The bill for climate change is coming due

By Richard Schiffman
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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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