Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Watch the food

Sea level rise, megastorms, forest fires -- these are dramatic and "sexy" features of climate change, present and future. They may be horrifically costly and disruptive but they will not, by themselves, threaten civilization. What might is things like this:

Monday’s panel cited ways in which climate change has impacted food security and safety.

Warmer winters allow pests that carry plant diseases to survive over the cold months and attack crops in the spring, soil physicist Ray Knighton of the US Department of Agriculture said.

Increased rainfall — another result of climate change — when coupled with more fungal pathogens can “dramatically impact crop yield and quality,” said Knighton, adding that greenhouse gases and atmospheric pollutants have changed plant structures and reduced crops’ defenses to pests and pathogens.

h/t Climate Progress.

By mid-century, we will have about 9 billion people requiring about 1.45 * 10^13 calories per day. At the moment, we can hit that number easily, but we cannot increase it significantly by turning to the lab or the factory floor. As advanced as our civilization is, we depend and will continue to depend for the forseeable future on the soil and its bacteria, on pollinators and wild plants a few (too few!) cereal crops, on rain and frost and warmth in the right places and the right times and the right proportions.

Fourteen and a half trillion calories a day. Every month, every year. We can store a little food, plant a larger area, switch from meat to vegetable protein. That will help, just as predictable hoarding and trade restrictions, price controls and accelerated overexpliotation of ground water, soils, and fertilizers will hurt. But that doesn't change the underlying fact that we need a relatively narrow range of climate variability to survive. Human beings are tough and adaptable and they can live without a bunch of coastal cities, without building in floodplains, with collapsing fish stocks and dying corals. What can't people live without?
Fourteen and a half trillion calories a day.

To see the true peril of climate change, follow the food.

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