A dark new climate report was released on Black Friday, a day usually reserved for the kind of news someone wants overlooked.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment was produced by 13 federal agencies including the Department of the Interior,, NOAA, and the Department of Commerce. Together with experts from non-governmental science institutions, they make up the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), which is congressionally mandated to produce a detailed report on climate conditions every four years.
The report (see it via an interactive website here) concludes that impacts of climate change could cost the U.S. dearly, both in dollars and lives. Dramatic weather shifts will mean the loss of thousands of lives, and impact the quality of life of millions more. And the economic cost could be severe, the USGCRP predicts that GDP could fall by 10%. One of the biggest drivers of these losses — agriculture, as detailed in Chapter 10 of the report.
The chapter’s Executive Summary lays out four “key messages” about the impacts of climate change on U.S. agriculture:
- Agricultural productivity will be reduced due to changing precipitation patterns, higher temperatures, and more frequent droughts impacting yields and reducing the nutritional quality of crops. These conditions will also “expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock.”
- An increase in “extreme precipitation events” means more flooding, which means more runoff and erosion, leading to degraded soils and water resources.
- Heat waves will be more frequent and more intense, with resulting negative impacts on the health of rural populations of both humans and livestock. Heat stress and heat exhaustion will cause economic losses for producers, and contribute to loss of life in rural residents and farmworkers.
- With financial and intellectual resources often in short supply, many rural communities have limited capacity to respond to climate change.
The report cites three main drivers of these big impacts: 1) changes in rainfall patterns, 2) increased frequency of extreme weather events, and 3) shifting patterns of pest pressure.
While much of the report conveys dire warnings of big changes to come, the USGCRP also highlights the need to develop “climate-smart agriculture” — shifting farming practices toward those that can reduce the impacts of the changing climate incrementally over time.
The hope is that resiliency can be built into the system by taking steps like installing sophisticated networks of agricultural weather stations, so we can make planting decisions with the very best weather predictions, and high-efficiency irrigation systems to make the most of dwindling water supplies (although in reality efficiency does not necessarily lead to conservation, see our reporting on the irrigation paradox for more).
Another example of climate-smart agriculture is dedicated to enhancing soil quality and maximizing carbon sequestration. This is at the heart of the 4 Per 1000 international initiative that aims to increase soil carbon stocks by 0.4% per year, enough to curb current increases in CO₂ emissions.
Take a few minutes to watch the info-packed video on the homepage of the 4 Per 1000 website (see below) to see a clear summary of the basic soil carbon sequestration, i.e. building soil health, is the best path forward for farmers, our food system, and our climate.
The report also touts advanced in agricultural breeding that will hopefully be ready in time to help see us through, such as drought-tolerant crops and cattle that can withstand higher temperatures.
The “technology will save us” mantra, and especially genetic technology, has long been a part of climate change and global food security discussions. But hoped for benefits often don’t materialize, and when they do, they often prove short lived.
Tweaking genes can change at the margins how an organism interacts with its environment, but if and as an organism’s environment changes, and especially when it is changing for the worse, the positive impacts embedded in genetic change can be overwhelmed by other forces and factors.
Plus, over-reliance on any single technology, or group of technologies at the expense of wisely integrated systems in tune with natural cycles and interactions, is a recipe for trouble, as the evolution of ag biotech has shown us.
U.S. Global Change Research Program, “Chapter 10, Agriculture and Rural Communities,” Fourth National Climate Assessment, 2018.
U.S. Global Change Research Program, “Executive Summary: Chapter 10, Agriculture and Rural Communities,” Fourth National Climate Assessment, 2018.