the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoenvironment at Tübingen University, analysed grains of barley up to 12,000 years old from 33 locations across the Fertile Crescent to find out if they had had enough water while growing and ripening.

The 1,037 ancient samples were between 12,000 and 2,500 years old. They were compared with modern samples from 13 locations in the former Fertile Crescent.

Dr. Riehl and her team measured the grains’ content of two stable carbon isotopes.

When barley grass gets insufficient water while growing, the proportion of heavier carbon isotopes deposited in its cells will be higher than normal. The two isotopes 12C and 13C remain stable for thousands of years and can be measured precisely – giving Riehl and her colleagues reliable information on the availability of water while the plants were growing.

They found that many settlements were affected by drought linked to major climate fluctuations. “Geographic factors and technologies introduced by humans played a big role and influenced societies’ options for development, as well as their particular ways of dealing with drought,” Riehl says.

Her findings indicate that harvests in coastal regions of the northern Levant, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, were little affected by drought. But further inland, drought led to the need for irrigation or, in extreme cases, abandonment of the settlement.

The findings give archaeologists clues as to how early agricultural societies dealt with climate fluctuations and differing local environments. “They can also help evaluate current conditions in regions with a high risk of crop failures,” Riehl adds.

The study is part of a project, backed by the German Research Foundation, looking into the conditions under which Ancient Near Eastern societies rose and fell.

Scientists carrying out similar research in the Indus Valley, in present Pakistan and north-west India, home to the Harappan Civilisation, also believe that drought was the cause of the civilisation’s demise.

It was characterised by large, well-planned cities with advanced municipal sanitation systems and a script that has never been deciphered. But the Harappans seemed to slowly lose their urban cohesion, and their cities were gradually abandoned.

Cities abandoned

According to an article in Nature in March, a 200-year drought, caused by the failure of the monsoon, led to the abandonment of the cities and the end of the civilisation.

Across the Atlantic, another puzzle was the loss of the Mayan cities and culture in Central America. This was a people that had the time, money and manpower to build massive temples and cities for a population estimated at 13 million.

Many theories have been put forward as to why, over a period of about 200 years from 750 to 950AD, the Mayans abandoned their way of life. Research on the subject by Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, says that a series of droughts caused by local climate change was the cause.

With the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicting a faltering of the monsoon that is vital for the Indian sub-continent’s ability to feed itself, it seems as though history could repeat itself. Certainly, some people in India believe it could happen unless action to curb climate change is taken.

Environmental refugees in Africa are also seen as victims of changing weather patterns, and California is suffering a three-year drought that is badly affecting water supplies in this most prosperous of American states. – Climate News Network

Warming threatens to cut crop yields

Food for thought: a heap of maize harvested in Vietnam Image: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên via Wikimedia Commons
Food for thought: a heap of newly-harvested maize in Vietnam
Image: Bùi Thụy Đào Nguyên via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The odds on food production being unable to meet the needs of an expanding population are hard to predict, but a new study shows that the risk increases dramatically when man-made climate change is factored in.

LONDON, 2 August, 2014 − Projecting the impact of climate change on global food production is no easy task. A warming climate might result in better crop yields in one region, but cause drought and crop failure in another.

A new US study, published in the journal Environmental Letters, assesses the odds of a major slowdown in global food production over the next 20 years.

Overall, the study’s authors say, the likelihood of a sharp drop in yields of crops vital to food supply, such as wheat and maize, is “not very high” − but global warming does markedly increase the chance of such events happening. The risk to global food supplies is about 20 times greater when man-made climate change is taken into account.

“Climate change has substantially increased the prospect that crop production will fail to keep up with rising demand in the next 20 years,” says Claudia Tebaldi, a research scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a co-author of the study.

Climate trends

Tebaldi, together with David Lobell, an associate director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at California’s Stanford University, used computer models of global climate trends, together with data on weather patterns and crops, to calculate the odds of a major downturn in food supplies.

“I’m often asked whether climate change will threaten food supply, as if it’s a simple yes or no answer,” Lobell says.

“The truth is that, over a period of 10 or 20 years, it depends largely on how fast the Earth warms, and we can’t predict the pace of warming very precisely. So the best we can do is try to determine the odds.”

Yields of crops such as maize and wheat have typically increased by between one and two per cent a year over recent decades. This trend, says the study, needs to be maintained to cope with population growth, greater per capita food consumption, and the increased use of crops for biofuels.

The authors of the study – which was funded by the US government’s National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy − found that under what they term natural climate shifts, the odds on that trend slowing up to 2030 were only 1 in 200.

Global food supplies

However, when human-induced global warming is taken into account, the odds shorten to one in 10 for a slowing in yields of maize and one in 20 for wheat production. Such cutbacks, says the study, would have a major impact on global food supplies at a time when demand is growing sharply.

Tebaldi and Lobell say an increase of 1˚C in temperature is capable of slowing maize yields by 7% and wheat yields by 6%, although there are regional variations to these figures.

The study says a slowdown in yields of maize and wheat could, in theory, be offset by shifting planting to cooler regions, but there is little sign that such shifts are happening – at least not quickly enough to take account of warmer temperatures.

“We can’t predict whether a major slowdown in crop growth will actually happen, and the odds are still fairly low,” says Tebaldi.

“But climate change has increased the odds to the point that organisations concerned with food security or global stability need to be aware of this risk.” − Climate News Network

Pakistan ill prepared for climate crises

A family is carried to safety by donkey cart during the 2010 floods in Sindh province Image: Saleem Shaikh
A family is carried to safety during the 2010 floods in Sindh province
Image: Saleem Shaikh

By Saleem Shaikh

Evidence that shifting weather patterns are adding to flooding and drought emergencies in Pakistan has failed to stir the government into preparing for disaster management, say climate seminar delegates.

ISLAMABAD, 1 August, 2014 − Scientists and opposition politicians in Pakistan have strongly criticised the government for what they say is its neglectful attitude towards coping with the challenges posed by climate change.

“The government’s insufficient response to shifting weather patterns continues to cost the national economy dearly and is depriving people of their livelihoods, particularly in the agricultural sector,” Malik Amin Aslam Khan, a former state minister for environment, told a climate change seminar in Islamabad.

Local institutions are ill-prepared in disaster management, said Amin Aslam , and there is an urgent need for more co-ordination with various international bodies in order to cope with climate extremes.

The seminar, Climate Resilient Economic Development in Pakistan, was organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a Pakistan-based not-for-profit organisation, with the aim of pressuring government to prepare better for the impacts of climate change.

Pakistan, with a population of nearly 180 million, is considered to be one of the countries most vulnerable to changes in climate.

Devastating floods

In each of the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, devastating floods hit the country, with hundreds of people killed and millions forced from their homes. IAnd in 2013, the farming sector was hit by a serious drought.

Qamar uz Zaman, a former director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, told Climate News Network that there are signs that the summer monsoon rains – vital to millions of the country’s farmers – are well below normal, which only adds to the country’s problems.

Germanwatch, an independent organisation promoting sustainable development policies, produces an annual assessment of countries around the world most exposed to climate-related risks. In its latest risk survey – based on events and statistics collected for the year 2012 − Pakistan is ranked third most exposed country, after Haiti and the Philippines.

Ahsan Iqbal, deputy chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan, told Climate News Network that the government was prevented from responding to climate change due to a lack of funds.

He said: “The country has suffered economic damage of more than US$16bn as a result of floods in recent years – and it now needs more than US$20bn to restore infrastructure to pre 2010 levels.”

Delegates at the seminar said the government was reducing, rather than increasing, expenditure on climate-related mitigation and adaptation projects. A Climate Change Division, overseen by Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, had a budget of only US$350,000.

Grave challenges

“The paltry allocation for the Climate Change Division indicates that the government is dismissive about the grave challenges of climate change, despite highlighting its far-reaching impacts on the economy,” said Shafqat Kakakhel, a former deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Deforestation is seen as one of the main reasons behind the floods and devastation of recent years.

Rehana Siddiqui, a forest researcher at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, told the seminar that Pakistan had the highest deforestation rate in Asia, and if trees continued to be cut down at the present rate, the country’s forests would vanish completely within 35 to 40 years.

Siddiqui said that tree loss meant more flash floods, landslides and erosion, yet there was no national programme on how to regenerate forest cover. – Climate New Network

  • Saleem Shaikh is a climate change and science journalist based in Islamabad.

New seeds of hope for Nepal’s farmers

Growing concern: in Nepal, 50% of arable land is planted with rice Image: Sigismund von Dobschütz via Wikimedia Commons
Growing concern: in Nepal, 50% of arable land is planted with rice
Image: Sigismund von Dobschütz via Wikimedia Commons

By Om Astha Rai

Climate-resilient varieties of rice could help to protect crop yields from the ravages of droughts and floods caused by the increasingly erratic weather patterns in South Asia.

KATHMANDU, 30 July, 2014 − Farmers badly affected by changing weather patterns in South Asia now have the opportunity to improve food security by planting new varieties of rice capable of withstanding the impact of both severe droughts and floods.

This is particularly good news for countries such as Nepal, where around 65% of its more than 26 million people are involved in agriculture. Rice is the country’s most important crop, planted on more than 50% of its arable land.

And it comes at a time when new research using satellite imaging has highlighted the growing need to change agricultural practices in South Asia as higher average temperatures cause the reduction of crop yields on the Indo-Gangetic plain.

Scientists say the new seeds, developed by the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and approved by the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), are vital in order to deal with changing weather patterns − in particular, the increasingly erratic behaviour of the all-important South Asia monsoon.

“These new varieties can really change the future of the country’s farmers,” says Dr Dil Bahadur Gurung, NARC’s executive director. “The new rice can, in most cases, beat the effects of droughts and floods.

Reduce impact

“All these varieties have been tested in Nepal’s soil and climate over and over again. If all the country’s farmers replace their traditional varieties with these new ones, the impact of climate change on our agriculture could be reduced considerably.”

Local scientists say the timing of the South Asia monsoon − the only source of irrigation for the majority of Nepali farmers − is changing.

“Each year, we see the monsoon arriving later,” says Mani Ratna Shakya, a leading meteorologist in Nepal. “The duration of the monsoon is also getting shorter as each year passes.”

According to Nepal’s Meteorological Forecasting Division, the monsoon − which usually arrives in Nepal during the first week in June − came 10 days late this year.

Droughts are becoming more frequent. This year, the monsoon is generally judged to be very weak, leaving a vast area of arable land parched, particularly in western parts of Nepal. And often, when the rains eventually do arrive, they are torrential, causing flash floods.

So far, NARC has approved six drought-tolerant varieties of rice, under the name Sukkha − meaning dry.

“Ordinary rice varieties dry out and die in droughts,” says Hari Krishna Uprety, a paddy expert at NARC. “The new seeds survive droughts even in the early stage of growth. And uncertainty about the onset of monsoon has made these varieties even more important.”

Hari Krishna Uprety, NARC paddy expert, with new rice seed varieties Image: Om Astha Rai
Hari Krishna Uprety, NARC paddy expert,
with the new rice seed varieties
Image: Om Astha Rai

The new varieties still need water, of course, but they become more drought tolerant by being able to store energy during the early stages of their growth.

Two rice varieties capable of surviving flood conditions for up to two weeks have also been approved by NARC.

Erratic climate

Although the experts are backing the introduction of the new seeds in order to combat an increasingly erratic climate, persuading farmers to change their cultivation methods is a difficult task.

Farmers are often reluctant to replace traditional rice varieties, which in Nepal tend to be specific to each part of the country, depending on soil conditions, elevation, and other factors.

The new seeds are no more expensive than the traditional ones, and farmers even get a 30% discount on seeds approved by NARC, but a factor that could hamper uptake is that distribution is through the National Seed Company, which is not yet reaching out to farmers in every village.

But scientists warn that the new varieties must be planted – not only to combat changes in climate, but also to feed growing populations. – Climate News Network

• Om Astha Rai is a reporter with Nepalese national newspaper, Republica Daily.

Rising heat hits Indian wheat crop

 

Feeling the heat: crop harvests in India yielding less Image: Yann via Wikimedia Commons
Feeling the heat: the yield from wheat harvests in India is falling
Image: Yann via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

Satellite imaging highlights the growing need to change agricultural practices in South Asia as higher average temperatures cause the reduction of crop yields on the Indo-Gangetic plain.

LONDON, 28 July, 2014 − Researchers in the UK have established a link between changing climate and agriculture that could have significant consequences for food supplies in South Asia.

They have found evidence of a relationship between rising average temperatures in India and reduced wheat production, which was increasing until about a decade ago but has now stopped.

The researchers, Dr John Duncan, Dr Jadu Dash and Professor Pete Atkinson, all geographers at the University of Southampton, say an intensification is predicted for the recent increases in warmth in India’s main wheat belt that are damaging crop yields.

The greatest impact that the hotter environment has on wheat, they say, comes from a rise in night-time temperatures.

Vulnerability

Dr Dash said: “Our findings highlight the vulnerability of India’s wheat production system to temperature rise. We are sounding an early warning to the problem, which could have serious implications in the future and so needs further investigation.”

The team is the first to use satellite imagery to establish the link between warming and crop yields. The images were taken at weekly intervals, from 2002 to 2007, of the wheat-growing seasons to measure the “vegetation greenness” − an indicator of crop yield.

The imagery, of the north-west Indo-Gangetic plain, was taken at such a high resolution that it was able to capture variations in local agricultural practices. The plains stretch over much of northern and eastern India, and into parts of Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

The data was then compared with climate and temperature information for the area to examine the effect on growth and development of the crop.

The study, published in the journal Global Change Biology, found that warmer temperatures reduced crop yield. Greater warmth during the reproductive and ripening periods, in particular, had “a significant negative impact on productivity”. But it was the warmer nights that did the greatest harm.

In some parts of the Indian wheat belt, growers have been advancing their growing season to make sure that the most sensitive point of the crop growth cycle falls within a cooler period. But in the long term, the researchers say, this will not help, because of the high average temperature rises predicted.

Dr Dash said farmers would have to think seriously about changing to more heat-tolerant wheat varieties. “Currently in India, 213 million people are food insecure and over 100 million are reliant on the national food welfare system, which uses huge quantities of wheat,” he said.

Regular data

“We hope that soon we will be able to examine agricultural practices in even greater detail, with the launch of the European Space Agency’s Sentinel satellites, which will provide regular data at even higher spatial resolution.”

In 2012, India was the world’s second largest wheat producer, with 94.9 million tonnes. It was self-sufficient and able to sell some wheat overseas, although the government has now limited exports.

India’s production was exceeded only by China’s. But China is building up its reserves of wheat, and is now widely seen as working more energetically than many developing countries for an ambitious global climate change agreement.

Dr Dash told the Climate News Network: “Ten years ago, India’s yield of wheat was increasing. Today, it’s stagnant − and the predictions are that, by 2050, average temperatures will be 5% higher than they are now. This is a wake-up call for the whole of South Asia.” − Climate News Network

Gene machinery helps plants handle CO2 rise

 

The mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides vital scientific clues Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons
Mouse-ear cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) provides valuable scientific clues
Image: Alberto Salguero Quiles via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

The discovery of how plants respond to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could provide agricultural scientists with new tools to engineer crops that can deal with droughts and high temperatures.

LONDON, 10 July, 2014 − Biologists in the US have identified the genetic machinery that tells a plant how to respond to more carbon dioxide caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

Four genes from three different gene families together control the density of stomata, or breathing pores, on the foliage of the healthy plant. As carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rise, plants respond and make fewer stomata.

That means they can detect a gradual change in the levels of a vital gas – a change from 280 parts per million 200 years ago to 400 parts per million now – and change their plumbing arrangements.

In theory, more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be better for plant fertility, and the reduction in stomata means that they should use water more economically. Water is a big expense for the growing plant.

Lose water

“For each carbon dioxide molecule that is incorporated into plants through photosynthesis, plants lose about 200 molecules of water through their stomata,” says Julian Schroeder, professor of biological sciences at the University of California San Diego, who led the team that reports in Nature  journal.

“Because elevated CO2 reduces the stomatal density in leaves, this is at first sight beneficial for plants, as they would lose less water. However, the reduction in the number of stomatal pores decreases the ability of plants to cool their leaves during a heat wave via water evaporation. Less evaporation adds to heat stress in plants, which ultimately affects crop yield.”

Quite how crops will respond to a greenhouse gas world has been exercising field biologists, agronomists and government planners for decades.

Plants respond to warmth and to plentiful carbon dioxide. But, as researchers found in April this year, that may not make crops more nourishing. It would be possible to have vigorous growth but lower protein yields in, for example, fields of wheat.

There is a second unresolved question: a warmer world will mean more evaporation, more rainfall in some regions, and greater aridity in others − not helpful to productive farming.

A third challenge is that extremes of heat in the growing season can have a catastrophic effect on the harvest later in the year.

But the San Diego research may, in the end, help tomorrow’s farmers. The study shows that when their test species Arabidopsis thaliana – a little mustard plant also known as mouse-ear cress − senses a rise in atmospheric levels of CO2, it increases the levels of a peptide hormone that alters the genetic machinery in the skin of growing leaves, and blocks the formation of stomata.

The challenge was to identify all the proteins involved, and the genes that are at work.

Plant health

“This change causes leaf temperature to rise because of a decrease in the plant’s evapotranspirative cooling ability, while simultaneously increasing the transpiration efficiency of plants,” the report says. “These phenomena, combined with the increasing scarcity of fresh water for agriculture, are predicted to dramatically impact on plant health.”

The more researchers know about the physiological response of a growing thing, the more confidently they can predict how it will react to changing conditions, the better they will be able to advise farmers on the plants to sow, and the more likely it is that they will be able to breed new strains that can adapt to new conditions.

“At a time when the pressing issues of climate change and inherent agronomic consequences which are mediated by the continuing atmospheric rise of CO2 are palpable, these advances could become of interest to crop biologists and climate change modellers,” said molecular biologist Cawas Engineer, lead author of the paper. – Climate News Network 

South Asia slow to act on water threats

The Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India Image NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons
Satellite image of the vast Ganges river delta in Bangladesh and India
Image: NASA World Wind via Wikimedia Commons

By Nivedita Khandekar

A study of the five countries sharing and relying on the Indian sub-continent’s great rivers shows that Bangladesh is the only one that is taking climate change seriously.

NEW DELHI, 7 July, 2014: Even before this year’s delayed and inadequate monsoon recently brought some relief to the Indian sub-continent, researchers discovered widespread concern by local experts that their governments are mismanaging the water supplies on which a billion people depend for survival, and giving insufficient attention to climate change.

A new report, Attitudes to Water in South Asia, explores domestic water management and transboundary water issues in five countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan. It focuses on two river systems, the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and the Indus-Kabul basins, which are vital to the lives of a vast population.

Chatham House – the home of the Royal Institute of International Affairs − worked on the report with India’s Observer Research Foundation, and similar partner organisations in the other four countries. Their findings are based on evidence from almost 500 interviews conducted in the five countries in 2013 with a range of water experts, government officials, policy-makers and decision-makers from NGOs and the private sector.

Observing that water is “highly politicised in the region, with strong links to food security and the livelihoods of the large proportion of the population dependent on agriculture”, the report underscores the relation between the domestic mismanagement of water in each country and the failure to address transboundary water relations.

Few agreements

“In spite of the shared river system and the interdependencies, South Asian governments have signed few bilateral water agreements and no regional ones,” the report says. “Those transboundary water treaties that do exist face criticism on a number of grounds: for time periods too short to too long; and for their lack of provision for environmental factors or new challenges, such as climate change.”.

Yet the ability of countries in South Asia to deal with the possible effects of climate change will be in part determined by their ability to manage water, and also how they deal with weather events such as floods and droughts.

“The majority . . .  expressed concern that their governments
were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention”

While many respondents across the region felt that other immediate concerns were more pressing, the majority of those interviewed expressed concern that their governments were giving the issue of climate change insufficient attention,” said Gareth Price, a senior research fellow at Chatham House and lead author of the report.

For instance, in Afghanistan, even where respondents had some knowledge of the body responsible for setting government-wide policy on climate change, they were equally certain that the amount of practical action on ground was virtually zero.

In Bangladesh, where most respondents were acutely aware of climate change and its possible effects, many said their government was doing better. There was a general consensus that ministers had made climate change a priority by setting aside funds for adaptation and mitigation.

However, Afghani and Bangladeshi respondents noted the lack of availability of important policy documents − currently available only in English − in local languages..

And Indian respondents felt that climate change was not a major priority for the government, although it was widely recognised that it could wreak havoc on the country.

“Inadequate water storage leaving farmers vulnerable to the vagaries of weather suggest an urgent need for appropriate investment in such facilities in order to not just increase agriculture production, but also to ensure farmers have an option to adjust to changing climate,” the report says.

Food security

Climate change could also have a big impact on the transboundary water relations, the report warns. Some respondents from India and Bangladesh feared that a variation in the timing and intensity of monsoons could affect agricultural production and weaken food security, “driving tension between the two countries over access to water in a dry period”.

Interviewees from Nepal perceived climate change as a “future threat”, in comparison with immediate challenges and the need to increase access to water and electricity. Most respondents felt that Nepal’s approach was “inadequate” and pointed out the gap between national plans and local implementation.

Pakistani respondents believed their country’s approach to climate change lacked “urgency”. They particularly pointed out that a Ministry of Climate Change had recently been reduced to a mere division of another ministry, and had had its funding slashed by 62%.

Brink of cataclysm

The report quoted a climate change expert working with the Pakistan government, who said his country stood on the brink of an environmental cataclysm, with the seasonal monsoon shifting away from traditional catchment areas towards Afghanistan. “This trend, reinforced by climate change, [has]increased the likelihood of extraordinary rainfall patterns, cloudbursts, and flash floods,” he said.

The researchers’ recommendations Include: improving domestic water management, and rainwater harvesting; enhancing data collection, data sharing and discussions between the five countries, particularly in relation to floods and droughts, and the management of watersheds and river basins; easing water demand through less water-intensive crops and irrigation methods.

They also stress that existing treaties should be revisited, ensuring that they address technological advances, environmental factors and climate change. – Climate News Network

  • Nivedita Khandekar is a journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on environmental and developmental issues. She has worked at the Press Trust of India, India’s premier news agency, and the Hindustan Times, one of the leading national daily newspapers in India. Her journalistic achievements include a national award for environmental reporting, an award for reporting on health issues, and a Rural Reporting Fellowship.

Climate puts US at risk of multi-billion bill

Overheating: US crops such as cotton face a %20 drop in yield Image: Wars via Wikinmedia Commons
Overheated economy: US crops such as cotton face a 20% drop in yield
Image: Wars via Wikimedia Commons

By Alex Kirby

A study of the possible cost of climate change to the US economy warns government and business that billions of dollars could be at risk through damage to property, reduced harvests and workers incapacitated by extreme heat.

LONDON, 29 June, 2014 − The sheer economic cost of climate change to Americans could be far greater than many realise, an influential study says.

The study was commissioned by the Risky Business Project, a research organisation chaired by a bi-partisan panel and supported by several former US Treasury Secretaries.

It expects climate change to have varied impacts across different regions and industries. Rising sea levels, it says, could destroy many billion dollars’ worth of coastal properties by 2050, and warming temperatures, especially in the south, south-west and mid-west, could cut the productivity of people working outdoors by 3%.

Without a change in crops, harvests in these regions could fall by 14%. But further north, in states such as North Dakota and Montana, winter temperatures will probably rise, reducing frost and cold-related deaths and lengthening the growing season for some crops.

Kate Gordon, executive director of the Risky Business Project, said : “We still live in a single integrated national economy, so just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean you won’t feel the heat of climate change.”

Michael Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, said: “Damages from storms, flooding, and heat waves are already costing local economies billions of dollars. We saw that firsthand in New York City with Hurricane Sandy.

Costs of inaction

“With the oceans rising and the climate changing, the Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents − and impossible to ignore.”

Hank Paulson, a former Treasury Secretary and co-chair of the Risky Business Project, said the report shows us that “our economy is vulnerable to an overwhelming number of risks from climate change.

“But if we act immediately, we can still avoid most of the worst impacts of climate change and significantly reduce the odds of catastrophic outcomes. But the investments we’re making today will determine our economic future.”

In a section on short-term climate threats, the authors say: “The American economy is already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. These impacts will likely grow materially over the next 5 to 25 years…”

“Just because it’s not hot where you are doesn’t mean
you won’t feel the heat of climate change”

They say there is a 1-in-20 chance of yield losses of more than 20% in corn, wheat, soya and cotton crops over that timespan.

On energy, they say changes in temperature driven by greenhouse gases will probably mean a need to build roughly 200 average coal-fired or natural gas-fired power plants between 2020 and 2045, costing up to $12 billion per year.

Climate impacts, the report says, are unusual because future risks are directly tied to present decisions. By failing to lower greenhouse gas emissions today, decision-makers put in place processes that increase overall risks tomorrow.

By 2050, on present trends, $66bn-$106bn worth of existing coastal property will probably be below sea level nationwide, with $238-$507bn worth by 2100.

By mid-century, the average American will probably see 27 to 50 days over 95°F (35°C) each year − two to more than three times the average annual number of such days seen over the last 30 years. By the end of the century, this number will probably average 45 to 96 days over 95°F each year.

But the study says that the south-west, south-east, and upper mid-west will probably see several months of 95°F days annually.

Human threshold

In the longer term, extreme heat during parts of the year could pass the threshold at which the human body can no longer maintain a normal core temperature without air conditioning. At these times, anyone who has to work outdoors, or without access to air conditioning, will face severe health risks and possible death.

The authors say they hope it will become standard practice for the American business and investment community to factor climate change into its decision-making process. They say: “We are already seeing this response from the agricultural and national security sectors; we are starting to see it from the bond markets and utilities as well.

“But business still tends to respond only to the extent that these risks intersect with core short-term financial and planning decisions.”

And the authors warn the government: “We also know that the private sector does not operate in a vacuum, and that the economy runs most smoothly when government sets a consistent policy and a regulatory framework within which business has the freedom to operate.

“Right now, cities and businesses are scrambling to adapt to a changing climate without sufficient federal government support…” − Climate News Network

US corn’s gravy train faces derailment

 

A field of Maize in the Corn Belt state of South Dakota on the American Great Plains Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons
A ripening field of maize in the American Corn Belt state of South Dakota
Image: Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

By Kieran Cooke

The US produces enough corn in one year to fill a freight train stretching round the world, according to a recent study. But climate change and unsustainable use of water resources and fertilizers threaten this vast industry.

LONDON, 22 June, 2014 – One-third of cropland in the US is devoted to corn. It produces nearly 40% of the world’s corn, and a record harvest last year was valued at nearly $70 billion.

But now there are warnings that this mighty agricultural edifice – which supports not only farmers, but a legion of food and animal feed, transport and other companies, big and small − could be seriously damaged by a changing climate.

To make matters worse, increasingly scarce water supplies could also have an adverse effect, and so too could the intensification of growing techniques − in particular, the overuse of  fertilizers and pesticides.

A study by Ceres, a US not-for-profit group that lobbies for more environmental sustainability in the business sector, looks at the risks facing one of the country’s main industries.

Negative impact

States in the American Midwest and the Great Plains region – known as the Corn Belt − account for the bulk of corn production. But the study warns: “Record-breaking weather events – including prolonged drought, intense precipitation and high temperatures – are increasingly common in the Corn Belt and are negatively impacting corn yields and corporate profits.”

Floods in 2010/11 caused millions of dollars worth of crop losses in many areas. Lands were also degraded, and erosion increased. The following year there was drought, when the rains didn’t arrive and temperatures soared.

“The 2012/13 drought exemplified the vulnerability of the US corn supply chain to extreme weather,” the study says.

The bulk of US corn output goes either to animal feed or to the production of ethanol fuels, with only 10% going to food processing.

According to the report: “The 2012/13 drought had unusually severe financial impacts for many companies in the US corn value chain, hitting the meat and grain trading sectors particularly hard.

“Impacts ranged from interruptions to corn supply − which affected meat processing and ethanol refining activities − to operational challenges linked to insufficient water for manufacturing facilities, to low Mississippi river water levels that restrict transport of agricultural goods.”

While the percentage of corn production shipped abroad is relatively small, the US is still the world’s biggest corn exporter. Shortages or rising prices can have an adverse impact on the developing world, with the potential for outbreaks of serious social unrest.

The study points out that extreme weather events in recent years have resulted in large-scale price volatility. This in turn has led to what it calls riskier growing practices, with farmers and the big agricultural conglomerates seeking to cash in on rises in the market by using ever more fertilizer and pesticides on their lands.

The US government’s recent National Climate Assessment said the negative effects of climate change, such as higher temperatures and drought, would outweigh any positive impacts in the Midwest and Great Plains.

The Ceres study says corn is particularly sensitive to higher temperatures, and much of the corn is grown in regions where water supplies are already limited. In future, corn growing might have to move to cooler and more water-abundant areas further north.

Northward shift

“Higher temperatures and increased water stress mean that increased irrigation for corn will be required. Given limited water supply in parts of the Great Plains region, a northward shift in corn acreage is predicted, increasing the risk of stranded agricultural assets, such as processing, storage and transportation infrastructure.”

Costs, to the agricultural industry and to the US government are mounting. In 2012-13, the government’s Federal Crop Insurance Programme paid out a record $10.8 billion to farmers, mostly for reasons related to the drought.

Ceres says farmers and the large conglomerates that control increasing amounts of agricultural land must learn to farm more sustainably. In many cases, this means a less intensive crop regime.

There should be more measured use of fertilizers and pesticides. More efficient irrigations methods and charging systems that encourage less water use should also be implemented.

More mixed cropping should be introduced in order to preserve soil fertility, the report recommends. And companies should examine their supply chains, and pressure the farming sector to put in place better land practices.

Perhaps most controversially, Ceres has a simple message that is likely to cause a storm of anger across the Corn Belt: buy less corn. – Climate News Network

Europe faces cereals crop crash

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

 

Cereal numbers: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, UK Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

Cereal failures: yields could be slashed from barley fields such as this one in Suffolk, England
Image: Eileen Henderson via Wikimedia Commons

By Tim Radford

Two new studies raise concerns that Europe’s wheat and barley yields could be heading for a serious fall as a result of temperature rise and an increase in extreme weather

LONDON, 2 June − Harvests of wheat and barley across Europe could be 20% lower by 2040 as average temperatures rise by 2°C. And by 2060, European farmers could be facing very serious losses.

As the likelihood of weather extremes increases with temperature, the consequences of lower yields will be felt around the world. Europe produces, for example, 29% of the world’s wheat.

Two consecutive studies in Nature Climate Change examine the challenges faced by the farmers − the first of the reports being by a team led by Miroslav Trnka, of the Czech Global Change Research Centre in Brno.

They considered the impact of changing conditions in 14 very different wheat growing zones − from the Alpine north to the southern Mediterranean, from the great plains of Northern Europe to the baking uplands of the Iberian peninsula, and from the Baltic seascapes of Denmark to the fertile flood plains of the Danube.

It is a given that farmers are at the mercy of the weather, and that crops are vulnerable to unseasonal conditions. But a rise in average temperatures of 2°C is likely to increase the frequency of unfavourable conditions.

Incidence of drought

The researchers, therefore, factored in such data as the numbers of days with very high temperatures, the incidence of drought, late spring frosts, severe winter frosts with too little snow, spells with too much rain, spells when the weather is too cool at the wrong time.

Altogether, they totted up 11 sets of adverse conditions that could blight winter wheat in all 14 sample environments. They then used climate models to simulate the probability of things going wrong once, and also more than once, in any single growing season. And they found that, by 2060, the occurrence of adverse weather conditions would increase for all environments.

“This is likely to result in more frequent crop failure across Europe,” they conclude. “The study provides essential information for developing adaptation strategies.”

Adaptation strategies − according to Frances Moore and David Lobell, of Stanford University, California, in the second of the Nature Climate Change studies − are exactly what European cereal farmers should be thinking about.

They analysed the yield and profit records from thousands of European farms between 1989 and 2009. They then matched the data with climate records to test performance under a suite of different weather histories, and ran simulations using 13 different climate models.

“Modest amounts of climate change
can have a big impact on yields. . .”

“The results clearly showed that modest amounts of climate change can have a big impact on yields of several crops in Europe,” Moore said.

“This is a little surprising because the region is fairly cool, so you might think it would benefit from moderate amounts of warming. Our next step was to measure the potential of European farmers to adapt to these impacts.”

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should, in theory, be good for crops – fertility should increase – but a procession of recent scientific studies has painted a different picture.

Plant protein levels

With extra heat comes a greater likelihood of drought to slash maize yields.  And even when the extra carbon dioxide increases growth, it may reduce the levels of all-important plant protein in the yield.

In addition, extremes of heat at the wrong time in the growing season could devastate crops, while the change in average temperatures will open the way for invasions of new kinds of pest.

The Stanford researchers argue that what matters most is how quickly farmers in Europe can adapt, and how crop yields will respond.

“By adaptation, we mean a range of options based on existing technologies, such as switching varieties of a crop, installing irrigation, or growing a different crop,” Lobell said.

“These things have been talked about for a long time, but the novelty of this study was using past data to quantify the actual potential of adaptation to reduce climate change impacts.” – Climate News Network