On March 30, Working Group II (WGII) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second report of its multi-part Fifth Assessment Report to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The report is the product of 309 climate scientists and 2,000 experts summarizing 12,000 peer-reviewed scientific papers over a three-year period. According to the IPCC, if greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are not abated, average global surface temperatures will rise by 6 or 7 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. This report specifically focuses on the human risks related to climate change. Paramount in these risks is the rising pressure on water availability and agricultural productivity by sea level rise, drought, heat waves and changes in precipitation.
It conveys with much higher certainty than ever before the huge risks posed by climate change to the agriculture sector, the human health risks from increased food and water-borne diseases as well as nutritional deficiencies. According to Dr. Michael Oppenheimer, lead author of WGII and professor of Geosciences at Princeton University, “there is no one on Earth who escapes the effects of climate change." The report contends that climate change will raise food prices and increase hunger worldwide, but particularly amongst the poorest regions, where decreased yields of staples like corn and wheat will greatly impact food supplies. Food supplies will be even more strained due to rising population and a growing middle class worldwide, which consumes greater amounts of animal protein than lower-income individuals. The green revolution has improved yields in many parts of the world by as much as 10 percent per decade, but the report finds that climate change will slow yield growth to 1 percent or even reduce yields in some areas. Particularly vulnerable will be those who rely on rain rather than irrigation for crops, as is the case with 800 million people in India. These shortages and price spikes could lead to civil unrest in already unstable areas of the world. Domestically, high value crops such as apple orchards in Washington, cherry orchards in California, as well as the California wine region may be particularly hard hit, according to the report.
There is a “closing window” for meaningful action against climate change. Unfortunately, the agricultural sector is not prepared for the climate-related risks happening now. Drought, floods, increased pests and changing growing seasons have already greatly impacted producers domestically. The USDA has introduced several programs, including Regional Climate Hubs, to help producers adapt to the changes wrought by climate change. However, global action is needed to reduce GHG emissions, the United States must be part of the solution. Even if America continues to enjoy some of the most plentiful, cheapest food in the world, global food prices and food supply fluctuation will affect U.S. economic and political stability. Already, 1 in 5 children go to bed hungry in America, according to the non-profit Feeding America, yet approximately 50 percent of all consumable food is wasted! IPCC Study co-author Patricia Romero-Lankao of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado summed up the moral imperative to act on this great challenge to every aspect of our societies, commenting, “we have a closing window of opportunity … We do have choices. We need to act now."