Climate Change is a threat to food production – one we are ignoring

As the multilateral process within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) works toward a new, more inclusive and stronger treaty to limit greenhouse gases to be completed by December 2015 in Paris, the impacts of the climate crisis are ever more visible.

As greenhouse gases build in the atmosphere, the patterns that sustained a hospitable climate for the development of human civilization over the last many millennia are being disrupted.  The world has always known punishing droughts, floods and extreme events that disrupt agriculture, such as sudden early frost, or early thaw followed by a cold snap.  Weather is the constant worry for farmers, but climate was not something they have had to worry about – until recently.

The increase in extreme weather events due to human-generated greenhouse gas pollution, compounded by loss of forests, is already threatening global food production.  The agencies within the United Nations that monitor food security —  World Health Organization, World Food Programme, and Food and Agriculture Organization –  recently reported in their annual 2014 report that 805 million people already experience food insecurity. The good news is that that number is down 0ver 200 million since the early 1990s, and down 100 million in the last decade.  Nevertheless, the UN agencies agree that the climate crisis could reverse that progress:

“If we fail to act, we risk a downward spiral in which poverty and climate impacts reinforce each other. It is the poorest communities that will suffer the worst effects of climate change, including increased hunger and malnutrition as crop production and livelihoods are threatened. And poverty is a driver of climate change, as desperate communities resort to unsustainable use of resources to meet current needs. “

The Danish think tank, Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security, has calculated the cost of climate change on food production over the last few decades:

“Historical studies demonstrate that climate change has already had negative impacts on crop yields. Maize, wheat and other major crops have experienced significant climate-associated yield reductions of 40 megatonnes per year between 1981 and 2002 at the global level (Lobell and Field 2007)….

“Flooding due to climate variability is a significant problem for rice farming, especially in the lowlands of South and Southeast Asia. Flooding already affects about 10 to 15 million hectares of rice fields in South and South East Asia, causing an estimated $1 billion USD in yield losses per year. These losses could increase considerably given sea level rise as well as an increase in the frequencies and intensities of flooding caused by extreme weather events (Bates et al. 2008).”

One of the surprises of the warming world has been the way in which disappearing Arctic ice has created more extreme storms around the world.  Scientists at Rutgers University have identified the mechanism that over thousands of years kept the jet stream moving at mid-latitudes in a relatively predictable fast, east west clip.  The jet stream used to stay quite horizontal at the mid point between the Arctic and the equator.  The Rutgers research points to the mechanism that propelled that behaviour by the jet stream was the temperature differential between the cold Arctic and the hot equator.  As the Arctic ice melts and as its waters warm, the temperature differential has stalled.

In place of the relatively predictable east west jet stream, we are now experiencing the jet stream in long and lazy loops.  These jet new stream patterns now remain sitting on large areas of the northern hemisphere for a very long time.  Low pressure zones stick around for months.  Just on the other side of the stream, high pressure zones sit on other regions.  This summer, that pattern explains why central Canada was unseasonably cool while Atlantic Canada and British Columbia were unseasonable hot and dry.  Or a few years ago, in 2012, why Russia was experiencing drought and flames while Bangladesh was under water.  The loopy jet stream is also the likely cause of the intensity and abnormal pattern of Super storm Sandy.

Keeping ice covering the Arctic is critical if we are going to reduce the potential for the very worst potential impacts of climate change. While we must reduce greenhouse gases as rapidly as possible, we also must accelerate adaptation plans for food production – in Canada and globally.  We need to both aggressively and right now, we are ignoring both challenges.

Originally published in Embassy News, October 8, 2014