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 EnoughAct now to avoid a future in which water and food scarcity will drive conflict, misery and immigration.
It is available in the following: Climate Change 2022: The Impacts of Adaptation, Vulnerability and Adaptation,This book mainly focuses on climate change’s impact on 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. There are many challenges ahead for countries like South America and 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. Most European regions will experience substantial agricultural production declines over the next 80-years, even though some areas of northern Europe may see climate change as a boon. Warmer temperatures can make it possible to plant crops in previously unsuitable areas.
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 is facing similar threats, as projections show that the West will experience increasing water scarcity, which could lead to increased groundwater pressures and economic losses. 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.”
Schmidt says that even wealthy countries will be affected by the effects of climate changes on their grocery bill. “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 prolonged drought in this region could have devastating consequences for bread, pasta, baked goods, and all other commodities.
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. There are many ways that farmers and agricultural systems can adapt to climate change, including changing the growing season or switching crops. “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 can withstand floods at greater depths or maize that lasts for longer periods of dry spells. 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.”