I spend a lot of time pointing out that weather and climate are different. I often use the analogy that “weather is your mood, and climate is your personality.” Scientists (and scientifically-literate people) are usually stunned by comments framing day-to-day weather variability as some type of litmus test for the validity of anthropogenic climate change. This is equivalent to saying water shortages around the globe were eradicated because you had a glass of water today. Media outlets recently reported that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has refused to publicize studies by its scientists on climate change and agricultural productivity. I am going to leave that territory to the pundits, but it offers a teachable moment on why climate change impacts on agriculture matter to you.
We need to eat. Irrespective of where you live, agriculture sustains life but is one of the most climate-sensitive activities. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a report in 2013 called, “Climate Change and Agriculture in the United States” (read it here). A key finding from the report is worth explicitly mentioning:
Increases of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), rising temperatures, and altered precipitation patterns will affect agricultural productivity. Increases in temperature coupled with more variable precipitation will reduce productivity of crops, and these effects will outweigh the benefits of increasing carbon dioxide. Effects will vary among annual and perennial crops, and regions of the United States; however, all production systems will be affected to some degree by climate change.
We feel the economic impacts. Farming is a key pillar of the U.S. economy. The following numbers presented in the 2018 National Climate Assessment report tell the story:
- U.S. farms accounted for $136.7 billion contribution to the overall economy (in 2015 numbers) and 1.4% of employment.
- Roughly 50% of revenue is generated from livestock production. Additional food and agriculture sectors contribute 4.74% ($855 billion) of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
I grew up in the state of Georgia, which heavily depends on agriculture. It breaks my heart to see hardworking Georgia farmers and their families struggling because of the damage from Hurricane Michael (2018) and tornadic storms (2019). As I wrote previously in Forbes:
Georgia ranked 1st in broilers, peanuts, pecans, and spring onions. It ranked 2nd in cotton. Basic economic principles suggest that reduced supply of these commodities will impact farmers. However, that is not all. Think about how many things you used with peanuts, pecans, poultry, or cotton today.
With billions of dollars in economic losses because of the storms, you are likely affected every time you buy peanut butter, chicken, pecan pie or a pair of socks. While contrarians will roll out the cliche “these things happen naturally” narrative (by the way climate scientists know this so please stop telling us), studies increasingly affirm that drought, heavy rainfall, and some aspects of hurricane activity are changing because of the anthropogenic “steroid” on top of natural variability.
Rural communities are particularly vulnerable. According to the National Climate Assessment report, 444 counties in the U.S. were identified as farming dependent during the period of 2010 to 2012. Not surprisingly, 391 of them were rural counties. I want to offer some personal perspective here. Though parts of it resemble typical suburbia now, I grew up in Cherokee County, Georgia. As a child, I recall vast tracks of farms and pastures as you drove away from the county seat of Canton. One of reason I am so passionate about conveying threats associated with climate change is that I know vulnerable populations and rural communities will be disproportionately affected. I suspect such people do not think about trend lines, probability density functions, or climate models as I do. However, they are on the front lines of the “so what does climate change mean for me?” question. In the Social Vulnerability Index pioneered by scholars at the University of South Carolina (below), many vulnerable U.S. communities are in rural counties. When there is a Hurricane Michael-type event or a crippling drought, people in these communities are least resilient (able to bounce back) from revenue losses, hours lost at work, and structural damages. Climate change is too often framed as about polar bears or “far into the future impacts.” If you look carefully, there are plenty of meaningful, kitchen-table issues for families related to climate change right now.
There is hope. I am not a “gloom and doom” person when it comes to climate change. I am very concerned, and the science definitely suggests that we need to sound the alarm. The agriculture sector contributed roughly 9% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2015, according to the National Climate Assessment report. However, the report also offers the following glimmers of hope:
Bioenergy cropping is increasing and remains a major focus of research to develop appropriate dedicated feedstocks for different regions of the United States. Crop residue harvest, particularly from corn, has the potential to provide additional income streams to producers and rural communities, but the impact on soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions indicates that only part of the residue can be harvested sustainably. Biochar, a by-product of cellulosic bioenergy production, holds potential as a soil amendment that in some soils provides a GHG mitigation and adaptation benefits….Technological advancements through concerted public and private efforts and the increasing availability of inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, and feed additives) have led to significant improvements in productivity while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.
I know many people reading this have personal observations and theories about weather, climate, almanacs, groundhogs, and what happens in their backyard. Unlike most sciences, people perceive that they are experts on it because they experience it and see short-term changes. However, it is always important to remember that perspective is very limited. Trust the science.