Climate change: How do we treat the earth's fever?
By Ken Root
Remember the Kyoto Protocol that was formulated by the United Nations back in the Bill Clinton administration? It has been almost 20 years since discussions first took place on what to do about global warming. Developing countries got a pass on reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases, but major industrial nations like the United States and Western Europe were supposed to make major changes beginning in 2005.
It is amazing how a fledgling theory of “global warming” in the 1960s could become the centerpiece of environmental activism in the 1990s and now has been accepted with blame placed on industrial activity over the past 150 years causing degradation of the entire planet. The only thing we haven’t resolved is what to do about it.
If the United States government ever gets past fighting over conservative versus liberal philosophy, the issue of global climate change will roll back into the forefront. Since the initial debate in the 1990s, alignment of economic power is quite different. China (and much of Asia) is the major industrial area of the world and also the power house of trade and economic growth. Technology has developed to the point that sizable gains in efficiency and reduction in GHG can be lowered by installing new types of heating, lighting and industrial systems. I stayed in a hotel in Kansas City last week that has undergone a major energy reduction makeover. The lighting now uses far less energy. You can’t see, but it makes us feel better to know that we did something to save the planet as we crank the gain up on our video cameras.
I do not discount global warming. I think we are seeing it in the higher latitudes (polar regions) and the erratic seasons experienced in temperate crop zones around the world. Whether it is cyclical or man-made is irrelevant as the public mindset is that the latter is causing the former.
For agriculture, it brings opportunity and challenge. Plant breeding has shown to be progressive enough to keep ahead of population growth and will rise to meet this challenge as well. The broad spectrum of modifications to make crops more drought tolerant will allow modified plants to be grown in regions with changing climates. That may be secondary as we are already seeing a northward shift of corn and soybeans into the Dakotas. Warmer, wetter weather has displaced wheat and farmers are eager to produce more revenue and profits. But what happens to the southern states if the climate no longer allows a traditional crop to be planted? It might be that the Delta region becomes a forest and that new areas open up as farmers migrate to regions formerly uninhabited, yet capable of production.
Farmland may become like beachfront property in the world of tomorrow. The prediction is that a rising ocean will inundate much of the real estate in low-lying coastal regions so that land returns to the sea. Similarly, land that has produced a certain crop for generations may have to be adapted to growing something non-traditional and less profitable.
Back to the Kyoto Protocol and its successors: There may be good reason for U.S. agriculture to support a worldwide agreement on slowing climate change if it contains incentives for farmers. Properly done, the agreement will become a base for carbon trading to reduce GHG.
No industrial sector can sequester carbon better than agriculture.
In a global climate change scenario, agricultural land owners may be able to evaluate their incentive payments linked to their agronomic practices. Less tillage, less fertilizer, rotation, cover crops and perennial crops are all options if the trading of credits is conducted worldwide. Livestock producers may also benefit from the species they raise and the grasses they plant.
We may also see a greater push for renewable energy that displaces coal, natural gas and oil with biomass. It will have to be incentivized for a generation to become competitive, but it plays back into the land that might come out of traditional food crop production and moves into alternative vegetation.
Farmers worldwide may find it advantageous to unite in addressing society’s climate change problem. If it doesn’t come to pass, it is a good insurance policy. If it does, the role of agricultural production will become even more important in saving the quality and quantity of human life on earth.
If you are saying: “Just wait until I die and then you can do what you want,” I can tell you that I feel much the same. This scenario requires more world government and regulation. But it is time to set the framework for what agriculture needs rather than dig in and say we will never change. The will of nations is very powerful. We could see China acting like California and attempting to block imports or any product that does not conform to their standards. We saw the scare of the 1990s on global warming and it will come back around again. This time, there will be more science but there will still be concern that we are going to make parts of the planet uninhabitable in the face of growing population and economic growth. It will be a gut check as no one wants to stop and step backward unless they believe they are walking off a cliff.
Editor’s note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 39 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.