Global Boiling: A Stormy Forecast For Agriculture

Our guest blogger is Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Corn damages
A yield loss of three percent of the U.S. corn crop due to a rise in temperature of 2 degrees F totals $1.4 billion. Environment America, April 2009.

Farm-belt lawmakers are posing a challenge to passage of clean-energy legislation in Congress, but torpedoing the American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R. 2454) would hurt farmers because harms linked to global warming — including drought, flooding, and other crop damage — would continue unabated. House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-MN) has threatened to bring down the entire green economy legislation if he doesn’t get his way on the renewable fuel standards and jurisdiction in the agriculture committee:

If they don’t want to change it, they’ll have to find the votes some other place. In my district a “no” vote would be a good vote.

Without congressional action on climate change legislation, global greenhouse gas emissions would continue to rise and the impacts on agriculture would grow. The link between global warming and extreme weather events is evident, and research predicts that the trend will intensify in coming decades:

Heatwaves, Extreme Storms, And Droughts Will Increase In Frequency And Intensity. Changes in extreme weather are “among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate,” a 2008 federal report indicated. In the future, the report predicts, “With continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity.” [U.S. Climate Change Science Program, 2008]

Climate Disasters Have Increased Sixfold Since The 1950s. An insurance company database showed that weather-related disasters have increased sixfold since the 1950s, compared to only a slight increase in non-weather disasters. At a meeting of climate and insurance experts in 2006, “delegates reached a cautious consensus: Climate change is helping to drive the upward trend in catastrophes.” A Government Accountability Office investigation in 2007 found that private and government insurers including the federal crop and flood insurance programs paid out more than $320 billion for weather-related losses between 1980 and 2005. [Nature, 6/2006; GAO, 5/3/2007]

The 1988 And 1993 Midwest Climate Disasters Caused $79 Billion In Damages Alone. Not only are the costs of climate disasters high, they come in the form of unpredictably catastrophic events. A report in 2000 by Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment found that extreme weather events have “caused severe crop damage and have exacted a significant economic toll for U.S. farmers over the past 20 years” and “could rise significantly due to greater climate variability, and to increases in insects, weeds, and plant diseases.” Total damages — including agricultural losses — from the 1988 drought and 1993 Midwest floods were $79 billion. In the future, “variability of precipitation — in time, space, and intensity — will make U.S. agriculture increasingly unstable and make it more difficult for U.S. farmers to plan what crops to plan and when.” [Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, 5/2000]

Crop Losses To Rise To Billions A Year, Doubling By The 2030s. Crop losses insured by the federal government have also risen substantially in the past two decades, due to higher participation by farmers, rising crop prices, and big loss years like 2008, when the federal program paid out nearly $8.6 billion, much of it because of flooding in the Midwest. Looking just at increased soil moisture that comes with higher precipitation driven by climate change, authors of a study published in 2002 by Global Environmental Change estimated that the roughly $1.5 billion per year in crop damage could double by the 2030s. And an April report by Environment America found that U.S. corn growers could face annual losses of $1.4 billion due to future climate change, looking just how higher temperatures reduce yields. [USDA Risk Management Agency; Global Environmental Change, 11/15/2002; Environment America, 4/2009]

Return Of The Dust Bowl? A 2007 report cites a potential agricultural loss of as much as $10 billion by 2090 in the Edwards Aquifer region of Texas, and productivity losses exceeding 50 percent for wheat and soybeans in the southern and Great Plains regions. Other research predicts that the American Southwest will by mid-century face extremely difficult choices between supplying water for agriculture and the region’s booming cities. A study reported in Science in April 2007 said that a drought similar to conditions during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s could become the norm in the Southwest by 2050. [Center for Integrative Environment Research at the University of Maryland, 10/2007; Science, 4/2007]

In 2007, the Center for Integrative Environment Research at the University of Maryland report, “The U.S. Economic Impacts of Climate Change and the Costs of Inaction,” included a review of previous studies on climate change impacts on agriculture and water for various regions of the United States:

The uneven nature of climate change impacts throughout the country makes the net impacts of global warming on the agricultural sector uncertain . . . Some northern regions are likely to experience fleeting economic benefits with more profitable crops migrating there (as the climate becomes hospitable to those crops.) As climate conditions continue to change, however, those temporary benefits may be lost. Other regions, such as the Southeast, West, and southern Great Plains may face challenges from increased temperatures, water stress, saltwater intrusion, and the potential increase in invasive species and pests — the impacts of which may cause costs to outweigh benefits.

American farmers, like all of us, have a huge stake in the fight to stem global climate change. To hold their future hostage to a rulemaking battle over ethanol would be a grave, shortsighted disservice.

Read an extended version of this post at the Center for American Progress website.

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