When considering the consequences of climate change, we might be quick to first recall the disastrous storms that have pummeled the Gulf Coast this year. Harvey, Irma, Maria, and Jose all conspired for an especially destructive and noteworthy hurricane season. Some, such as Miami’s mayor David Smiley, connected recent storms to climate change, and have capitalized on the storms to draw attention to our changing world.
And they’re onto something: more evaporation on the water’s surface and higher air temperatures mean more fuel and greater total storm potential. We don’t need to speculate about this year’s storms to know that this will mean problems in the future. The Gulf Coast, where hurricanes most often hit, is also where about half of our nation’s petroleum and natural gas refining happens, resulting in a key national vulnerability. As bad as the hypothetical hurricanes of the future are, they’re not the greatest threat posed by global climate change. Not even close. The biggest threat, in fact, isn’t hypothetical at all. Climate change already severely threatens our ability to provide food and clean water for the global population.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the second most cited journal across all fields of science, reported that every 1.8 degree Fahrenheit (or 1 degree Celsius) rise in air temperature means 10% less rice yield. Recent PNAS studies also project average global reductions in wheat by 6% and corn by 7.4% per 1.8 degrees. The air is already 1.78 degrees warmer than it was just 50 years ago, and we can reasonably expect another 1.8 degree rise by 2050. If we don’t do anything about rising temperatures starting now, we can expect 7.2 degrees more increase by the end of the century. Imagine 40% less rice, 30% less corn, and 24% less wheat being grown when your grandchildren are about your age! These foods aren’t high-end delicacies, either: they are the backbone of the global diet.
Remember: this doesn’t mean less food for just 7 billion people. Global population is projected to increase by 30% around 2050. That’s 9.7 billion people, and up to 11 billion by the end of the century. Less food for more people. We’re all beginning to eat the same things and live more similar lifestyles as the world westernizes and globalizes. If this change continues at its current rate, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has reported that food production will have to increase by 70%. How are we supposed to almost double food production? We’re trying already! We can’t just find or farm more land; farmable land acreage is already shrinking. Faster soil erosion, the washing or blowing away of soil, due to high-intensity rainfall and dryness is one major factor. We can’t make new soil. If we don’t protect our soils with cover crops, proper crop rotation, or other soil conservation techniques, we could see farmable land lost at a rate 300% greater than we observe now. Just consider the American Dust Bowl or the unfolding slow-motion disaster that high soil erosion rates are causing along the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers in China.
Urbanization is another key factor: wherever we build our cities and suburbs, we tend to build them on what was once the finest soil, coating our rich lifeblood with thick slabs of heavy concrete. On top of less farmable land, essential crop production rates are already plateauing, and we’re rapidly approaching limits of effective fertilizers use. So, dumping more fertilizers in the soil will hurt more than help. Don’t look to GMO’s to save us, either; they may be profitable for farmers and corporations like Monsanto that do conduct necessary agricultural research, but according to recent research explained in Scientific American, they aren’t translating into more food! We shouldn’t expect any magic cure-all or deus ex machina at the last minute.
It’s not like the whole world evenly distributes the fallout from having less food, either. The majority of the world’s population, which lives in arid environments, will have to “bear the brunt” of this. What does “bearing the brunt” mean in this scenario? Starvation.
Economically poor, developing areas with quickly growing populations will be hit the hardest; Science, a leading peer-reviewed scientific journal, has published studies which project that Sub-Saharan Africa can expect 30% less corn, and heavily populated Southeast Asia may lose 10% less rice just by 2030. The poor will be disproportionately affected globally as the global price of food rises.
Rising temperatures worldwide will also mean more rapid evaporation and faster snowmelt release, which result in longer drought seasons during hot months. Trying to compensate for this loss by turning to other sources of freshwater, such as groundwater, we find we’ve already been abusing our aquifers, undermining a critical safety net we need in a warmer world. India, for example, is currently grappling with depleted groundwater aquifers. More than half of India’s population is subjected to high or extreme levels of water stress according to the World Resources Institute. Even in the U.S., regions that are mostly water-secure currently such as North Utah and Southern Idaho will be extremely water stressed according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Less available water resources will create competition and conflict for water rights and reduce our ability to inhabit water sensitive areas. Water use schedules and zoning restrictions are already implemented as close to home as Southern Utah.
Quick-fix “silver bullets” like desalinization are impractical and irrelevant in serious conversation. We need to seriously begin to enact systemic change in legal rights, infrastructure, conservation methods, and state and federal legislation. Although the current administration has been sheepish in discussing the consequences of climate change, the military and Department of Defense haven’t been so bashful. Increased droughts and water stress are classified by the U.S. Navy Task Force on Climate Change as “threat multipliers”. They recognize that it will be an environmental disaster that has the potential to cause political and military instability around the world. Although too much water may be a concern for the coasts, everywhere else, there won’t be enough.
If we can’t provide ourselves and our communities with enough food and water, what will we do? Where will we go? How will we distribute these resources? How will we maintain our lifestyle? I haven’t even mentioned other climate change consequences: more forest fires, a major loss of biodiversity, more rapid spread of pests and diseases, desertification, decreased livestock raising capacity, loss of outdoor recreation and natural landscapes, or major shifts and disruptions in current economic systems due to changing outputs of food and natural resources.
To be honest, because the data can be so overwhelming, I almost can’t blame those who refuse to acknowledge or discuss climate change. Almost. We can’t afford to ignore the future we’re creating for ourselves and future generations. I don’t want to be an alarmist, but we need to honestly consider what will happen if we don’t change- individually and systemically. As nasty as hurricanes are, I’m much more concerned about our future capacity to eat and drink. If we don’t do anything, the outlook is scary–for us, and even more so for our children.
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