The bill for climate change is coming due

March 27, 2014

Americans have just endured one of the coldest winters in memory, so global warming may not be on their radar. But a new U.N. panel report has just refocused the public debate on a problem some scientists call the greatest threat facing the world.

There is trouble ahead for global agriculture, warns the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, if measures are not taken quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The panel, which synthesizes the findings of thousands of peer-reviewed studies every seven years, has issued a report card on the state of the planet.

The report card serves as a guide to policymakers and a basis for international deliberations, including the summit on global warming and greenhouse gas emissions scheduled to be held in Paris next year. The report will be officially released on Sunday in Yokohama, Japan, but an advance copy has been leaked.

This IPCC report predicts that by the end of the century, “hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss,” the majority living in island nations and in southern Asia.

The report goes on to link food price increases (like the 2010 spike in wheat prices that helped spark the Arab Spring) to climate change-related droughts and floods. It forecasts that prices will continue to rise as grain yields decline by as much as 2 percent per decade for the rest of the century, while demand is projected to rise by 14 percent per decade through 2050.

Food shortages are predicted to be the new normal in vulnerable areas, according to the IPCC. Africa and Asia will be the principal losers. Monsoon rain patterns are already being disrupted on both continents and desertification is spreading in semi-arid regions of western India and China as well as north and east Africa. River basins like the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra will see larger and more frequent floods in the years ahead, followed by permanent drying trend as the Himalayan glaciers gradually melt.

The biggest news from this report, however, may be the anticipated price tag for climate change. Even a relatively modest temperature rise of 2.5 degrees Celsuis (6.25 degrees Fahrenheit), scientists say, would reduce global economic output by more than 2 percent (roughly $1.4 trillion annually).

The cost of climate change includes higher food prices, increased healthcare spending, natural disasters like hurricanes, droughts and floods, the depletion of surface and groundwater and land loss due to the inundation of coastal areas from sea-level rise.

The first installment of the three-part IPCC document, released in September,  projected — rather conservatively, according to many experts — a possible 4 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Farhrenheit) rise in global temperatures (temperatures have already risen by about 0.8 degrees Celsius [2 degrees Fahrenheit]) and up to a three-foot rise in sea levels by the end of the century. Yet even these arguably lowball numbers attracted the fire of climate skeptics, who pointed to lower-than-expected global temperature increases over the past decade as evidence that global warming has “stalled.”

Today’s assessment will likely also spark controversy from both those who think it goes too far, and others who believe that it does not go far enough. The latter was the focus of a study earlier this month. A coalition of environmental groups argued that projections of the economic cost, like this IPCC report, routinely leave out many of the harder-to-quantify damages that are brought on by political unrest and the destruction of ecosystems.

These reports also fail to take into account what would happen if certain tipping points are crossed, which could potentially send the earth’s climate system into a tailspin.

For example, if the permafrost thaws, as it has already begun to do in parts of the Arctic, and releases vast amounts of trapped methane gas, a greenhouse gas 20 times as potent as CO2, the resulting temperature rise might soar off the current charts.

This uncertainty over methane gas underscores the difficulties that scientists face in devising reliable projections. This is particularly true when it comes to predicting regional climate shifts. Computer models sometimes arrive at strikingly different conclusions about how local weather patterns will change — hardly surprising given that the climate system is an immensely complex and interactive system.

In some cases, the best guide for what will happen is what is already taking place. On a recent trip to East Africa, I asked farmers how things have changed for them. They consistently told the same story: less predictable seasonal rains, maize crops withering and wells and rivers drying up. They are increasingly apprehensive about the future, as I report in Foreign Policy.

Not every place will be negatively affected, though. In the northern United States, including the upper Midwest, growing seasons are getting longer. Over the past century, they have increased by almost three weeks in North Dakota, where farmer John Nowatzki, whose family has grown cold-tolerant grains like wheat and barley for more than a hundred years, now plants warm-season crops like corn and soybeans.

In the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, the sun-dependent wine business has been booming. Peach orchards are spreading north into lands that used to be too cold to grow the fruit.

On the other side of the continent, by contrast, California’s almonds, cherries and apricots are not getting enough critical winter-chill time for the trees to properly flower and fruit. Southern California is suffering from an historic drought. Parts of Texas are becoming too dry to cultivate and reverting to rangeland for grazing cattle.

As a rough rule of thumb, climate change will be a boon in some temperate areas, where production is more limited by cold than by heat. Warmer regions are another story, however.

“You can’t grow crops in a blast furnace,” said Bruce McCarl, a professor of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University and co-author of the current IPCC report. A blast furnace is precisely what large parts of the U.S. Southwest have become in recent summers, as successive droughts and record-breaking heat waves have scorched the region.

Though the IPPC report acknowledges the winners and losers, it insists that the damage from climate change will far outweigh the benefits. Yet McCarl, in an email interview, manages to be guardedly optimistic. “Climate change is inevitable,” he said, “and agriculture must adapt by changing planting dates, varieties, harvest dates, crop mix, livestock mix among other means.”

McCarl says that adaptation will be difficult in many parts of the globe. Like Mali, for example, where temperatures are increasing and precipitation is decreasing. He argues in his study on the West African nation that more must be done to develop heat-resistant grain varieties and more money must be spent on outreach programs that train farmers for the rigors of climate change.

The challenge for Mali and the world is to find new ways to grow the food that we need on a rapidly transforming planet. “The heat is on,” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when he launched the first installment of the IPCC report in September. “Now we must act.”

The question remains whether the world will act in time.


PHOTO (TOP): A stream of water trickles on the bottom of the Almaden Reservoir near San Jose, California, January 21, 2014.  REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

PHOTO (INSERT 1): A parched field that has yet to be planted is seen at a farm near Cantua Creek, California, February 14, 2014. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Trees emerge from the flooded Missouri River as seen from the Council Bluffs, Iowa, side of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, June 21, 2011. Downtown Omaha, Nebraska, is in the background. REUTERS/Lane Hickenbottom




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In this article, Schiffman has consistently overstated the magnitude of the forecasted temperature rise expressed in degrees Fahrenheit. Schiffman has used a conversion factor of 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit to 1 degree Celsius increase/decrease. The correct conversion factor is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit for each degree Celsius increase/decrease. A 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature is equal to 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit, not the 10 degrees F that Schiffman states in the article. A change of 2.5 degrees Celsius is 4.5 degrees F, not 6.25 degrees F. 0.8 degrees Celsius equals 1.44 degrees F, not 2 degrees F. What else has Schiffman miscalculated?

Posted by highlandlad | Report as abusive

Since it’s been a cold winter in the northern hemisphere, with record amounts of sea ice being restored, is the feared melting of the permafrost (as mentioned in this piece) still the issue the author makes it out to be?

And the “thousands of peer-reviewed studies,” as if the fact they are peer-reviewed makes them somehow golden. These days, a thousand people of like minds blessing each others’ studies does not mean they are beyond question.

Posted by Randy549 | Report as abusive

This is what happens when you have a large % of your populations that believes in orthodoxy rather then science. Their ideology is like god to them, it does not matter what you say you will NEVER convince some people until it FAR too late.

Just like these people believe in a ‘magical man in the sky’ even though there is ZERO evidence of that, they believe that the whole theory of climate change is some ‘liberal fascist control scheme’, even though there is ZERO evidence of that. Not to mention that liberalism and fascism are at complete opposite ends of the ideological spectrum.

Posted by USAPragmatist2 | Report as abusive

All I can say is:”what a crock of BS”. Now it’s climate change. The climate has been changing since the planet was created. What caused all the ice ages?? A bunch of medieval peasants burning dung to heat their hovel? Has anyone seen the track record of all these illustrious scientists in predicting the future?? I’m sure that i can create a climate model that predicts that any reduction in green house gasses will cause a climate changing ice age.

To demonstrate their certainty in the green house gas issue, I call on all the scientists sign a pledge to never again use any material or product that leads to the increase of green house gases.

Posted by 1DukeZ | Report as abusive

Climate, or weather (which ever you prefer) is under a constant state of change–that is a given. The idea that peole can make changes that would influence global climate is open for discussion–with any position having the same 50-50 chance of being correct, wrong or neutral.

There are too many variables in play to identify the specific actions that could or should be taken–if any at all. E.g. California has experienced its wettest century according to scientific analysis. The fact that it is reverting to its more normal precipitation model will require change–but that has everything to do with reevaluating how limited resources are consumed, and little to do with attempting to modify the weather/climate.

The fear-mongering (sky is falling mantra) lends nothing to the conversation. Manage the things you can control, and adapt accordingly. That is the most rational solution vs. chasing pipe dreams.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

Ranging from the last Ice Age to the loss of Tropics in Egypt and the low rise of ocean levels today; Climate change is a constant and its effects have been felt by every generation of humankind since its beginning. The World doesn’t care what we do to it people, it will continue long after we’re gone and anything we could possibly do is dwarfed by the possibility of any number of natural catastrophes.

Posted by kolbe | Report as abusive

There’s no such thing as global warming. God gave the earth to people for their use. It says so in the Bible. We will all die of natural catastrophes or old age first. Just ignore the warnings and don’t waste time considering heretical scientific analysis. God wants us to shop and extract and consume every drop of oil and fossil fuel ever produced over trillions of years. And don’t forget to use up all the ground water too, at least that which hasn’t yet become contaminated. And most important, multiply, multiply, and multiply.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

The wave of “green energy” may have contributed more to abnormal weather than “greenhouse gas.” Look at the continental US for example, drought in the west and storms in the east are consistent with weakened trade wind, which could have been caused by solar panels and wind farms that take megawatts of kinetic energy at the west coast.
People realized that hydraulic energy in the 50s were not “renewable,” yet they were sold on new forms of robbing the environment. It’s that simple: any extraction of energy from the environment, when done at a large enough scale, will cause irreversible change.
Give it a few more years. If these changes are proven consistent, there’s a high chance “green energy” is the culprit.

Posted by Whatsgoingon | Report as abusive

Richard Schiffman should really not be writing what he has no background or information except as a conduit to be providing biased groups information on Reuters.

Posted by mykemu | Report as abusive

The IPCC has been screaming about global warming at the top of their lungs for the last 20 years. At the same time, global temperatures have been flat since ~2000/2001 (see the IPCC dataset), in direct contradiction to their modeling. Now they want to claim every blip in the global climate is related to greenhouse gases – I think their credibility is in question.

As a scientist (geologist), my observations are:

1) Human beings are currently putting a measurably significant amount of CO2 into the atmosphere. The theory is that this will dramatically increase temperatures globally – that theory is definitely not proven and those that argue that it is fact have the tone of religious fanatics. It is a theory, not fact. I don’t know that it is necessarily a good thing that we are changing CO2 content, but the theory has, at best, significant flaws.

2) Furthermore, there have been times in the geologic past with CO2 levels much higher than what we are experiencing now and higher than what are predicted for even the “worst” case scenarios. It does not appear that those time periods suffered dramatically extreme temperatures. In fact, those were periods where life flourish – it was during the ice ages where life decreased.

3) It is a fact that global temperatures can vary dramatically, but since the last ice age, have consistently risen. The planet has been on a warming trend for 10,000 years and it does not appear that trend is over. Frankly, we all should pray that it isn’t over, because a few degrees drop in global temperatures will be far worse than any increase. The negative impacts to agriculture productivity and energy use would be enormous.

I am a proponent for reducing pollution of all kinds, but the extreme rhetoric from environmentalists and radicalized scientists does not help in finding rational solutions to our problems. This same segment of our global community does not offer any real, workable solution to these issues. They hate nuclear power, even though it has consistently been the safest, most productive and least intrusive (environmentally) energy alternative to fossil fuels – this is another discussion, but the same lack of real, scientific facts exists in the environmental rhetoric about this topic. Solar and wind energy production to date are really kind of a conceptual experiment from a practical viewpoint.

It gets pretty tiring to listen to people in the media like Richard Schiffman, who spew forth distorted articles such as this one without providing any real balance or even bothering to do simple temperature conversions accurately. He just swallows the standard enviro party line and regurgitates more useless debris that adds to the confusion for the average person.

Posted by AuAgExpl | Report as abusive

Do we really need to post the same comment three times? More virtual screaming at the top of your lungs.

We get it – we are still warming from the last ice age. No compelling evidence that this has anything to do with human caused increases in temperatures.

Posted by AuAgExpl | Report as abusive

I’ll lay claim to being a simple man. I’m being asked to believe that a report that has thus far been unable to predict anything correctly since instituted? The same people who cannot predictably tell me if it’s going to snow or swelter two days in advance propose to predict global conditions 85 years in advance! These folks should be parking cars somewhere and forbade to ever represent themselves as scientists of any ilk. Their case has not been made. Their modeling has not been substantiated by any factual finding. Yet they still persist in trying to stampede governments into a global regulatory regimen that simply provides a revenue stream on the backs of every human and changes nothing.

Posted by wildbiker | Report as abusive

What is NOT being mentioned is the loss of the rain forest in the equatorial territories such as Brazil and Indonesia. What is not mentioned is the enormous use of coal, especially soft coal in India and China. Is it a problem? Yes. Is it just the West’s fault? No. Can the West by its own actions stop this? NO.

Posted by Kahnie | Report as abusive

Climate change is, was, and will continue with or without mans interference. However, if we do not ADJUST to the change, move away from the rising seas, move out of semi-arid areas, then there will be major problems for mankind. ‘Cause change is coming. That is not to say that we should not curb pollution or deforestation – we should, but not because of global warming.

Posted by snappycappy | Report as abusive

I don’t believe any of you on either side any more, I don’t deny climate change, I just blame it on all your hot air about it… Corruption in getting grants will make any scientist say whatever they need to say to get the money… It might be a crisis, but you made it worse by all the BS!

Posted by Geeureek | Report as abusive

I think it’s wonderful that the people who will suffer worst are the deniers. Well not quite true. There are a lot of poor people who will. But roll on forest fires in CA and floods in the NE US!

Posted by nickir | Report as abusive

Who is paying you to write this comments critical of global climate instability and the scientists who research it?

Peer reviewed research is the foundation of good science and has given us many benefits including advancements in medicine and science and technology. When we like those benefits, things such as vaccines, new products that we enjoy, we are silent about peer-reviewed science. But when it tells us something we don’t want to hear, something such as “6 billion people cannot live on the planet of finite resources in the same way that 1 billion people lived in 1950,” then we are quick to criticize their conclusions as unproven, or even conspiratorial.

The scientists involved have nothing to gain by spreading the alarm about global climatic instability. The oil companies, energy companies, manufacturers, bankers, and so forth — those who have financial skin in the game — they are the one’s who benefit most from sewing doubt and cynicism about the social changes we need to make.

We are all in this together. Either we’ll change or we’ll die. There is little middle ground. Yes, climate changes. But it does not usually change so rapidly. And even if it did, what were the consequences of those changes? Mass extinctions? Is that what we want? Is that the best that we can do?

God gave us brains to use. We can create, but we should also observe (and manage) the effects of our actions. Wouldn’t it be smarter (and better) to adapt to a sustainable and healthy lifestyle, rather than consume ourselves into oblivion?

Posted by quietbuddha | Report as abusive

Mr. Schiffman is apparently unaware of the fact that there has been no warming for the past 17 years, in complete contradiction to IPCC forecasts, or that sea level rise has slowed rather than accelerated in the past decade, or the fact that the IPCC has repeatedly issued obviously incorrect dire warnings for the past 20 years. Remember their warning that Himalayan glaciers would all be gone in 35 years?

Airhead “journalists” like Mr.Schiffman keep flogging the same dead horse. Apparently he doesn’t care if he has any credibility as long as he collects a check for regurgitating discredited environmentalist propaganda.

Posted by NSJ4 | Report as abusive

An interesting report just released by OxFam says that global warming may delay the fight against world hunger by decades:  /climate-change-world-hunger_n_5021535. html

Posted by Richschiff | Report as abusive

All one needs to see in the article above to stop reading is that the report was issued by the IPCC, a totally discredited body. IPCC = BS. So you can safely discount everything written here.

Posted by t0mmyBerg | Report as abusive

To Randy 549 – you may think that the northern hemisphere was experiencing a very cold winter, but that was in reality just a portion of the northern hemisphere. Alaska has had an extremely warm winter. Just ’cause it’s freezing in Maine doesn’t mean the entire hemisphere is freezing. Heck, even here in Colorado we have had a pretty warm winter.

Posted by mmmSquirrels | Report as abusive

Climate change is real, but it doesn’t matter. The facists that control our banks and thus our government don’t care what happens to other humans. They make the money and we do the work and die in their wars and take their drugs, and we are sheep. You assume that people care. They do not. For many life is a miserable unending set of work and their only joy is watching others suffer. All of you start from the assumption that humans are somehow better than animals and they are not as a whole. Our facist owners care not about a population and resource decline since they will always make the money. Most people are so afraid of death they will give their lives to these evil masters. The religious are the most deluded.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Primate change is also real. For example, some primates are known to argue endlessly about climate change on the internet, a relatively new phenomenon.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

Yes BidnisMan, but should we call that evolution or devolution?

Posted by Richschiff | Report as abusive

It may be a pile of poppycock, but it is helping fund some pretty good research. Yeah, a lot of bad research too, but you have to take the bad with the good. It’s better than none at all.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

If there is doubt, why not be cautious, and take action?

Posted by Flash1022 | Report as abusive

Richard writes in an authoritative style about topics where he brings little to the table. Checking his credentials reveals that he is a poet and freelance journalists – par for the course for the climate change fright crowd, many of whom are getting rich off poorly planned and ill-conceived investments. I remember graduate school at UCLA in the 1970s, where we studied paleoclimate change. Sure, some of the warming may be human caused, but there is such shoddy science out there and poor sampling that the historical records have too much variance for inferential statistics needed for adequate modeling. The numbers just aren’t there to support the predictions. This writer babbles in shrill tones that hundreds of millions living close to the water and flood zones may be endangered. Perhaps. It may also be true that climate change may actually improve some climatic zones with harsh winters and permit longer growing seasons. Will some people have to relocate? Possibly, but it is not the first time in history. All environmental impacts should be examined by those with the scientific background to perform such analysis. Chicken Little shock pieces by ‘poets’ are drivel. All they accomplish is to further disturb the disturbed. My credentials for saying that? BS, MA, PhD UCLA in Geosciences (focus on environmental modeling).

Posted by EdRies | Report as abusive

Climate Change in the winter, Global Warming in the summer. Got it.

Posted by 343434 | Report as abusive

Here’s an easy first step. Stop turning corn into
ethanol which is used to pollute gasoline. Untold damage just to win the votes of the corporate farmers.

Posted by skyraider254 | Report as abusive

I have a hard time taking people who claim to be worried that human activities are destroying the planet seriously, when they continue to produce little world destroying offspring.

Posted by mjbeam | Report as abusive

I was born and grew up in the Himalayas. We used to have 4 feet of snow, now it rarely snows and when it does it melts quickly. Whether human induced or natural there is no doubt the earth is warmer. When I was talking with the Inuit in the high arctic they had similar views as in Tibet. It is not only scientists knowledge also rests with Shaman’s and indigenous people who have been living in their places for thousands of years. Disrespect for nature always has devastating consequences.

As far as reversing or reducing global warming will require sacrifice. We talk about many things that are convenient, however things like a vegetarian diet that would have far reaching consequences are not discussed much as they are not politically correct but thought to be the though pattern of the extreme. Maybe we should start listening.

Posted by Thinkagainand | Report as abusive

You know how to get a hillbilly to finally acknowledge climate change? Tell him Obama did it.

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I think it’s funny how all the alarmists, are also the people that have yet to figure out that the posting is delayed, so they continually keep posting everything 3-6 times. Kind of says a lot.

Is anybody going to stop the evil water vapor, that accounts for over 90% of the greenhouse effect? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

@dd606, so what if water vapor traps heat in the atmosphere. It belongs there. All you’ve indicated is that we don’t have much wiggle room to add more of our junk into the air, without over-juicing it. It was a pretty pedestrian argument to begin with, but if anything…. it just supports our point.

It’s the No Vacancy argument: “What do you mean no vacancy! Look at all these people staying here!”

Posted by AlkalineState | Report as abusive

I’m not sure one way or the other whether we are going through a naturally occurring cycle as the earth has done for tens of thousands of years. The ice ages and all that. What is apparent is that there seems to be a considerable amount of “scientific” evidence that there is a man made change happening. That is of course unless you dig a little deeper and see that there are some things that don’t seem to be adding up. Tree ring impact is not consistent with the “model” being promulgated and then there’s the question about whether an increase in clouds might have an impact one way or another. What I do know is that as someone who is very pre-disposed to be concerned with the environment, all this hand wringing and sky is falling caterwauling just gives me the willies. I know that reading the paper to see what the weather will be like today has a 50/50 chance of being right but we are supposed to have faith in predictions about the next century. Yes, I know that weather and climate are different but I’m going to trust my gut instincts on this one. I’ve love to hear from a “scientist” who says he or she really doesn’t know what’s happening but that it might be a good idea to be aware that we might have to adjust to a different climate down the road. And please, enough about us ruining the planet. The earth will be just fine whatever the temperature is going to be, we as humans may just have to move, change where we grow certain crops etc. I just have an inherent distrust of anyone who says they have all the answers. History has proven time and again that never is true.

Posted by mmills47 | Report as abusive

This article does say that global warming is good for some parts of the US, which are given larger crop seasons which gives us more food and can bring in more money for some families. For most Americans global warming doesn’t have a good impact. Global warming is causing droughts and a loss of crops. The heat increase of around 6 degrees lessens work by about 2%. All of these combined together is wasting money and allowing our country to be more in debt. Less food and higher temperatures could cause more sickness and a higher medical bill for families. Overall hurting our economy.

Serena Lang

Posted by SerenaLang | Report as abusive