A dry agricultural irrigation canal along Highway 41 is viewed on Oct. 29, 2021, near Stratford, in California's Central Valley, which produces much of the U.S. food supply. Due to extreme water shortages, the U.S. federal government recently announced it would not be delivering water to the region.
George Rose—Getty Images
February 28, 2022 3:25 PM EST

The topline of the official press release of the latest report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls global warming “a threat to human wellbeing and health of the planet,” while optimistically noting that “taking action now can secure our future.” What is left unsaid in the release, but made clear in the report’s 3,675 exhaustively researched pages, is that not taking enough action now all but guarantees a world in which food and water scarcities will fuel conflict, misery, and migration.

The report, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, largely focuses on the impacts of climate change on human society. Some impacts are already “irreversible,” the authors conclude, noting that nearly half the global population now live in settings that are “highly vulnerable to climate change.” While floods, wildfires, and habitat destruction play a part, the biggest impact will be on agricultural systems, undermining food security and nutrition worldwide. More frequent and more severe heat waves, droughts, and floods are already exposing millions of people to acute food and water insecurity, note the report’s authors, especially in Africa, Asia, Central and South America, on small island nations, and in the Arctic. Small-scale farmers in those regions produce one third of the world’s food, according to the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). “If small-scale farmers, who grow much of the world’s food, can no longer produce what is required, poverty and hunger will continue to increase, and more global migration, instability, and conflicts will follow,” says Jyotsna Puri, IFAD’s Associate Vice-President.

Yields of major cereal crops in climate-affected areas are already significantly lower than they were, due to today’s current 1.1°C increase in global temperature averages above pre-industrial levels. If that number reaches 1.5°C, the target set out by the IPCC in an earlier report as the highest we can go before a total climate disaster, about 8% of the world’s farmland would become unsuitable for agriculture. An increase of 2°C, or more, as the current trajectory shows, could be catastrophic, said Debra Roberts, one of the report’s co-chairs, in a press conference. “We’re already experiencing acute food and water shortages … If we look at two degrees of global warming, we know that areas that are currently growing staple crops will not be able to grow those at the same level of efficiency and effectiveness. And so there are significant challenges coming for areas like South America, Africa, [and] Asia, in terms of overall food production.”

But while the report’s most dire predictions spell agony for large parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, North America and Europe are not exempt. Substantive agricultural production losses are projected for most European areas over the next 80 years, despite the fact that some parts of northern Europe will see a climate change boon as warming temperatures make it easier to grow crops in areas once thought too cold for farming.

Meanwhile, more than a third of southern Europe’s population will be exposed to water scarcity at 2°C of warming. At 3°C, the risk doubles. North America faces similar risks, with projections of increasing water scarcity in the west, leading to economic losses and increased pressures on limited groundwater. Californian farmers don’t even need to read the report to understand the consequences: last week the United States federal government said it wouldn’t deliver water to farmers in California’s Central Valley—which produces roughly a quarter of the nation’s food—due to the extreme water shortages. It’s the fourth time in a decade that California’s Central Valley Project, a vast network of dams, reservoirs, and canals that irrigates much of the state’s farmland, has been closed to farmers.

“Clearly no one is safe,” says Daniela Schmidt, the coordinating lead author on the Europe chapter of the new IPCC report. “We have seen wildfires where we never had fires before. We’ve seen forests dying. We have seen crop losses, in 2010 in Russia, in 2016 in France, in 2018 in Central Europe—they’re becoming really very frequent. And they have all been attributed to human impacts on the climate system.”

The agricultural consequences of climate change will soon impact the grocery bills of people even in wealthy countries, says Schmidt. “Europe is less vulnerable than [other regions] But the world is very interconnected.” Several European nations import food because they can’t produce enough at home, she points out. And then there are essential commodities that don’t grow in Europe (or North America) at all. “The coffee we need for a hard week like this one, the chocolate which makes us happier, soy, palm oil—all of these are transported around the world, and therefore too much water or not enough water in the regions that produce those commodities will have repercussions around the world.” The war between Ukraine and Russia, which together export 30% of the world’s wheat, has already sent commodity prices to a 14-year-high. A sustained drought in the region would have global implications for bread, pasta, and baked goods.

Agricultural collapse isn’t inevitable. A rapid reduction in fossil fuel emissions could still keep warming to the 1.5°C goal set out by the IPCC and the United Nations Conference of Parties on Climate Change, avoiding the worst-case scenarios. The report points out several ways in which farmers and agricultural systems could adapt, from adjusting growing seasons to switching crops or installing water-saving irrigation systems. “Certainly, the report points to some very bad consequences, but there is still room for adaptation,” says Laura Birx, the deputy director for strategy, planning, and management for agricultural development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “We could see [new variations of] rice that survive much greater depths of floods, or maize that lasts longer in extended periods of drought. There’s a lot of room for innovation.”

But there isn’t much time, says Inger Andersen, the head of the United Nations Environment Programme. “Climate change isn’t lurking around the corner waiting to pounce. It’s already upon us, raining blows upon billions of people. And all of this and more at only 1.1°C of global warming. Even if we limit global warming to 1.5°C, the blows will come harder and faster. And as things stand, we’re heading to closer to 3°C.”

 

 

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